Is Autism Really That Atypical?

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Shay Gray casts a critical eye over the new Netflix original series, Atypical, and questions how realistic it is in the portrayal of its main theme of autism.

Netflix’ newest controversial show, Atypical, follows Sam Gardner, an autistic teenager, as he attempts to navigate the confusing world of dating. The show gave autistic people hope for a new perspective on what it means to be autistic, but instead, it was stereotypical, unrealistic, and neglected to feature any genuine autistic representation.

The representation of autistic characters in the media is already scarce, and whilst Dan Harmon’s Community and Adam Reed’s Archer portray Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as complex and varying in each individual, when people think of autism they’re not likely to think of these representations. Instead, people are often affected by a phenomenon I call the ‘Sheldon Cooper Effect’: they only think of autism as it’s most harmful portrayal, Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory. Cooper is a harmful exaggeration of the most stereotypical characteristics of autism. His lack of empathy makes him arrogant and rude. His quirks revolve around his obsessions over stereotypically ‘nerdy’ things. But how does this relate to Atypical? Well, they’re almost identical. That’s the problem.

Sam Gardner, Atypical’s protagonist, seems to miss every social cue possible, and in turn says the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time. For an autistic person, this kind of scenario is occasionally familiar, and is looked upon with great anxiety.  This is not something an autistic person will laugh at. Yet we are encouraged to laugh at Sam’s lack of social skills – not because we laugh with him, but because we laugh at him. Shows like Atypical and The Big Bang Theory encourage us to laugh at autistic people by making their symptoms comical, but at least The Big Bang Theory does not pretend that it is intended to be accurate to autistic life. Therein lies Atypical’s second problem.

A stereotypical portrayal of autism does nothing but harm autistic people, who may not be believed by friends and family when they get diagnosed.

Because the show’s protagonist has no real personality outside of being autistic, he is entirely unrealistic. This becomes a problem when we factor in how often people will rely on media portrayals to help them understand disorders that they cannot fully comprehend otherwise.  A stereotypical portrayal of autism does nothing but harm autistic people, who may not be believed by friends and family when they get diagnosed. Atypical needed to bring a fresh take to autism that displayed it as layered and multi-dimensional, but instead it simply reinforced the stereotypes that are making it more and more difficult for people with more subtle or complex symptoms to receive adequate diagnoses and integrate themselves into society.

Finally, perhaps the biggest sin of all is that Atypical claims to be about autism, yet its writers are not autistic, its target audience are not autistic, and no one working on or off screen for the show is autistic. Autism is complex, and it varies from person to person. It’s important to acknowledge that people who don’t have autism often struggle to understand what it is like to experience, and sometimes miss the mark. If the show had worked with autistic people, perhaps it would have been more accurate and less harmful to autistic society. After all, the best way for people to truly understand autism is if it is well represented for the diverse disorder that it is.