Once upon a time, the only major depiction of autism in movies or TV was Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man. Hoffman's performance was iconic, and it became the reference that many people had for autism. Unfortunately, the vast majority of individuals with autism were significantly different than Raymond and the Rain Man stereotype led to a lot of people misunderstanding the condition.
In recent years, however, new depictions of autism and those who live with it have come to popular entertainment. Characters such as Max in Parenthood, Joe in the BBC/Sundance production the A Word and Billy in the recent Power Rangers reboot have given us glimpses of autism that are significantly different than Rain Man. Sesame Street introduced a muppet with autism in an effort to help young children learn how to interact with peers on the spectrum after the success of its "See Amazing" online campaign, and The Accountant turned a character with autism into an action star. Even Touch, a flawed series by Heroes creator Tim Kring that starred Gotham's David Mazouz, featured a compelling look at a character with nonverbal autism that sadly veered way off track as the series became more action-oriented and left the tenderness and emotion of its pilot behind.
With the debut of Atypical on Netflix, yet another portrayal of autism has been added. With a strong family focus, the show attempts to give a glimpse of not only what autism is like but also what it's like to have someone with autism in the family. Did the show succeed in this respect? Let's take a look.
Exactly What Is Autism?
At first glance, autism can seem hard to understand. These days, it's typically diagnosed as a spectrum disorder and you may hear it referred to as "ASD" (for "autism spectrum disorder"). The autism spectrum includes classical autism, but it also includes other conditions: Asperger's syndrome, Heller's syndrome (also known as "childhood disintegrative disorder" or "CDD") and the seeming catch-all of "pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified" (PDD-NOS) are all under the umbrella of ASD. These conditions are all neurodevelopmental disorders that affect individuals in different ways, but those affected by one of these conditions often share a number of common traits and behaviors. There's no concrete cause of ASD, though some risk factors have potentially been identified including genetic factors and prenatal issues.
Common traits seen in those with autism include difficulty making or maintaining eye contact, problems following directions or acknowledging instructions, the need for physical stimulation (known as "stimming") by doing things like rocking or flapping the arms, repeating words or phrases over and over and problems controlling vocal volume. Aversion to certain textures, apparent discomfort at loud noises or bright lights and aggressive behaviors can also occur as well. Some individuals with autism have limited vocabularies or may not be able to talk, while others are very vocal but have problems discerning imagination from reality. In some cases you'll see Rain Man-like abilities where the individual excels at one task despite having problems with others; sometimes this even presents in the form of things like hyperlexia (an almost innate ability to read and comprehend written language without formal training) or musical savants. These abilities are still somewhat rare even on the autism spectrum, however.
When "autism" is referred to in shows like Atypical and Parenthood, the affected individual usually falls closer to the high-functioning Asperger's end of the spectrum. There are social challenges that must be faced and the character may suffer some sensory issues such as aversions to loud noises or bright lights. More severe or lower-functioning cases typically aren't portrayed, though Touch's inclusion of a fully non-verbal character with autism did attempt this.
Sam on the Spectrum
Throughout Atypical, Sam is shown experiencing various aspects of his autism. This ranges from his abrupt honesty to the brightening of lights and the blurring of the camera while being made fun of by his peers. He makes references to some of his symptoms in his monologues, and his extreme social awkwardness further reflects his condition. Actor Kier Gilchrist really brought Sam and his world to life, bringing not only the character's most obvious traits to the forefront but also a number of more subtle issues. His perfect deadpan delivery often lies at odds with what he's thinking and feeling, and the tangents his monologue sometimes goes on really give us a sense of how his mind works.
That said, it's a shame that this insight into Sam's character is so often wasted on scenarios that we've seen in other sitcoms. Atypical has been referred to a number of times as a dark comedy, but there's a lot of classic sitcom formula at work in the plot. Some aspects of the show work to great effect, due largely in part to Gilchrist's performance as Sam. His portrayal of the character is believable, but at the same time the world that the character is operating in sometimes stretches believability. Sam might have ended up a little more believable as a character with autism if the show had actually been more of a dark comedy and less of a standard coming-of-age sitcom with autism thrown in as a twist.
All in the Family
One place where Atypical does well is the depiction of Sam's family and how his condition has affected them. We get a feel for the stress of being a parent of an individual with autism early on when we see how on edge Sam's mother is all of the time. As Sam and his father bond, we also get to see how hard it can be to relate to loved ones who are on the spectrum as well as the payoff that comes when those connections are made. Family issues have been explored in The A Word and Parenthood as well, so Atypical isn't exactly breaking new ground... but for the most part, it's at least handled in a believable way.
Unfortunately, this is also where the show tries to add in autism buzzwords with all of the subtlety of an atom bomb. The writers and producers obviously did their research to try and craft the dialog of characters in the family and the support group we see. Most of the time, though, the keywords in the various conversations just seem to stand out. It seems almost like extra emphasis is being given to certain words to try and make sure that the audience picks up on them, leading some reviewers to refer to it as a forced "Autism 101" lesson. While the families and friends of those with autism may discuss therapy options and use words like "neurotypical", they certainly wouldn't stand out as much in conversation as they do in Atypical.
Is Atypical Typical?
It's been said that if you know one person with autism, then... you know one person with autism (a turn on the phrase "If you've seen one, you've seen 'em all.") Because autism is a spectrum disorder, multiple individuals can have the autism diagnosis but have drastically different symptoms and habits. Because of this, it's hard to define a "typical" case of autism. Sam is high-functioning, and those who have experience with lower-functioning individuals with autism may not feel that Atypical is truly representative. Meanwhile, those who know or interact with high-functioning individuals with autism might feel that the show is a good match to their experiences (or in some cases, even a bit exaggerated). Likewise, some of the family experiences that we see in Atypical might hit close to home for some and miss widely for others.
In the end, Atypical is a good representation of autism, with the caveat that it's only a good representation of a fairly specific autism experience. It gives viewers a glimpse at one possible life with autism, but it's by no means an all-inclusive view of the condition. The A Word might provide a better "typical" case than Atypical, but there is no real center point to compare the shows to. With any luck, though, Atypical's writers will tone down some of the buzzwords and embrace Sam and his family a bit more to give a more well-rounded experience if the show gets picked up for a second season. They might even delve into more of Sam's past, giving viewers a glimpse at times when he might not have been as together as he is in season 1. If that happens, Sam might be able to develop into an even better depiction of autism on the small screen and become more representative of the autism community at large.
Atypical is now available for streaming on Netflix.