It’s highly possible that there are people who think Atypical romanticises autism, however in reality what Netflix have done is epitomise the life changing path of a typical teenager.
For sure, being 18 years old and seeking a full time ‘practise girlfriend’ alongside his avid interest in the Antarctic, is not the perfect scenario for a boy approaching adulthood. But the way the show captures the struggles, efforts and break downs of a typical family unit and teenager is what makes this Netflix original series so pure and also isolated from other attempts in film and TV to address this disorder.
Sam, 18, sees a therapist, has no friends, hates people, hates being touched but loves his sister Casey.
Whilst this list could go on, all that needs to be said is that he is literal to a fault. I understand such a thing is part of Autism but I could sympathise with the frustration his over bearing mum felt when she was unable to hug her own son or when his dad could not share any sports moments with him. But you know what? That’s life.
It doesn’t excuse his cheating mum or his circumstantial relationship with his dad. Whilst his mum has managed and sought help for her son and his dad has built a barrier around his relationship with him, all that can be said is that Sam has never changed. There is something authentic to that idea, the fact that maybe you don’t need to change but the people around you do.
His therapist Julia can be seen as a confused woman herself. Jealous, concerned but also effortlessly unaware of the effect she has on her client, Sam. Sam’s thoughts are so abstract and impulsive that he doesn’t have time to consider the consequences of fancying his therapist. His weird, creepy and preying on women friend Zahid from Best Buy is also less than helpful when he tells him about his unconditional love for her. But again, who are we to judge these teenagers? Except from the fact that when Sam finds himself in a compromising situation in his therapists house, even his dad can’t save him.
The mini stories within this show could single handedly become their own Netflix original. Sam’s sister Casey has her first love, her first time and her first realisation that there is more to life than looking after her Autistic brother. Sam’s mum Elsa has an affair and a realisation that her family IS the most important thing in her life. Whilst everyone makes mistakes, learns from them and tragically apologises when they don’t really mean it, Atypical removes the idea that people are unable to make mistakes from the outset. Sam is autistic, his behaviour goes against social norms; he IS going to make socially unacceptable mistakes. But no one apologises for that and I admire that about the show.
The show itself is funny and it’s apprehension of real life is impeccable. Sam Gardner is in some ways one of a kind although Autism is the second most prevalent neurodevelopmental disorder among children and in the United States it is estimated 1 in 88 children have the disorder. So it’s ironic that such characteristics are labelled as atypical when really Sam Gardner is just like the rest of us, minus some social cues that go unnoticed by him.
His ‘practise girlfriend’ Paige must be mentioned because whilst she isn’t Autistic, her behaviour is ‘atypical’ too. She’s neurotic, impetuous and governing of everyone but she’s kind hearted and giving to Sam. She even changes the school dance to a silent disco to make it ‘Autistic proof’ for her ‘boyfriend Sam’. If your heart didn’t melt by such a gesture then you’re not acknowledging the sincerity of such an act.
What this show does is create every character with a ‘pinch of salt’ realising that not every fictional person in a show is so black and white. The ‘mind spirals’ of Sam are interesting and as an audience watching it, you can empathise with the headache and frustration he must feel, all while not being able to openly vocalise such thoughts.
Whilst Sam faces some heart ache through coming to terms with his therapist turning him down and Casey knowing the truth about her mum’s current ‘hobby’, Sam attends his school silent dance and family life seems to come together.
To go unnoticed in the world is boring, to make a mark is charitable and giving. Though Sam can be insulting and mean it is unintentional and fundamentally he has a good heart. As long as you have this then I think being Atypical is just the right way to live life.
Words by Polly Dale.