This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK. It contains narrative references from early in the series but no plot spoilers.
Netflix’s new series Atypical is a lovable comedy drama with well-rounded characters and a wonderful central performance from Keir Gilchrist as Sam, the latest autistic protagonist to hit the small screen.
On the big screen, the representation of characters with autism (often used interchangeably with Asperger Syndrome in fiction) leans heavily on the idea of the mathematical genius. In heart-warming 2015 film X+Y, Asa Butterfield’s character Nathan is an academically gifted teenager who takes part in an international mathematics competition. In 1989’s Rain Man, or 2016’s The Accountant, central characters with autism exhibit incredible skill with numbers. They are able to handle figures and data with greater proficiency than most “neurotypicals,” as the characters in Atypical refer to it.
Such representations aren’t inaccurate – perhaps you know a person with autism whose mathematic ability or memory far excels the average – but they’re far from the whole story. Autism isn’t one set of symptoms, nor do all people diagnosed with it exhibit exactly the same characteristics. As the saying goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
Ask someone who has no personal experience of the condition what autism is and it’s likely that film and television is furnishing them with their answer. It’s therefore important to present a wide variety of autistic characters, functioning at different levels and with their own individual personalities, so that a more accurate picture can be assembled. I’m not saying that television and cinema is failing to doing this; rather praising Atypical for its new perspective.
Atypical’s Sam Gardiner is described by his mother Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as “the most literal person I know.” He is blunt and unreservedly honest, something that the series uses to great comic effect. The show’s affection towards Sam is clear, and within moments yours will be too, with Robia Rashid’s script drawing dark humour from Sam’s day-to-day activities whilst, crucially, never making the joke on him. Like many other people with autism, Sam has “intense preoccupations” as his therapist Julia (Amy Okuda) describes it. Sam’s preoccupation, nay his passion, is Antarctica and the penguins who live in its unforgiving climate.
The show does a fantastic job of slowly pulling its audience into Sam’s world, providing voiceovers from Sam who explains why he does certain things on his school commute and equates all human social interaction to the interactions of Antarctic species. It begins to make perfect sense. If Sam is happiest researching the behaviours of penguins, then why not apply what he has learned from the animal kingdom to the behaviors of humans? He makes some very poetic parallels, while also having to learn with some dismay that not all interaction can be decoded through animal habits and natural phenomena. It is a coming of age story in which the autistic character is not inaccessible; we are in his mind and learning to understand his actions. He is explaining everything and it’s all so refreshingly logical.
So, as you can see, Sam is not a numbers whizz. He’s not even much of a techy or a gamer; pastimes often associated with people who are introverted and withdrawn. While he works in Techtropolis, an electronics store that sells televisions, printers and the like, his voiceover makes it clear that it was not his penchant for fixing technology that secured him the job, rather his ability to research anything with thoroughness and attention to detail. You get the impression that he would have dedicated the same time and energy to preparing for a job in a jewelry shop.
In this way, Sam is perhaps more like some of the autistic characters presented in television. Community’s Abed (Danny Pudi) immediately came to mind, a character less focused on facts and statistics but on films and their application to real-life scenarios. Abed can struggle to read the expressions of those around him (“your mouth isn’t curved upwards, did I do something wrong?”) just like Sam, who explains in his voiceover that he feels empathy like anyone else, it’s just that he often has difficulty noticing when someone is upset. Jim Parsons’ character Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory also occasionally sprung to mind, as whilst Sam is in no way as garish and hyperbolic as this character, he often looks physically similar with his neat attire, painstakingly combed hair and bolt upright manner of sitting.
Atypical employs some striking effects to invite viewers into Sam’s world. In a touching-turned-excruciating scene in which Sam approaches a group of his fellow classmates to ask them for tips on dating, something Sam is keen to learn to get himself a girlfriend, the laughter of his peers echoes ominously as Sam’s eyes dart from side to side, blue light scanning his pupils. He is a rabbit caught in the headlights; utterly baffled and completely unaware of what he has done wrong. As his voiceover upsettingly explains, he knows when he is being picked on, he just doesn’t always understand why. The cinematography warps and distorts the scene, emphasising Sam’s confusion to those of us who, sadly, understand exactly why they are laughing at him.
The show offers a series of kind and patient lessons to its audience. It explains what it means to be autistic in both a heart-warming and humorous way and depicts Sam’s tumultuous navigation through the numerous challenges that growing up presents. Did you know, for example, that people with autism can struggle with crowds, loud noises and over-stimulating lighting? I am sure a number of people do know this, but it’s an invaluable lesson to learn for those who don’t, set in the midst of a really compelling story.
Atypical does not only focus on Sam’s experience, however. Far from it. If you are anything like me you may have wanted to see even more from Sam, his therapist and his hilariously smarmy friend Zahid (Nik Dodani) who fancies himself quite the ladies’ man but, with hindsight, it is key that we are offered an equal look into the lives of everyone in Sam’s family.
The series is not only entertaining and informative but it is relentlessly compassionate to all of its characters. It is not easy having a child with autism, and the show does not skip over this fact. “It’s okay to worry,” it seems to say, “it’s okay if you don’t know how to handle it and it’s okay to be selfish sometimes.”
The series even tackles the difficult subject of shame; if you don’t tell people about your circumstances, are you embarrassed of them? Atypical handles all of these issues and emotions with delicacy, humour and heart and serves to reassure any parent or sibling in the same position. Michael Rapaport is brilliant as Sam’s father Doug, a man who longs for some father-son bonding with Sam, who is rarely physically expressive, and Brigette Lundy-Paine is very entertaining as Sam’s sister Casey, who enjoys a typically antagonist relationship with her brother whilst being fiercely protective.
Watch this show if you don’t understand autism. Watch this show if you do. Watch this show if you want a great drama, a heart warming comedy and/or to see one of Netflix’s best series’ this year. Just watch this show.
Atypical is available now on Netflix.