A new Netflix series, Atypical, was recently announced. It looks at Sam Gardener, a high-functioning teen with autism. It depicts his navigation through high school, from trying to find a relationship and other aspects of his journey. The series has been recently renewed for a second season! As someone who binge watched Season 1 and is excited for a new season in 2018, I wanted to share my thoughts on the first season and what we’d love to see in the 2nd.
Here’s what I loved about Season 1 of Atypical
They hired an actor with autism to play a character on the spectrum
There’s been a movement in Hollywood recently to audition actors who share the same race, sex or disability of the character they would play. RJ Mitte who plays Walter White Jr. in Breaking Bad actually has cerebral palsy while playing a character that also has cerebral palsy. Mitte, along with countless other self-advocates, have spoken at length about this. I was happy to see that Anthony Jacques, a young man on the autism spectrum, played the character of Christopher, a friend of Sam’s who also happens to have autism.
Discussing relationships and empathy
Too often it seems that the topic of autism and relationships falls through the cracks. A common misconception is that “people with autism lack empathy.” In 2014, I wrote a book called “Autism and Falling in Love”. I wanted to spread awareness that this couldn’t be farther from the truth based on my experiences trying to find love as an adult with autism. While I didn’t agree with every scene where Sam is looking for love, there were some fantastic high-points. One was the scene with Sam and his therapist. I found it meaningful to view a discussion of self-help tips that could help any person. The scene had dialogue where Sam brings up empathy. I found this very relevant to my own journey.
The importance of siblings
Siblings play such a huge role. In Atypical, Sam’s younger sister Casey (who is 2-years-younger) plays a protective role for him but also wants him to find love. I could instantly relate to this. One of my best friends has a brother on the spectrum who sees him in a similar way to how Casey treats Sam.
Looking into Season 2 here are some things we’d love to see happen…
Hiring a full-time consultant who’s on the autism spectrum
“Nothing about us without us” is an often-used quote within our disability community and I think it rings true to any autism-related project. A consultant could also help bring more self-advocates to provide their perspectives, as autism is never a “one-size-fits-all” disorder. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity since 2010 to consult on a few autism-related projects including Joyful Noise and later with Jane Wants A Boyfriend (that looks at a woman with autism finding love) to bring a realistic portrayal of autism.
A scene where Sam locks his girlfriend in the closet left me a little worried. What would the reaction be from our community? Especially from some of my mentees who have autism and other special needs. Would they be offended? While I’ve heard of similar situations I (or another consultant on the spectrum) would advise caution and reiterate the need for sensitivity in a scene like this. (Note: Michelle Dean had the opportunity to consult on Atypical and having a second consultant to bring in another perspective that could only help.)
Looking at other areas that young adults with autism have to navigate
While watching Season 1, I enjoyed seeing Sam succeeding at his job at a computer electronics store. Today in the United States, the majority of adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed making this an important discussion topic. Sam’s boss seems to understand that he has been able to excel. This was one of the more compelling parts of the show for me and I think the topic could be expanded further in future seasons.
A peer mentor for Sam who has autism along with other representations of autism on the show
If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism. While Sam has a friend with autism in Christopher, it would be great to find ways for Sam and his family to interact with others on the more severe side of the spectrum. I was anticipating such an interaction when Sam’s mom attended a support group meeting of other parents who have loved ones on the spectrum. Depicting a character who could play a peer mentor for Sam and who can relate to Sam’s successes and challenges in life would be powerful.
Flashbacks of Sam growing up
Many parents I spoke with, who watched the first season, hoped for examples of Sam’s life growing up (his initial autism diagnosis, starting school, etc.).
Overall I would consider Season 1 of Atypical a success. As I shared in my recent review of another autism-related project, The Good Doctor, Atypical received mostly positive reviews (77% from critics and 97% rating from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes). The question moving forward for this series is how it will evolve, as Sam has to traverse even more hurdles in his life. They are off to a fine start and I’m excited to see where they go from here.