Does Netflix’s Atypical truthfully portray a typical life of a person with autism?

By: Gabby Parlaman

The Netflix series, Atypical has come into recent popularity of late. For those who are unfamiliar with show, Atypical follows the main character Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist) an 18- year old with autism and his search for love, acceptance, and independence. Sam has relatively high functioning autism and although his autism complicates his want for love and independence like any average high school student strives for, he never seems to need extra assistance in school or at his job at Techtropolis where he works with his best friend Zahid selling electronics. So, does Atypical give the viewers a true depiction of what someone with autism goes through and acts like, or is television leaving out the real truth?

Super Genius?
We often see characters such as Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, Shaun Murphy from The Good Doctor, and Dr. Virginia Dixon from Grey’s Anatomy, these characters on their respective television shows are portrayed being on the autistic spectrum. These characters are also depicted as extremely bright and even super geniuses. Like those characters, Sam is also depicted in a similar way. He effortlessly shares facts about Antarctica and penguins, that most people would have no common knowledge or understanding of. In the first season, he tells his therapist Julia (Amy Okuda) that he, “Won the 8th grade science fair in 7th grade. I won the 7th grade reading challenge in 6th grade”. Sam even turns down a chance to study with Paige, a girl in his biology class because he was getting an A in the class and she only had an A-. But is this always an accurate portrayal of individuals on the spectrum? Autism diagnosis nearly always comes pre-packaged with extreme giftedness on television shows, which provides a completely false depiction of all individuals who are on the spectrum. By only showcasing characters with autism, as super geniuses, television shows are completely dismissing the 40% of people diagnosed with autism who have a low range IQ, or a learning disability. Though it’s not uncommon for high-functioning individuals to have very high levels of intelligence and savant-like abilities, it’s not everyone’s story. Atypical portrays Sam’s intelligence levels as many television shows do, which isn’t necessarily inaccurate, it’s just stereotypical.

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Throughout the Atypical series viewers are able to learn more about Sam’s mannerisms and certain triggers that he has to deal with. Sam, like most individuals who fall onto the autistic spectrum, has some sensory processing challenges. Sensory processing is defined as sensory information that the individual perceives resulting in abnormal responses. In the first episode of Season 1 titled “Antarctica”, viewers see a scene where Sam goes on a date with a girl he met on this dating website. Sam goes into the restaurant with headphones and wears them throughout the date because of the noise. His date doesn’t seem to understand why he’s wearing headphones, and Sam only says he needs them to block out the noise. Sam uses his headphones a lot during school as well blocking out the loud sounds of students and bells that occur in the hallways. Again, in Season 2 we get a scene where Sam needs his headphones when his family throws a surprise birthday party for his sister, Casey Gardner (Brigette Lundy-Paine). Sam has physical sensory challenges as well, when he rides the bus to work or to therapy he can never sit fully back on the seat because of the feeling on his back. Sometimes when he’s overwhelmed he needs pressure to be put onto him, through hugs or his mom having to wrap him tightly in a blanket with a sweatshirt pulled tightly against his body, he refers to this as “being a burrito”. Although these scenes provide truthful depictions of sensory disorders amongst people on the spectrum, the scenes are used for comic relief which distract from the importance of those specific scenes in the show.

Often people on the spectrum suffer with understanding or catching onto certain social cues that occur. Sam certainly falls into that category, but instead of misunderstanding some social cues in a certain setting, he misses all of them. Sam’s character comes off selfish and rude at times, even ignoring people’s feelings. Every line of dialogue he has somehow involved a social misstep. Each social mishap that Sam has seems to make all the other characters around him extremely uncomfortable. In one scene, he tells his therapist Julia, ““I can see your bra. It’s purple,” or when Sam hears his sister Casey, use the word” twat” he seemingly can’t get that word out of his mind and ends up repeating it multiple times during a family dinner. Sam is seemingly unaware that it isn’t socially acceptable to say these certain things. It seems as though they exaggerate Sam’s social misreads in order to push the comedic aspect of the show, but there isn’t anything funny with using Sam’s disability as comedic relief.

Sam’s character in certain stressful situation will display tics or certain ritualistic movements that are often certain symptoms of autism. In many of the scenes were Sam is at his therapist he is always snapping a rubber band against the palm of his hand. He repeats that same movement for the majority of the time he is with Julia, his therapist. The movement here is rather consistent, it stays at the same rate. Unlike in Season 1 were the movement is relatively the same we see Sam’s movement change during the process of finding a new therapist in Season 2. Sam throughout the scenes where he is shown with a new and different type of therapist the movement picks up and he’s almost snapping the rubber band at a painfully fast rate. Viewers can distinctly see the difference as Sam grows more uncomfortable with the new therapist he is trying out. Another tic that Sam has when he feels overwhelmed is that he pulls the hair at the back of his head extremely hard. In one scene Sam is being made fun of by some kids at school for sharing facts about Antarctica, but he’s unaware that he’s being made fun of until they start laughing at him, which then triggers him to start pulling his hair. Tics and other movements are typical in many individuals on the spectrum, just as it’s portrayed through Sam’s character

Relationships

Sam as the main character has interactions with almost all of the characters on the show. A lot of his interactions occur with his family. His mother Elsa Gardner (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is one of his deepest relationships when the show begins. Elsa is very protective over him, in a way she tries to shield him from the world and tries to baby him in different ways. Throughout the series Sam becomes more independent stating that he can pick out his own clothes and go to the mall without his headphones, during Season 2 the main argument between these characters has to do with Sam wanting to go to college, and his mother not agreeing. Sam as many high-functioning autistic individuals are capable of completing things on their own without need of assistance.

Another complex relationship during the series is with Sam and his father, Doug Gardner (Michael Rapaport). Doug left the family home when Sam was first diagnosed with Autism, and he had a rather hard time accepting his son’s disability. Once he was able to accept it he went on a journey of learning and understanding his son. In Season 2, viewers see Doug go to one of the family support groups that helps families learn and support their children who have autism. When Doug first speaks he says, “my autistic son”, which then creates discussion in the group and they politely correct him letting him know to put the individual before the diagnoses. Doug and Sam’s bond grows stronger as both of them get to know each other better.

Unlike the more truthful depiction of relationships between parents and their child who are on the spectrum. Sam’s romantic relationships are something that causes concern on the way they’re portrayed throughout the series. Sam’s one main goal throughout the show is to find love and a girlfriend. In Season 1, we see Sam ask out a girl who he meets at work, he ends up taking her to the workers hangout spot outside of Techtropolis. The girl seems to find Sam’s quirks cute, and asks him to go home with her. Once they get into her house, she initiates physical contact with him and begins kissing him. He becomes uncomfortable and where there could have been a scene where the girl stops and asks him if he’s okay, the scene ends with Sam pushing her so hard it almost seems like a punch, knocking her down to the ground after she takes off her shirt.

After this Sam then becomes obsessed with his therapist Julia, during one episode he breaks into her house and plans to wait till she comes home to admit his love for her. Throughout Season 1, Sam’s whole plan is to someone how get Julia to be his girlfriend and it depicts a rather creepy and false depiction of someone with autism.

Once Sam finally gets a girlfriend, Paige, viewers see the way he is unemotional and doesn’t understand when he hurts her feelings. People with autism often struggle with creating emotional connections, but are able to understand when they upset someone. One of the most disturbing scenes came when Sam needed to lock Paige in his closest, because he couldn’t handle her touching all of the things in his room. His parents came and explained why this behavior was unacceptable, even though Paige seemed okay with it. The negative portrayal of Sam in this scene could give the audience a complete false stereotype of someone with autism. In fact, people with disabilities and autistic people are far more likely to be the abused than the abusers.


Conclusion

Overall, there are some bright spots in Atypical that show us a truthful depiction of some autistic characteristics, but overall, the show is only providing the audience with the stereotypical view of autism on television. So yes, there is some truth in Sam’s character, but not enough for it to be a portrayal of a typical life of a person with autism.

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