“Atypical”: A Discussion of the Disparagement

Atypical_NetflixI’ve been watching the series Atypical over the last week, and I’ve also been reading many of the criticisms written. If you haven’t checked it out, it’s about Sam Gardner, who has Autism; likely level 1 (what used to be called Asperger’s). The show centers on Sam, who is 18 and wants to start dating, but also his family system and how they navigate life with Sam.  Although he is very high functioning, the series highlights many of his behaviors that serve as significant barriers within his life (i.e. constricted and/or blunt affect, wearing headphones at times to block out added auditory stimuli, preoccupation with penguins, rigidity, inability to read nonverbal cues, meltdowns, etc).

So far the criticisms involve the fact that instead of consulting or involving any individuals who actually have Autism, they only consulted with experts on the disorder. Netflix has reported that they did have writers and crew members who did have Autism, so I can’t help but wonder if this criticism is more closely related to the fact that Autism was mostly represented behind the scenes vs. in the show. Most of the additional criticisms I have read feel the creators of the show are pandering to Sam’s character, and:

that he is too robotic and monotone

that he is depicted as unfairly creepy and weird

that he is too socially inappropriate

that his narrations/questions/social wonderings go unanswered too frequently

that it often feels that his reactions/responses are fodder for laughs

that his mom is too helicoptery and selfish

that his dad is too disconnected and awkward

that his sister is too mean and protective at the same time

that the tone of the show is too sweet and after school special-esque

that the show is too basic and superficial

that the show moves too frequently between comedic and dramatic events

Having worked (and still currently working) with individuals on the spectrum over the last 14 years, many who are high functioning, I have to say that nearly all of the criticisms specific to Sam and his family are true struggles families navigate. While I am definitely not a tv or film writer (or a seasoned reviewer for that matter), I can only imagine that finding a good balance between being entertaining, responsible in representing and underrepresented and often misunderstood population, and telling a story about having, parenting, being the sibling of, being the friend of, being the peer of, and understanding someone with Autism, in general, would be incredibly time consuming and difficult. What’s that saying – “you can’t please everyone all the time”? At the same time, I can’t NOT consider the perspectives of the critical reviews thus far (occupational hazard, I guess).

Many of the reviews I have read have been written by individuals with Autism. I think this is fantastic, actually. Autism is so often misunderstood, and I think it is wonderful that those on the spectrum are getting their perspectives out there. Many of the criticisms made by those on the spectrum centered around Sam’s characteristics that made him unlikable to others. Probably the biggest barrier for those high functioning is their emotional intelligence deficits. Many of my clients, who are also teenagers, report that they have a hard time relating to other people; often finding their peers to be the weird or different ones. Perspective taking and empathy can be extremely difficult and sometimes non-existent if it hasn’t been taught and/or regularly practiced.

I have to suspect that some of the reviewers related to Sam in ways, and were also able to see the negative impact of his behavior on others, which is often missed within their own lives. It’s not that they don’t care what others are thinking and feeling about them, they simply don’t factor it in to their socializing (if there’s much outward socializing). The truth is, and I hear this all the time from some of my clients, they do care and they care a lot. They just don’t know how to demonstrate this skill. This aspect of Sam was likely hard to process by some, with some reviewers even calling the depiction of Sam’s behavior dangerous. One reviewer felt that the show depicted Sam in such a way that his quirks or behaviors may be damaging to the Autism community. Throughout the show, Sam made people uncomfortable. He was frequently blunt and inconsiderate (i.e. telling his therapist he could see her bra, calling his girlfriend his “practice girlfriend”, etc). I’m not sure how the show could manifest an accurate depiction; however, without some of these characteristics. I know I encounter this all the time.

I have a couple of clients who refuse to engage in small talk. Why? It serves no functional purpose for them. It takes too much time away from what they want to do, and when it really comes down to it, they are now very used to the fact that not every single person they encounter wants to discuss the most recent discovery of Corythoraptor jacobsi, the newest class of bird-like dinosaurs. They feel frustrated by this. They don’t completely understand the reciprocity of conversations, and because of this, can appear rude and selfish. I think the show does a good job educating the audience about these tendencies. What I DO understand regarding the grievances surrounding this depiction of Sam, is that much of the time his rudeness goes uncorrected by his family and/or therapist. This doesn’t give him much opportunity to understand his own behavior, gauge perspectives, nor does it help shape more socially appropriate future behavior. This (the depiction of adults in series involving serious and/or very real issues) seems to be a common theme as of late.

I have to admit that Atypical is not the best work Netflix has put out, but I found myself enjoying the show, which puts me in the minority, currently. Maybe its because I feel the show is really highlighting Sam’s family’s perspective, and how they are coping (or not). Maybe I see many of my clients in Sam and find the show endearing. Or maybe I just don’t want to expend the energy on being overly negative and critical. I’m not sure anyone could get this perspective 100% correct. As renowned professor, author, and individual with Autism, Dr. Stephen Shore puts it, “if you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism”. Personally, I don’t feel the show is touting that this is every individual with Autism’s experience, or that any of the characters are doing everything right, but I think it gives a good glimpse into the difficulty and consuming reality while educating viewers who may have little to no experiences with those on the spectrum.


3 thoughts on ““Atypical”: A Discussion of the Disparagement”

  1. truly the show does not explain what autism really is and how it affects people , for example it lists the symptoms of autism in a very broad fashion as Autism is on a very broad spectrum. I like your thought in the article about how the show’s creators pander to the audience. that was a good point about the many bad parts of Autism we are used to seeing.


  2. I’m really in the minority in that I’m on the autism spectrum and I liked it! I certainly had plenty of criticisms but I recognized that as you said, the show had to strike a balance between awareness/advocacy and entertainment. I’ve also seen the characteristics Sam exhibits in myself and others on the spectrum (I wrote my own review of the show on my blog.)


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