July 10, 2018
A Netflix title caught my eye among the scrolling tiles of cooking competitions, Marvel adaptations, and sci-fi movies that Netflix recommends to me. “Atypical.” The title image showed a teenage boy with a red hoodie pulled around his head, looking to his future with seeming dispassion. Other promotional images for the series show the main character looking up towards a stormy thought bubble, and the subtitle “Normal is Overrated.” I watched the show to find out if normal is in fact over-rated.
“Atypical” - released last summer by Netflix and signed on for a second season - follows Sam, a 17-year-old boy with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as he deals with its symptoms and his family’s personals struggles during his senior year of high school. Like any depiction of diversity in media, writers walk a tight rope. A totally stereotypical depiction will come across as cliche whereas an uncharacteristic portrayal wouldn't be representative. While Sam has very characteristic symptoms of ASD, the story of “Atypical” is that of a young adult coming of age. Not only is Sam a very typical kid with autism, he is also just a very typical kid. Unlike ABC’s “The Good Doctor” and of course the famous (or infamous) “Rainman,” Sam does not have a super power that makes his autism “OK.” The show posits that despite his diagnosis of “Atypical,” Sam and his struggles are in fact quite typical. By paralleling Sam’s own personal struggles along side those of his family, the show delivers a consistent message: People on the spectrum may struggle for different reasons than their typical counterparts, but the struggles are often the same.
Throughout the show, I wondered if Sam’s coming of age story downplays the seriousness of his autism. If Sam’s mom and sister flounder in their relationships, despite their neuro-typical brains, what makes Sam so different? The show answers this question with vibrant depictions of Sam’s ASD symptoms. In episode two, Sam makes a misguided attempt to learn about dating from a group of his peers. Instead, they tease him and we see Sam panic as his painful sensitivity to lights and sounds is exacerbated by the social situation. While he has the same desires as his peers, such as a healthy curiosity about sex, Sam has additional barriers in his interactions with others. In another painful scene, Sam is about to lose his virginity when his aversion to soft touch causes him to shove his partner away. Understandably, she reacts poorly to being pushed, but in a poignantly cruel outburst she screams, “What is wrong with you? Seriously, are you retarded? Is there something wrong with your brain?” Her initial attraction to what she saw as Sam’s quirkiness and candor doesn’t translate into understanding or acceptance of his disorder.
Later on we see how another love interest might understand and accept Sam’s ASD but still responds inappropriately. His girlfriend Paige takes on a management role, enforcing limitations on Sam’s repetitive and restricted interest in Antarctica. I wondered if “Atypical” did enough to show her overbearing role as problematic, rather than just funny, and hoped that a second season of the show might address the deeper questions of how autism affects the dynamic of relationships.
“Atypical” is a comedy and so there are moments where Sam’s struggles are cast in a comedic light. Early in the series, Sam scares a potential love interest off with an exaggerated smile. Later, Sam attempts to look cool in a leather jacket but is so uncomfortable he rips the jacket off and throws it in the trash can during class. “Atypical” provides a backdrop to these moments – Sam’s own voice describing his experience. The audience sees Sam’s point of view: the stiff leather and loud buckles make you feel Sam’s discomfort and understand his actions. Every funny moment is matched with an equally heartbreaking or often heartwarming one. After Sam’s dad, played by Ray Romano, struggles to connect with his son through building him an igloo, Sam hugs his father in the final episode. “It’s a really good igloo,” he tells his father. Sam’s atypical challenges tell a familiar story: a father longing to bond with his son and the hard fought rewards of doing so.
After watching the show, I look at the cover image of Sam staring into his future differently. Instead of dispassion, I see apprehension and determination. I see desire and struggle behind his eyes. Perhaps in that way, for me, the show has accomplished what it set out to do. “Atypical” reveals glimmers of the world through Sam’s eyes, the challenges he faces that are unique to individuals on the spectrum, but also the many struggles that are universal for youth on the cusp of adulthood – finding love, building strong parental relationships, and looking to an uncharted future.
The views expressed in this blog post are the author's own and not necessarily those of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.