Not your typical series

September 21, 2017

Amy Muldoon reviews the Netflix series Atypical--and considers what it has to say about the larger debates that have emerged about neurodiversity.

DESPITE THE fact that an estimated one in 68 children in the U.S. have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the reality of living with autism is still a subject that doesn't get much attention in pop culture. The Netflix series Atypical, however, is aiming to change that.

Bearing the tag line "Normal is overrated," Atypical centers around Sam, a high school senior whose decision to pursue dating transforms the rigid relationships within his family. What makes Atypical a more daring--and controversial--show than most boilerplate family dramedies is that Sam has ASD, and he is defying expectations that he can never gave a girlfriend.

Played by Keir Gilchrist, Sam's struggles are confronted head on, without making him pathetic, weird or a prop for other characters' development. The reality of living with autism is largely portrayed through Sam's own voice and the writers' use of his interest in Antarctica. Creator Robia Rashid (How I Met Your Mother) drew on personal experience, research and on-set consultations to build a realistic picture of not only the challenges faced by Sam, but also his humor, interior life and connections with people.

Keir Gilchrist plays Sam in the new Netflix series Atypical
Keir Gilchrist plays Sam in the new Netflix series Atypical

As his track-and-field star sister Casey, Bridgette Lundy-Paine is outstanding. The depiction of the sibling dynamic between Sam and Casey is fantastic--Casey's love for her brother is conveyed through fierce protection as well as standard sibling abuse.

Their parents Elsa and Doug Gardner, played by Jennifer Jason-Leigh and Michael Rappaport, exist in a comfortable rut that unravels over the eight episodes of the first season.

The show presents the Gardner family as largely existing in two camps: Elsa and Sam, and Doug and Casey.

Elsa embodies the reality that parents often need to become experts on autism--the science, the jargon, the support systems--in order to personally advocate on behalf of, and provide care for, children on the spectrum. Elsa's identity is wrapped up in being an "autism mom"--which, after years of managing Sam's symptoms with little support, has left her seeing more limits than possibilities for his life.

Elsa is a fierce advocate who jealously guards that role, but it doesn't make her likeable. While never commented on in the show directly, it is easy to see Elsa's situation through a feminist lens: without the social support and acceptance of kids with ASD or other neurological or cognitive differences, the work of integrating neurodiverse children falls on families, and largely moms.

Review: Television

Atypical, created by Robia Rashid. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Keir Gilchrist and Brigette Lundy-Paine. Available on Netflix.

Rappaport's Doug, the apparently more laid-back parent, reveals a depth of disappointment and confusion over his son's autism, and an eagerness to bond with Sam when the opportunity arises. Sam's new interest in dating forces the family relationships to realign, and creates a crisis for Elsa, setting in motion a series of events that threaten the family.

BALANCING THE multiple story lines is the main weakness of the show: Is it a show about Sam or about Sam's family? Attempting to show how Sam's decision to begin dating rocks everyone's boats leads to some unlikely scenarios that are too obviously meant to set other plot pieces into motion.

The show is at its best in its smaller moments that depict the daily emotional landscape of families grappling with autism: Elsa's nearly monotone explanation of the social isolation Sam has endured his whole school career, or Sam's own quiet description of pockets of heat existing under the snow in Antarctica.

But for a show that is meant to explore Sam's romantic and sexual interests, it falls flat when it comes to portraying his actual sexuality. His interest in sex is delivered as a fact, but how he experiences those feelings is never described (besides a desire to see boobs).

There's a casual sexist framing of how young men see sex that lacks the even superficial complexity of the female teenagers shown on the show. The girls have agency, and whether it's driven by apparent benign interest or confused compulsion, interest in sex is portrayed as personal for them. Not so for Sam.

The show unfortunately also must break some kind of record for "Most Nonwhite Supporting Stereotypes": There are not one, but two "Black Best Friends," an "East Asian Expert," the "Hot Latin Guy" and the "South Asian Techie Co-worker." Show runners apparently were aware of this dynamic enough to have jokes in the show at the expense of the white family members--and eventually give one of the supporting characters her own storyline.

In particular, the co-worker Zahid seems early on like a lost extra from The 40-Year-Old Virgin, who, like fellow South Asians Raj (Kunal Nayyar) on The Big Bang Theory or Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) on Silicon Valley, is utterly hopeless with women.

Sam's reliance on Zahid for romantic advice--and ridiculous euphemisms--seems at first based on Sam's missing of social cues. But the show plays against this expectation.

In fact, Zahid's utter commitment to helping Sam navigate the complexities of dating--much to the chagrin of customers in their store--is one of the show's repeated votes of confidence in the ability of people with autism to forge meaningful and reciprocal relationships.

ATYPICAL SUBTLY takes a side in what many people will be unaware is a raging debate over the nature of autism and the desirability of curing it.

Siding with what is called the "neurodiversity movement"--which argues that autism is neither a tragedy nor something that can be, or should be, cured--Atypical presents Sam as fully human and different, but not lacking.

Sam, it must be said, is high-functioning, meaning he can integrate into mainstream schools and social situations (with some adaptive technology and therapy). He is white, male and straight, and has had the benefit of early diagnosis and a full-time advocate on his behalf in his mother. The show acknowledges that some autistic people lack verbal skills or have more socially isolating behaviors, but doesn't explore them.

These criticisms don't diminish what the show accomplishes, however, but point to how far the media have to go still in showing the full range of neurodiversity and the relationships people have figured out. With the growth of autism diagnoses--one in 68 children is diagnosed today, up from one in 88 in 2012--the audience for more diverse representations will only grow.

The series has come under fire from reviewers, some of whom themselves have autism, for not employing enough actors or crew members with autism, despite Rashid's commitment to involve the autistic community in shaping the show.

This charge carries particular weight within the neurodiversity movement, which rejects the view that autism is a medical epidemic that needs to be eradicated. The movement argues for viewing the different behaviors or ways of processing information that characterize ASD as not inherently limiting: It is society that is unable to adapt and include this diversity that is the problem.

The disability rights slogan "Nothing about us without us" embodies the struggle of people with ASD for self-determination against groups like actress Jenny McCarthy's Generation Rescue or Autism Speaks.

Arguing to "defeat autism now," these groups seek to find a cure and to "recover" children diagnosed with autism through intensive conditioning. They prey on real fears among their relatives that a family member diagnosed with autism will suffer social isolation and face real material challenges.

THE MAIN actors in Atypical are not themselves autistic (autistic actor Anthony Jaques plays a bit part on the show as another teen with ASD).

The entertainment industry, from movies to theater and television, has often made egregious casting choices--casting white actors as people of color, for example--so the criticism is not without merit. However, to dismiss or tear apart the show on that basis alone misses the contribution that the show does make in its eight half-hour episodes.

Demanding that all representation be self-representation creates an impossible scenario for artists who are committed to moving social issues forward. Atypical has its flaws and its limits. But it is a TV show, not a social movement.

As Salon contributor Sonia Saraiya wrote about the burden of being the sole representative of a social group in pop culture:

There is a way in which the markers of identity serve to broaden our collective understanding of the multiplicity of experience that makes up the world. There is also a way in which the impulse to draw lines and establish categories can be used against our best intentions. Representation isn't an end in and of itself; it's a mile marker on the journey to a more just world.

Atypical makes a strong case that society is improved by inclusion of neurodiverse people, not because they are card-counting savants or brilliant scientists, but because they are people.

Sam isn't appreciated because he delivers value to other characters despite his personality. Seeing things through his eyes provides a more expansive view of human connection. Aytpical could easily be sanctimonious or precious about autism, but instead, it offers the idea that embracing neurodiversity could lead to the most fun prom you ever had (and you will never think of igloos in the same way).

In a society that prizes productivity and conformity above all else, Atypical is a welcome start to a wider representation of people with autism.

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