“Ooh! Stop! A show about autism! We have to watch this!” I said to my Netflix partner as we were drifting through to get to our last anime episode. The show was Atypical, season one, and we decided to give it a go. At the time, autism was a budding special interest of mine, but I did not yet have even a hint of my diagnosis.
“I like it,” I said after two episodes, “but I feel like I relate to Sam way more than I’m supposed to.”
Fast forward sometime later: I had finished all the episodes, season two was well on its way, and I had my own autism diagnosis.
I’m going to come right out and say it. Atypical helped me get a diagnosis by allowing to me to see someone who (kinda) looked like me in the media. But. Is it good representation? Is the #ActuallyAutistic community right to be offended at the way autism is portrayed in this show?
(Warning: the following will contain spoilers of both seasons.)
I think the criticism is well deserved.
Let me get into some of the reasons:
Sam has had autism for 18 years and yet acts like he was born into the world with it yesterday.
This is not shocking when people who don’t have autism write an autistic character. Imagine them posing the actor’s arms stiffly and giving them the line “I AM A ROBOT” over and over. Your character is a ROBOT and you need to act like one in EVERY. SCENE.
Sam mysteriously does not know things that he really should know by the age of 18. How did he not learn some of these things? He has a neurotypical sister; he goes to public school. How did he not…um…figure out that the way you talk about girls and sexual experiences has consequences? Or that there are certain things you don’t say? Or that, sometimes, even if it sucks or doesn’t make sense, you still have to do it? Autistic people live in the same world everyone else does. We have to follow the same damn rules. Why doesn’t Sam know about them???
The other side of this is a little bit ickier: by the time we turn 18, we have been through our fair share of bullying, taunting, meanness, and cruelty. While there are references to this in Sam’s life, the character doesn’t seem to be much influenced by this. He says weird or inappropriate things without flinching. (In real life, those comments would have gotten him shoved into a locker or hit by someone). We may not understand all the rules of social exchange but we know there are rules and we will get hurt if we don’t follow them. It’s dangerous for us. Many autistic people develop anxiety or depression for a reason. The show completely glosses over the reality of bullying and the pain we carry because of it. In my opinion, that is a huge oversight.
For instance, the scene where Sam willingly hands over a huge check to a dude because the guy promises it’ll be a Sam Special Interest Party if he does? Is that really the first time that has happened? Wasn’t Sam just a little suspicious?
I was in the first grade the first time I remember something like that happening to me. This shit starts early. People figure out we are trusting and naive and do what they can to part us from our things. The more this happens? The less we trust. How is Sam this trusting and this certain in his own safety at 18? (Part of the reason is Elsa, which is another issue.)
Elsa, Super Autism Mom.
I freaking can’t stand her, but that’s part of why I like this show so much. I like that the show gives you room to like or dislike any of the characters and to genuinely care when they get punished or redeemed. I hate Elsa, but I love to hate her at the same time. (I think this could be a little bit of resentment towards my own mother, and me feeling a lot like Casey in many respects? Anyway. I digress.)
Elsa represents the Super Autism Mom, the (for Enneagram nerds) Type 1w2 archetype of working hard for your family and never stopping. It becomes clear that she has used Sam to position her role in the family as Important and Necessary, leading to much resentment on all parts. In many, many, many respects, Sam has been protected and coddled by Elsa much more than he would have in the wild. My childhood looked nothing like this.
And I feel a real sense of disconnect here. They come from a nice, upper-middle-class idyllic family where Sam’s autism is Front and Center at all times. Is this realistic? Well, certainly there are parents out there who use their child’s autism as a way to prop themselves up as a Martyr Parent. And are there white, upper-middle-class families that center their lives around group playdates and PTA meetings? Sure.
But is this what most of our lives look like?
Take my childhood: I grew up in a trailer on two acres of rural desert, hearing What the hell is the matter with you?! screamed at me several times a day. That was my “autism therapy.” The adults (and children) in my life believed that if they could scream at, humiliate, threaten, shame, bully, intimidate, and upset me enough that I would straighten up. No, it didn’t work. I’m autistic. But I’d bet my story is anything but unusual, especially for those of us who were not diagnosed until later in life. Sam’s autism is not realistic because it doesn’t happen in a realistic setting. Even if Elsa manages to protect him in a bubble, his schoolmates would have no such inclination. Again, he lives as though no one has confronted or inconvenienced him because of his autism outside of the specific plot points in the show.
Sam is a white, male stereotype of autism. At best.
I don’t think anyone watching Atypical (short of people who know nothing about autism) would argue that Sam is a perfect picture of what autism really looks like. It’s based on neurotypical research which is based on observations of white, male autistic behavior, which leaves a lot of people out. I know the actor tries; I know the writers try, I know the production team really tried to get it right. But it’s hard to do when you haven’t lived the experience of autism, or when you fail to center autistic people’s voices and experiences in the creation of the show.
The only hint at real autism comes from the actually autistic actors (and yay, there are more of them in season two!) who play supporting characters and get it right without even trying. They don’t have to pretend.
A lot of the time (okay, when is it not?) Sam’s autism is used as a prop rather than given real nuance. And as I said before, the fact that this prop exists in an unrealistic, protected, financially comfortable setting makes it all the more noticeable. But even so, I did manage to see enough of myself in his portrayal that I paused to evaluate my own situation. And there were a lot of moments that felt natural or that I could easily identify with. It was one more “Huh…I am a lot like all the autistic-coded characters in the shows I’m watching” moment, despite knowing full well that no sitcom is ever going to represent autism (or anything else) as more than a joke.
So, you know what? I loved this show. I enjoyed every minute of it. That scene at the end where (spoilers) Paige screams at everyone over Sam’s yearbook? I actually cried. To think of someone taking your bullying that seriously and defending you like that? I cried real tears. And then I went to wash them down with some Fullmetal Alchemist.
Anyway, despite the shortcomings of Sam’s autism portrayal, there is so much to enjoy about this show and the characters beyond that. Do I think the critique of this show is valid? Absolutely. Do I think people who felt alienated or offended should shut up and watch this show anyway? No, of course not. And I don’t even think I’ve scratched the surface on all the ways this show could do better (nor do I need to; there are a ton of reviews out there).
But what can I say? I’m thrilled whenever there’s a show about my special interest. Hopefully in the future shows like this will strive to center the autistic experience as the story and character rather than the prop. But nonetheless, I am looking forward to future seasons.
On that note: