Whilst I’m fully aware that a TV show can never truly depict real life, I feel as if there’s been a courageous attempt in the new Netflix series “Atypical”. The show follows the lives of 18-year-old high school student Sam and his family. Whilst Keir Gilchrist, the actor who plays him, is not on the spectrum, there’s definitely been some obvious attempts at creating a character that obviously is.
Sam has made the decision to start dating, and this is where the show begins. With regular therapy, he tries to navigate the world of women by researching flirting techniques and inevitably ends up deciding his therapist, Julia, is the perfect woman for him. Parents Doug and Elsa are consumed with worry for their son’s future whilst trying to juggle their daughter, Casey, and her errant behaviour with the local “bad boy” Evan.
Sam’s autism and its impact on the family becomes more evident with each episode. And its easy to wonder how the producers of the show kept it from becoming almost a satire of itself. In the past characters with autism have cropped up in TV and Film. Characters such as Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory and Bobby Boucher from The Waterboy, who were created for one purpose only: comedy. It’s true that autism can bring much-needed comic relief in day-to-day life, but are we laughing at the characters. Or with them?
I feel as if there has been some stereotypical behaviour written into the character of Sam. Notably his monotone voice whilst speaking about something he finds interesting. But there are moments where he is able to speak freely, and you remember he is an actor. But this mixture of having a non-autistic actor portray someone on the spectrum is that they are given the opportunity to understand the character probably better than the character, were he real, would understand himself.
Much of the show’s dialogue glides in the frictionless way American sitcoms so often do, the funny bits well turned and nimbly delivered by the cast. Gilchrist, with his Buster Keaton deadpan expression (he would also be great casting for a Jared Kushner biopic someday), excels particularly at landing Sam’s unique blend of melancholy and geekiness with lines such as: “I wish I had a time machine and go back to the past and never have asked her out in the first place [half-beat pause] – and also maybe visit the Middle Ages. Because jousting.”
The one thing I relate to most is Ella, the Mother. Her absolute belief that her son is constantly in peril and about to be hurt by others and/or hurt himself is an all-consuming thought for every autism parent. Her marriages woes aside, which are also an interesting plot point, I feel like her fears are all our fears. How many times have we overlooked our neurological child because the needs of the other have been greater? How many times have we had moments where our lives have tried to drown us and it feels like things would be better if we just ran away from it all? Maybe even a carefree bartender catches your eye? OK, maybe not. Because who has time for that? *chuckle*.
There is one scene during an episode where Sam’s Dad Doug attends the Autism support group after a long absence. He’s hit with a lot of terminology that comes across as “autism 101 lectures” from pious parents who expect him to know better. I, for one, have no idea what the correct terminology for anything autism related is. Because, in my experience, there are no rules. I sincerely doubt our children care if we refer to them as autistic kids or “kids with autism”. Or if they do, its only because certain words need placing in certain sentence structures and nothing to do with being politically correct.
As laudable as it may be to come across a show that’s gone to such trouble to do its homework about the condition it depicts, even to the extent that it avoids calling it a disorder at all, and all the pains it takes to give the character with autism agency, humanity and multiple dimensions, some might still wonder why nearly all characters with autism in film have to be, like Sam, lovable, good-looking, funny ha-ha as well as funny peculiar and, above all, high functioning.
There is also another scene which hit close to home. The scene where the PTA vote on the Silent Dance. Sam’s enthusiastic girlfriend Paige puts forward the idea for a silent school dance, anchored by headphones piping music in to each individual student.
The concept of silent discos became popular around 10 years ago and were actually a “thing” for a while. But some of the parents are against the idea, for reasons such as flat hair and changing the way things are for the benefit of one student.
The stimuli surrounding school dances is often too much for Sam, and his Mother is forced to stand up and cite the reasons why Sam deserved his silent dance. All the times he was the kid screaming at the birthday parties, and he was never invited again. All the formal events he had to miss because it was too much for him, resulting in him feeling isolated.
If I ever have to stand up and be counted for my child, then I will. But I hope and pray I never have to. I’ve mentioned before all the fears I have here. But it is shows like “Atypical” that sit with us in the shadows, maybe they get it wrong, maybe they get it right. But isn’t that all of us?