Farewell to Atypical:A Family Show With A Grasp On Autism
Looking back at the Netflix series that provided some insight to the spectrum community.
It should be common knowledge by now that representation matters. Taking a look at the media landscape, the last decade has become more in touch to the world around us.
People of color are landing and creating roles that place them on top of the bill, Hollywood is, begrudgingly at times, acknowledging that gay people exist, and women are becoming more prominent figures on screen, even if the pay gap is still large enough to be a challenge for Wonder Woman. Point being, the screen is beginning to expand its palate.
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a neurological disorder that affects one's communication and behavior. As the use of spectrum indicates, there is a range of one's abilities. Most neurotypical folks view the diagnosis as a linear line, from non-verbal to high functioning. But the spectrum is not binary and operates more on a grid, best explained through this comic.
As an autistic person, having an autistic representation on screen has always been more frustrating than rewarding as writers seemed to only have two flavors of neurodivergent folks on script: troublesome burden or savant genius. However, it's not so clear-cut in the real world.
The CDC estimates that 1 in 54 children are diagnosed with ASD, a rate that is continuing to rise likely because health professionals are better at recognizing the traits- not because of vaccines. That myth has already been debunked folks. Regardless of how autism is caused, representation still matters, and the way that Atypical handled that representation is so far the best showing of it that I've seen to date, however, Everything is Gonna Be Okay looks to be very promising.
The Netflix dramedy series follows protagonist Sam Gardner, an autistic teenage boy as he navigates through life's challenges. I was instantly hooked within thirty seconds of the first episode as we are introduced to Sam while he is in a therapy session.
"I'm a weirdo, that's what everyone says. Sometimes, I don't know what people mean when they say things, and that can make me feel alone even when there are other people in the room."
At last, I've been seen.
It was clear that this wasn't going to be a show about the rare autistic breed who could count cards or master technology. This was something that felt real. Something I could truly identify with.
It is, of course, the ultimate goal of any writer to create something that connects to its audience. Envoke some form of empathy or understanding towards the characters, but this was a first for me. Shows that were targeted for teens while I was coming of age myself never really made the impression that I could identify with the cast. The creator of Atypical, Robia Rashid, saw an opportunity to present a familiar story arch with a new lense. Better still, she did her research.
"I was very aware that more people were being diagnosed with autism, and it was interesting to me that a whole generation of kids were growing up knowing that they were on the spectrum and wanting independence. That point of view seemed so interesting to me — and such a cool way to tell a dating story. You’ve seen the story of somebody looking for independence and looking for love before, but not from that specific point of view. I really was drawn to that. I was a little annoyed because it sounded really hard! I had to do a lot of research," Rashid said within an interview with Vulture.
Consultants were brought into the process, autistic perspectives were considered, and those who have autistic children seemed to also be heavily involved. For all the things going on in the background, however, the delivery of the scenes is still paramount and the cast truly delivers.
As someone who struggled to navigate social rituals in my youth, all of the high school-based acts really hit home for me. Overstimulation, bullying, and the frustrations of the dating world were all things that I personally experienced and the way that Keir Gilchrist portrayed Sam in those moments made the second-hand cringe feel disturbingly natural. The deadpan stares, taking everything that is said quite literally, and the lack of filter from our lead protagonist may come off as comical but those are some traits of autism. And with the inner dialogue of Sam provided to viewers, folks who are neurotypical were provided some insight to daily obstacles we on the spectrum endure to fit into the mold of society.
Yes, one could argue that nobody is normal and everyone has difficulty 'fitting in'. I'm not going to deny that, but Atypical really delved into some of the nitty-gritty issues of living on the spectrum. Rather than just making a running joke out of autistic behaviors, like in the case of The Big Bang Theory where the creators and writers have steered clear of confirming the diagnosis, thus avoiding the chance to correct any misrepresentations. Some content creators have begun to openly include characters on the spectrum but Atypical rose to the challenge, showing not only the quirks of autism but also how serious a disrupted schedule or overstimulation can be.
For me, the most relatable moment of the show came in the second season when Sam was scammed by a classmate of his. One of the worst parts of not connecting with neurotypical folks is that I could never tell when they held malicious intent, even when it would be obvious at the moment. It's an unfortunate reality that financial exploitation is one of the fastest-growing crimes against the differently-abled community. Additionally, even as loving and accepting as the Garner family and friends can be towards Sam there still remains to be some tension when it comes to our autistic lead.
Jennifer Jason Leigh plays an overprotective helicopter mom to Gilchrist's Sam, Michael Rapaport is casted as the loving and sometimes in denial father, and Brigette Lundy-Paine co-stars as the rebellious younger sister, Casey, who is arguably the most interesting character on the show being that they undergo the most development throughout the seasons. Each of them, along with the other supporting cast members, holds a unique relationship with Sam, but the dynamic between them doesn't really flesh out beyond a brief upset that is normally resolved within an episode or two with a few exceptions.
As Dr. Steven Shore, an autistic advocate, once famously said, "If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism." This show can't be representative of all autistic experiences, no piece of media could do that, but it is, at least in my humble opinion, an honest try. Meltdowns weren't always destructive behavior or tantrums, sometimes it's was just a matter of putting significant distance between Sam and the problem. And as much as I enjoyed the show there still remains some discomfort for the neurodivergent community. Top of the bill of concerns being the choice of casting.
Gilchrist isn't on the spectrum. I don't hold that against him but there were autistic actors who auditioned, but ultimately Gilchrist was deemed "best for the role". Again, I don't hold anything against Gilchrist, and I think he did play the role fairly well but it would be nice to actually have someone with the daily experience to be playing the part. Heaven forbid autistic actors being considered capable of performing, especially since some of the most iconic actors out there are on the spectrum.
As the series progressed, the inclusion of neurodivergent folks became more obvious, but the roles that they held were short-lived. A bit of comedic relief to break (or enhance) the woes Sam vented about to his peers. It is pleasing to know at least the artistic talent that Sam possesses within the series was provided by an autistic artist.
Some progress is better than none, and while the series followed a cis, white male within a middle-class household (how that house was managed on a salary of a hair-dresser and a paramedic is beyond me) I remain optimistic that future representation will further expand and not crumble to Sia's Music debacle at the very least.