Atypical is actually pretty typical


I’m in two minds about Atypical, Netflix’s new comedy-drama focusing on Sam, a teenager with autism, and his attempts to get laid.

After watching the first episode, I tweeted that “Atypical seems to be a fairly comprehensive run-through of TV stereotypes about autism.” On the basis of that first episode, it’s difficult to categorise the programme as anything else; Sam is little different from most archetypical autistic characters on television. A couple of different reviews of Atypical have referred to the maxim, “If you’ve met one autistic person then you’ve met one autistic person”. It emphasises, in short, that not all people with autism are the same. But, per Atypical, you wouldn’t necessarily draw that conclusion on your own. Sam is a white, male teenager, who’s special interest is science based – in this case, it’s penguins. He’s not hugely different in that regard from Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, or Asa Butterfield’s character in 2015’s X+Y, and so on and so forth.

Undeniably, yes, there are white male teenagers with autism who take a particular interest in science related fields. In a TED Talk a few years ago, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie referred to “the danger of a single story” – essentially, the risk that a particular narrative becomes so prevalent as to be ubiquitous. There’s a sense that this is what’s happening here; that Sam, perfect stereotype that he is, is just feeding into a general impression of what autistic people are assumed to be like. It’s very much the reverse of the above maxim – the implication is that, once you’ve met one person with autism, the suggestion is you really have met them all. (It’s not helped by the fact that the only other autistic character in Atypical is another white male teenager, with a special interest in geology.)

Atypical, in a way, is the apotheosis of this interpretation. In some ways, it’s more sensitive than the norm in an impressive way; certain details and realities of life with autism are presented here that you’d certainly never see with Sheldon Cooper’s, ill-defined as it is to provide the basis for jokes. For example, something the show focuses on a lot are the sensory issues Sam experiences. On the flip side, though, there are times that Atypical takes on a more patronising tone, and does make Sam the butt of the joke. This version of the stereotype has been taken as far as it really can; one would hope that, in Atypical’s second season, they might branch out and introduce a more diverse group of characters.

It’s worth noting, of course, a significant lapse in the production of the programme: no one involved with Atypical actually has autism, and it’s difficult to look at that as anything other than a failure. It’s something that, in writing about the show, a lot of people have picked up on – this piece in Teen Vogue by actor Mickey Rowe and this one in Huffington Post by Haley Moss are both worth reading, and cover the show frankly much better and with more authority than I could.

As to the quality of the programme? Well, it’s alright. Better than expected in certain key respects, with some glaring flaws in others. More than anything else, it’s surprisingly – indeed, overtly – sexual (and quite heteronormative in turn), with nearly every major character having a significant plotline that relates to their sex life. It’s an odd choice for a programme that, otherwise, is essentially a light and fairly watchable family sitcom in a similar vein to, say, Malcolm in the Middle.

And so, like I said, I’m in two minds about Atypical. As far as the programme goes, it was alright. Reasonably entertaining, funny at times, but still limited. In terms of autistic representation, or at least as far as I feel able to comment – which, it must be stressed, is not particularly far – it does certain things well, but doesn’t go beyond the usual stereotypes in others. As the series progresses, it really does improve, and there’s a lot that’s pretty good, if not necessarily stellar.

In short, then – Atypical is actually just fairly typical.


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