The new Netflix Original—“Atypical” features Sam, a high school senior navigating love and life with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by, “deficits in social communication and social interaction” (American Psychiatric Association 2013). It’s no surprise that it adds challenges to the already tricky landscape of a high school social life. The series does a great job of asserting the point that Sam wants to experience relationships with others, he just might not know how to go about obtaining them. Netflix and Rabia Rashid, the creator and executive producer of the show, had the best of intentions in creating a protagonist with ASD. Rashid conveys this in her interview with vulture.com when asked about her inspiration for creating a show with a protagonist on the spectrum. “I was very aware that more people were being diagnosed with autism, and it was interesting to me that a whole generation of kids were growing up knowing that they were on the spectrum and wanting independence” (2017). It is clear that she wanted to give a voice and representation to group of people who are marginalized in the media, unfortunately, the execution missed the mark in a few areas.
The Mighty and The Huffington Post explores the show’s shortcomings by interviewing individuals living with Autism Spectrum disorder within their articles, “People in the Autism Community Review ‘Atypical’, Netflix’s Original Series About Autism” and “My Autistic Opinion: Atypical is a Stereotypical Representation of Autism”. While the general consensus from those interviewed in the articles by The Mighty and The Huffington Post was approval for a number of the show’s qualities, they agreed it left some room for improvement. As someone who does not experience Autism Spectrum disorder, my initial thoughts on the show were an overwhelming approval for what I thought was a championing voice for the community. Although, after reading the opinions of people who are actually on the spectrum, I realize that “Atypical” is a far from perfect representation of ASD, despite good intentions.
A common criticism mentioned by several of the individuals was that Sam was a “caricature of autism” which perpetuated many of the harmful stereotypes of the disorder (Staff 2017). One woman with ASD, Haley Moss, described her feelings on how these stereotypes might have a larger impact on public opinion in the article from The Mighty. She states, “[the show] hurts us by falsely portraying us as creepy, insensitive, and just really awkward” ( Moss 2017). Stereotypes in the media like these do truly have an impact on the perceptions of neurotypical people that may not be properly informed on the subject. It is also very important to keep in mind that not everyone who experiences ASD faces the same challenges, so by using such broad stereotypes, it ultimately reduces the collective experience into a “caricature”. As Moss points out, “Atypical” could have avoided mistakes like these if a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder was consulted during the production. Another improvement that could have been implemented was the choice of an actor who has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Staff, 2017). This decision would have allowed someone in the community to breathe more genuine and authentic qualities into Sam’s character in a nonstereotypical manner.
As with many real-life instances, Sam is often unfairly the source of humor in the show deriving from his perceived lack of insight on social cues and overall communication with others. Moss is especially worried that the jokes in the show paint Sam as, “…inherently selfish and inconsiderate…” (Moss 2017). This depiction is not representative of individuals on the spectrum in any way and may lead to further stigmatization. “Atypical” may benefit the community by deriving humor elsewhere which does not capitalize on Sam’s attempt to connect with people. This aspect of the show’s shortcomings are particularly harmful in that often times, people with ASD may have difficulty understanding others humor due to a deficit in comprehending social contexts (American Psychiatric Association 2013) . Therefore, to use Sam as the source of humor in a show that attempts to humanize him is particularly ineffective and damaging.
All of this is not to say that “Atypical” completely missed the mark. It is so important to produce narratives surrounding Autism Spectrum Disorder because it is an important step in creating a more understanding atmosphere. By showing the world this perspective it might inspire empathy and acceptance in others which might have otherwise gone ignored or right out scrutinized. “Atypical” is on the right track, the execution simply needs a few adjustments.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders(5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Fernandez, M. E. (2017, August 15). Atypical Creator Robia Rashid on Autism: ‘I Had to Do a Lot of Real Learning’. Retrieved September 24, 2017, from http://www.vulture.com/2017/08/atypical-showrunner-robia-rashid-interview.html
Moss, H. (2017, August 11). My Autistic Opinion: Atypical is a Stereotypical Representation of Autism. Retrieved September 17, 2017, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/my-autistic-opinion-atypical-is-a-stereotypical- representation_us_598e2e04e4b0ed1f464c0abd
Staff, T. M., Daughter, M. &., Savely, C., Reynolds, B., Flood, T., & Burgess, M. (2017, August 1). People in Autism Community Review ‘Atypical,’ Netflix’s Original Series About Autism. Retrieved September 17, 2017, from https://themighty.com/2017/08/atypical-autism-netflix-review/