Atypical is streaming on Netflix.
By Helen Wallace-Iles
*** Spoiler Free ***
When Netflix announced their new series, Atypical, about an everyday family living with a teenage son on the autism spectrum, I was interested to see how they’d handle the subject. After watching the trailer though, I wasn’t sure whether they were laughing at autism or about it – an absolutely crucial distinction in my opinion. I’d also read some reviews saying how bad it was and that it portrayed autistic people as stereotypes, so to be honest my hopes for the series weren’t terribly high, but nonetheless I decided to see for myself. I have to say I’m very glad I did.
Atypical introduces us to the Gardner family: mom Elsa and dad Doug (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michael Rappaport) and their teenage children Casey and Sam (played superbly by Brigette Lundy-Paine and Keir Gilchrist). The show explores the changing dynamics between different family members as the children go through the agonies of adolescence, while keeping the main focus on how Sam’s autism has impacted them all as individuals. Anyone who’s lived in a family that’s touched by autism will recognise the way it can dominate everyone’s day to day lives, and I felt the producers did a good job of highlighting this aspect of life on the spectrum. They also managed it without implying that autism is some kind of tragedy, which I appreciated very much.
Sam narrates the show himself, either as a voiceover or by speaking to his therapist, both of which are great ways of allowing us to hear his inner thoughts. His special interest is Antarctica and he begins the series by explaining that despite being a kingdom of ice and snow, it’s rather surprisingly considered to be a desert because it has so little rainfall, telling us “That’s why I like it: it’s not what it looks like.” This really sets the tone for the series in my opinion, implying that no one should judge things (and especially people) solely by their outward appearance.
So, the main theme of Season One is Sam’s search for love, something his therapist Julia (played by Amy Okuda) is keen to help him with. Elsa is less convinced, and when Julia insists she can teach Sam strategies to use when dating, she asks the poignant question “Are there strategies for when you get your heart broken?” This fear of the unknown – the fear that your child isn’t ready to handle the emotional rollercoaster that romantic relationships can bring – is something I’m sure every parent of an autistic teenager will identify with. I certainly did.
Sam, meanwhile, is up for the challenge, and throws himself head-first into the world of dating in the only way he knows how: by doing research, taking notes and applying logic, and as you can imagine this leads to some quite spectacularly disastrous results. Sam refers throughout the season to his encyclopaedic knowledge of Antarctica’s animal kingdom and their mating rituals, struggling to work out why human courtship is so different and so incredibly complicated by comparison.
Fortunately, his nerdy work colleague Zahid (played by the hilarious Nik Dodani) considers himself to be a bit of an expert on girls even though he’s clearly nothing of the sort. Undeterred, he offers Sam the benefit of his advice, assuring him that he’s more than capable of finding a date. The obvious differences between being nerdy and being autistic are nicely observed during their scenes together, with Zahid reassuring Sam over his concerns that girls don’t like him because he’s weird, by saying “You are weird; so what?” So what, indeed.
Gradually, as Sam moves along on his dating journey and begins to turn to his father for the first time, we see Elsa, whose identity is by now pretty much solely defined by being an autism parent, left at something of a loose end. As her family become increasingly independent of her she searches for a sense of identity outside the home, and becomes torn between reliving her youthful indiscretions and being an integral, if somewhat underappreciated, part of her family.
At the same time, the relationship between Sam and his sister is beautifully handled, and the frustrations of growing up with an autistic sibling are highlighted throughout the series. Casey is a fantastic character who defends her brother without question at school. She also teases him mercilessly at home, something I found very endearing and easy to relate to, as my own children behave in exactly this way towards each other.
As you’d expect, issues such as social awkwardness, sensory overload and meltdowns are all covered during this first season, but it also highlights marital friction, inappropriate romantic attachments and even the shame some parents feel about their child being autistic. Obviously some of these topics could make very uncomfortable viewing for people on the spectrum, but without them the show would lose a lot of its realism, and certainly wouldn’t raise the same level of awareness about the day to day struggles autistic people and their families can face.
As with any show not everyone will enjoy it, but personally I loved it from the very first episode. So many of the tricky but hilarious situations it portrays are ones I’ve lived through myself, and importantly the producers were careful to balance them with the all-too-familiar scenes of heart-break that autism families know so well. Overall I’d say it gives a very fair representation of life in an autistic household, and I think the show does an admirable job of highlighting the kind of issues so many people outside the world of autism are as yet completely unaware of.
I have to admit that I laughed out loud, and cried more than once as the storylines unfolded; at one point I actually punched the air and cheered. Since this is a spoiler-free review I won’t give too much away, but suffice to say it was during a scene involving the Eiffel Tower – you’ll know it when you see it.
Season two is now available and I’ll be reviewing it soon, so watch out for more insights into Sam’s journey towards adulthood, and the everyday challenges it brings for him and his family.
Atypical producers responded to the criticism about the lack of autistic actors in Season 1. Readers may also like Atypical Season 2: Elaine Hall talks about coaching autistic actors.
Helen Wallace-Iles has lived with autism all her life and is now the very proud mother of four remarkable children on the spectrum. She is a fully qualified hypnotherapist and psychotherapist who has supported hundreds of families through the difficulties of living with this complex and intriguing condition.
Helen now works full time running the charity she founded in 2010, Autism All Stars Foundation UK, where she promotes a positive, proactive approach to life and particularly to living with autism, something which shines through in her hugely popular book ‘The Ringmaster’s Tale: Autism, Asperger’s, Anarchy!’ – available here: www.tinyurl.com/TheRingmaster
You can catch up with Helen’s thoughts on ‘Autism, the Universe and Everything’ on her blog here: www.autism-all-stars.org/ringmaster