Reviews: Atypical

Painfully Typical

I remember a specific scene. The (autistic) main character's parents go to a support group for parents of autistic people.The father, not a usual member of the group, makes a comment, and the group facilitator interrupts to tell him to use person-first language. Really simple, almost nit-picky stuff. Notably, though, the facilitator has it wrong. It's pretty easy to find out that a whole lot of autistic people prefer identity first language. But this character, presented as educated, instead uses the language that neurotypical parents prefer. And the show never shows how she's wrong. It's a pretty good metaphor for Atypical. It's not for us, and it couldn't be bothered to do the research on our voices.

Sam's voice-overs do give us insight into his head, and I'll give some credit for that. But he's still largely the joke of the show. We laugh at him, not with him. And it happens a lot, more to Sam than with any other character. The other characters also make jokes. Sam doesn't. He's funny because he's weird, not because he's witty, the show says.

For a show that's supposed to be all about autism and has such a large parent support group, it's strange that we only see two autistic people. So much could be corrected if the show dared to give us more than one view of what autism is. It doesn't. Those two characters? Male and nerdy, the same basic type that's shown everywhere. We don't see female. We don't see emotionally aware. We don't see any interests you wouldn't expect. "Anger issues" are mentioned, but we don't see angry. Or, at least, we don't see justified anger. Being autistic, and being discriminated against and bullied don't seem to bother them, or at least, there's no anger at the people doing it.

Which brings us back to the support group. Sam's autism makes life hard— but it's mainly shown to be hard on the people around him. Elsa, the mother, needs a whole support group, and an affair, just to deal with Sam. Sam himself? He gets a therapist, but not peers in his condition and community, like his mother gets. The other characters blame their pain and poor decisions on Sam's autism. Sure, it's not his fault, but it hurts them. That's a toxic attitude. Shouldn't the person actually diagnosed autistic be the one most affected by autism? This show, like so many depictions, says no, it's the mom. In 2017, in the USA alone, at least 8 autistic children were murdered by their parents for the crimes of being autistic. Commenters sympathize with the murderers. So I think I can say that the myth that autistic people are burdens has a body count. It's also linked with abusive therapies. A lot of Atypical actively promotes the burden myth, and even when they try to dispel it, the attempts aren't lasting or meaningful. And that's just so typical.

Best show out there? Maybe. But that just says we live in a sad, sad world.

Possibly the best autism show out right now

We're starting to reach the point where TV shows about autism are reaching the mainstream. My mom's friend watches The Good Doctor. My coworker saw Atypical. And now, I decided to check it all out.

It's a comedy/drama about an autistic high school student's quest for love. And I'm pretty impressed with the show's portrayal of autism.

Vitally, it shows why Sam does the things he does. So many stories just show the weird behaviors of autistics, but here, all of Sam's actions are shown to make sense, even if they're not a good idea. For example, the show emphasizes how a woman in a crowd unknowingly swishing her ponytail in his face aggravates him tremendously, but rather than ask her to shop, he instead grabs her ponytail.

Second, Sam's narration explains what can't be easily shown. For example, he mentions that autistics do feel empathy very strongly, that is, once they realize that they did something wrong, as they may not know. This even helps deal with the "accidental jerk" stereotype. Yes, Sam was an "accidental jerk", but he tries (and succeeds!) to make things as right as he can in one major instance.

Which ties into the third thing it does well - dispel some misconceptions. Yes, autistics feel empathy. Furthermore, Sam is also not a savant, just a generally good student who has an obsession with arctic wildlife.

And the show portrays how autistics can creating disastrous situations with their social skills problems, like how Sam develops a crush on his therapist and later confesses his crush to her. Or telling a girl that if they dated, she'd merely be his "practice girlfriend".

We even see how Sam has a sense of identity. When told to wear a leather jacket by his pickup artist friend because it will make him look cool, Sam insists, "That's not me."

This may be a comedy/drama, but if portraying autism symptoms for comedy (then later showing the drama) results in more people understanding and accepting autism, then I'm all for it.

Sam does actually get a girlfriend other than his therapist, a girl named Paige who may have ADHD. If she does, I think it's very appropriate; I've read that people with autism and ADHD sometimes connect surprisingly well. Paige tries to understand Sam's disability and really make an effort to get to know him. And he learns many things from his relationship with her.

The show also focuses on other characters, and they're okay. The nice guy dad trying to make up for his crappy past, the teenage jock sister who punches a bully, the frazzled mom who cheats on the dad, and the therapist. Sam has a family of course, and they affect the story too, but I just didn't get too into their stories when Sam or Paige wasn't around. Interestingly, they make major mistakes with their own misunderstandings and communications issues at times, despite not having autism. Hmm...

With this promising beginning and the Drama Bomb finale, I'm already invested in season 2.