Guest Blogs

“Humanizing Autism”

With Atypical, the new Netflix original series about a young adult with autism, we get a glimpse into a complex, fascinating, oh-so-logical mind that is, in reality, not so scary or different after all.

Netflix hits all the right notes in its new series, Atypical, which takes a much needed and welcomed look at what it’s like living with autism. I know because I live with autism. In a world where the autism spectrum remains a mystery to many, the show captures real (and sometimes funny) moments of everyday life. And, in doing so, it opens countless eyes to a sometimes “invisible” condition the symptoms of which are no less real because of their camouflage.

Atypical’s main character is Sam Gardner, an 18-year-old boy on the autism spectrum. To be honest, I initially expected little more than stereotypes from Sam’s character. Why? Autism is incredibly difficult to depict on screen — in no small part because its symptoms, severity, and individual quirks vary so widely across multiple diagnoses. A person with autism may be quiet and reticent. Or overbearing with few boundaries. Or almost catatonic, responding little — if at all — to external stimuli. He or she might even resemble Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond Babbitt from the 1988 film Rain Man. It’s no wonder that the symbol for autism is a puzzle piece; no two diagnoses are quite the same.

Fortunately, it seems the creators of Atypical understand this, and worked to circumvent this challenge while maintaining a fairly genuine representation of a young adult with autism.

For the most part, Sam displays what could be called the standard suite of behaviors associated with high-functioning autism. He avoids eye contact, often wears a rather blank expression, fidgets and mutters to keep himself calm, is utterly literal, etc. The list goes on, as Sam at one point or another displays virtually every identifying behavior you’re likely to find in a book on high-functioning autism.

In this, Atypical does come to lean on stereotypes a bit. In my experience, it’s not often you find someone who manages to so perfectly check off every box on the “Does My Child Have Autism?” test. Regardless, if I were to come across Sam Gardner walking the campus of Landmark College, which specializes in teaching students with learning disabilities, ADHD, and autism, I’d have no trouble believing he was a student like any other.

[Self-Test: Is Your Child on the Autism Spectrum?]

While Sam’s stereotypical depiction may impair some viewers’ understanding of real people with autism and their complexities, it simultaneously lends Sam a certain broad relatability for those who are on the autism spectrum. As I watched the show with a friend, I couldn’t help but point at what Sam was doing at times and say “I’m totally like that,” or “I kind of do that, except instead of doing that I do this.” Other times, though, the show broke from reality and instead exaggerated Sam’s behaviors to create a memorable scene. For example, the overly honest and unabashed Sam tells his family at one point that he wants a girlfriend so he can have sex.

Where the show truly shines is in its depiction of the way Sam’s mind works. To the show’s credit, it serves to humanize all the behaviors that too many people dismiss as “being off” or “not all there.” Most of the socially inappropriate things Sam does stem not from malignance or spite, but from confusion or inexperience. Atypical highlights the critical, misunderstood reason why people on the spectrum struggle with daily interactions: they must, via brute logic, learn most of the things which neurotypicals simply figure out during their development.

Through moments of introspection during his therapy, Sam guides the viewer through his logic as he attempts to understand the world around him the only way he knows how: through evidence, logic, and comparisons to Antarctic wildlife, his personal obsession. At times, his reasoning may take unusual leaps, but for the most part it’s easy to understand Sam’s perspective and mindset. For those without autism, the most important thing Atypical does is make it clear that the autistic mind isn’t such an alien thing.

Meanwhile, Atypical services those who are on the spectrum by setting an example for how they can deal with their own problems. Sam asks questions, takes notes, surrounds himself with understanding friends, and takes on more responsibility in his life. As he does this, one can see Sam grow, in a manner that poignantly reminded me of my own, similar growing-up experience at Landmark. First and foremost, many people with autism need a safe, accepting environment where they can try new things, and Atypical succeeds in communicating this. Here’s to hoping it has a long run on Netflix.

[Free Download: Does Your Child Have a Learning Disability?]