I’m a weirdo, that’s what everyone says. These are the words of the protagonist of Netflix’s new comedy-drama Atypical. Sam is 18 years old, has Autism Spectrum Disorder, and is on a quest to find a girlfriend.
His obsession with Antarctica, coupled with sensory and communication issues, make finding a girlfriend a daunting challenge for Sam. The obstacles in his way include calling a school friend a ‘skank’ and falling in love with his therapist.
It also proves daunting for his mother, who struggles to find her role now that her son is becoming increasingly independent.
What Atypical is most successful at is conveying the different ways that a whole family can be affected by living with someone with autism. This manifests itself in Sam’s family by a strained relationship between his parents, resulting in his mother’s affair with a young bartender.
Sam’s younger sister Casey is also impacted by his condition when her own needs are sidelined to meet her brother’s requirements. For example, when she is scouted by a prestigious prep school for athletics, she is initially told she cannot take the place as Sam is too much in need of her help at their existing school.
Arguably the main issue with Atypical is the way in which such a complicated condition as Autism Spectrum Disorder is largely pigeonholed into one generic experience. This means that more severe difficulties such as an inability to speak and violent outbursts are barely touched upon by this series. Whilst Sam’s mother is wracked with nerves over her son’s welfare, he in fact copes in a mainstream high school, holds down a job in a tech store, and has a strong friendship with his quirky colleague, Zahid. The comedic value attached to his awkward social interactions also perhaps trivialises the crushing isolation associated with the inability to interpret the non-verbal signals the rest of the world seems to use to communicate.
The show’s dark comedy is reflective of our growing acceptance of conditions such as autism within our society, and of our greater understanding of the challenges that people with autism face. However, by choosing an autistic character who is so high-functioning seems to be the trend, with on-screen portrayals of autism leaving the vast range of issues associated with this disorder unexplored.
Despite this, the comedic undercurrent provides a necessary lightness to an otherwise difficult subject. Much of this comes from Sam’s blunt honesty, such as when he announces to his family, “I’m trying to familiarise myself with the female body in anticipation of losing my virginity.” This not only makes Atypical highly watchable, but also shows us a window into the world as experienced by someone with autism. Simply because this is so rare in modern television, it makes Atypical well worth your time.