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Atypical Fell Short as Both Autistic Representation and Entertainment. At Least It Was Eclipsed During Its Own Time

11 minute read

The year 2017 was a great one if you were in the business of TV autism. The Big Bang Theory, a show which never explicitly identified its main character as autistic but consistently played stereotypical traits for laughs, was the No. 1 show in the United States. Young Sheldon, its spinoff which trades on the same caricature, was a top-10 show. The Good Doctor, ABC’s medical drama about an autistic savant who works as a surgical resident, premiered that September and became an instant hit.

It was a far less fortuitous time to be an autistic person in the real world. In addition to an ongoing lack of meaningful resources, representation, understanding and acceptance, we had President Trump carelessly floating anti-vaxx conspiracy theories, claiming there was a “tremendous amount of increase” in autism diagnoses, and declaring it “really a horrible thing to watch.” Reports of vulnerable autistic children being killed by their parents continued to hit the news. We still struggled—often in vain—for meaningful inclusion in policy, science, news and entertainment relating to our lives. Almost none of the affection that non-autistic audiences felt for the Sheldons and Dr. Shaun Murphys was extended to us.

It was into this climate that Netflix released the first season of Atypical on August 11, 2017. The dramedy about an autistic teenager who decides that he wants to start dating, and the butterfly effect it has on his long-suffering family, was not a game changer. The greatest part of its legacy is how quickly it became obsolete: Atypical may have begun its run among contemporaries, but when its fourth and final season was released last Friday, it was already a relic, eclipsed by far more interesting and actually autistic-influenced examples of representation.

Atypical’s shortcomings as both representation and entertainment

Keir Gilchrist and Brigette Lundy Paine in Season 1 of 'Atypical'Greg Gayne/Netflix

In its initial eight-episode season, Atypical was indistinguishable from its autistic TV cohort. It was yet another story about a cisgender, heterosexual, white autistic man seemingly made with a largely non-autistic audience in mind. In terms of inclusion, it very meekly nudged the status quo by hiring one autistic person for the supporting cast and one for the social media team, but that was the extent of autistic inclusion in the show’s autistic story. No one with any meaningful input into how the autistic main character was portrayed or how the greater story involving him was told was like him. (According to Atypical’s official Twitter account, autistic actors did audition for the role, but it ultimately went to the non-autistic Keir Gilchrist because he was “best for the role.”)

Outside of the neurology of its lead, Atypical failed to live up to its title. It was standard white middle class family fare with an increasingly standard depiction of autism at its center. Sam Gardner (Gilchrist) is an autistic 18-year-old with a special interest in penguins and a developing curiosity about dating. He visits a therapist where he perseverates on penguins in ways that serve as loose metaphors for the episode’s themes and where he occasionally touches on issues related to autism. (He also develops an inappropriate attachment to said therapist and breaks into her home, but more on that later.)

When he’s not navigating the tail end of high school or working at a big box store with his nerdy rogue of a best friend (Nik Dodani) who tries to teach him about life, Sam goes on a series of romantic (mis)adventures. His sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) feels ignored in favor of her brother and acts out. His father (Michael Rapaport) still struggles to completely accept his autism and might not be the most attentive husband. His overprotective mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) struggles with letting go, and she has an affair.

I wasn’t surprised by how poorly Atypical fared as both representation and entertainment, but I was still disappointed. At best, Sam was a wasted opportunity. He often appeared to me as more of a collection of stereotypes and repetitive physical movements than a person. Perhaps he would look like an autistic person from an outside perspective. But as an autistic person, I saw none of the complexity and internal life that I know exists in myself and my fellow autistic people and am desperate to see more of onscreen.

At worst, there were unchecked aspects of his character that were harmful. I wasn’t offended that he could be a dick. Autistic people can struggle to understand and participate in neurotypical social conventions, but autism neither makes nor absolves someone of being a dick. (For example, confusion over unwritten rules can be an issue for autistic people. The way the show’s writers have Sam treat his therapist, including ignoring explicitly stated rules and violating her personal property, is, well, a choice.) It might have been new and refreshing to see Sam’s unsavory side explored with any depth or skill. But neither the characters nor the writers show much interest in holding him accountable for his deliberate actions. Instead, we’re treated to an immensely frustrating reversal in which Sam faces more consequences for things he can’t control (sensory overload, meltdowns, etc.) than for what he can.

Criticism moves the needle only slightly

Jennifer Jason Leigh, Keir Gilchrist and Michael Rapaport in 'Atypical'Erica Parise/Netflix

The most positive thing I could say about Atypical as autistic representation is the most damning thing I can say about its entertainment value: Sam wasn’t treated that much differently from any of the other characters. Usually autistic characters are the only ones who are handled from external and distanced perspectives and come across as not-quite-human, but everyone was a little hollow here. Their big moments often felt forced. They all moved from plot point to plot point and from pathos to comedy with few punches or punchlines landing.

I was similarly not surprised but disappointed by the response that Atypical received. Most of the professional reviews I read praised the show in ways which belied how underqualified the critics were to address autistic stories. At least one outlet actively recruited autistic sources—including me—for an Atypical-pegged article on representation. But at least one other major outlet hired a non-autistic parent of an autistic child to write about what the show did and didn’t get right about autism. (This happened again, inexplicably, pegged to Season 4.) I had a lot of non-autistic people tell me that they loved the show. I even had a few try to explain to me why I was wrong, saying that the series had expanded their understanding of autistic people, when I tried to explain why many of us were not fans. (By the way, Autistics are not a monolith and I am in no way a singular spokesperson for 1 in 54 people, so I would like to acknowledge that some autistic people do enjoy Atypical.)

In a small mercy, enough criticism of the show’s abysmal autism inclusion did force the production team to make some small changes. The Journal of Best Practices author Dave Finch came on as a consultant before the second season. The show worked with Exceptional Minds, an organization that provides training and employment services for autistic people in animation, to hire animators and VFX professionals. They also created a support group that season and, with the assistance of the neurodiverse performance program The Miracle Project, cast actual autistic actors to play Sam’s peers. This move managed to contribute a tiny fraction to the racial and gender diversity that is so desperately needed in autism representation and give the series its better moments. Domonique Brown’s Jasper and Layla Weiner’s Amber characters were particularly welcome additions. The Atypical cast and crew have also participated in some community outreach, including a town hall with The Color of Autism about being Black and autistic in the US.

These are all valuable steps. I’m all for autistic creatives getting more opportunities and getting paid. Amplifying marginalized autistic people, especially Black autistic people, is vital work. But I believe that a product truly committed to engaging with autistic communities and supporting autistic people would have taken these actions in addition to hiring at least one autistic writer and one regular autistic cast member, not as a substitute.

Although better than nothing, these minor alterations were not enough to improve the overall quality of seasons two and three, either. The penguin metaphor construct becomes increasingly threadbare as the seasons progress. Sam doesn’t do any more breaking and entering, but he still shows little respect for other people, and his portrayal remains confounding. Casey comes close to three dimensions with her sweet but slight queer coming-of-age storyline, but the rest of the characters and their lives remain underdeveloped. Ultimately, there’s nothing in the new episodes that can keep up with the crop of autistic-informed entertainment that debuted since the show began.

Gradual, if insufficient, improvement across the entertainment landscape

Kayla Cromer, Maeve Press and Josh Thomas in 'Everything's Gonna Be Okay'Tony Rivetti—Freeform

While Atypical had to be dragged a short distance from its suboptimal starting line, autistic people were finally starting to see some improvement elsewhere in television. Even The Good Doctor managed to add slightly more autistic creative input into their mix. Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby started openly discussing her recent autism diagnosis in the wake of Nanette’s success and made autism a key focus of her next show, the hilarious and poignant Douglas. The delightful Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, which features autistic actor Kayla Cromer playing a queer autistic character, premiered on Freeform in January 2020. Creator and star Josh Thomas was later diagnosed as autistic himself. The new season of Special, the Netflix series about a gay man with cerebral palsy starring and written by Ryan O’Connell, features an autistic love interest played by queer autistic actor Buck Andrews. The finale also features a throwaway joke in which the main character’s clueless colleague tells him, with patronizing sincerity, “I just binged Atypical and I feel like I finally get you.”

Buck Andrews and Ryan O'Connell in Netflix's 'Special'BETH DUBBER/NETFLIX—© 2021 Netflix, Inc.

The quality of autism-themed TV and the extent of actual autistic representation to be found therein is far from the most pressing issue that autistic people face. And 2021 isn’t measurably better for us than 2017 was. We’re still fighting for resources, genuine acceptance and meaningful representation in all aspects of life. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit just overturned an FDA ban on the use of electric shock devices—a practice that the UN has called torture—on autistic and other developmentally disabled students at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, the majority of whom are Black and brown.

Pop culture cannot fix any of this. But art and expression are parts of the human experience, and making more room for our own stories—and ensuring we have a say in the stories that other people tell about us—does play a small role in the fight to have our complete humanity recognized and celebrated. The progress we’ve made inside this one small sphere isn’t perfect, either. There still aren’t enough autistic people who are enabled to tell their own stories, and not nearly enough autistic people reflected in the majority of stories greenlit for film, television and other media. Queer autistic representation has made some heartening strides, but autistic characters remain overwhelmingly white. Non-speaking autistic people and autistic people who have intellectual disabilities remain grossly underrepresented.

Coverage of these shows still has its problems, too. But the small victories that we’re experiencing matter. Even this piece, this opportunity that I have as an autistic writer to explore the impact of Atypical as more than a laundry list of what I think it did and didn’t get right about autism, is a sliver of progress.

I won’t forget or entirely forgive that it was made at all, nor that it was as well-received as it was. But to see Atypical become eclipsed in its own time, to the point where it has become the butt of a joke in a show made by a disabled artist, is so much more than I could have hoped for when it debuted in 2017. Ideally, it never would have existed. Or someone in charge would have considered further course-correcting in the face of significant negative feedback from the very people they were claiming to celebrate. But in a world where it does and a world where they didn’t, I will consider this an acceptable legacy.

Sarah Kurchak is the author of the memoir I Overcame My Autism And All I Got Was This Lousy Anxiety Disorder (Douglas & McIntyre).

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