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"Atypical": How it Wins and How it Loses

September 14, 2017

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Netflix. 

 

Everyday, media and entertainment grows more inclusive of groups of people not typically portrayed on the big screen in previous years. We especially have seen this in shows like The Fosters, Orange Is The New Black, Blackish, Jane the Virgin, and now, Atypical.

 

Atypical is a new Netflix-only series that documents the life of Sam, an 18-year-old high school student who is on the autism spectrum. While Atypical still might miss the mark on representing people on the spectrum individually, it seems to have come closer than any media before it and has been receiving great praise for doing so.

 

As a neurotypical - what Sam’s family calls people who are not on the autism spectrum - watching the show I can say that it has taught me so much about how people on the spectrum live, love, learn, and work on a daily basis. Atypical is far from just a television show about a family with a child on the spectrum. It details how Sam thinks and copes with everyday things that never cross a neurotypical’s mind, such as the right amount of pressure when hugging, loud noises, or flashing lights.

 

The main focus of the first season is Sam’s quest to find his first ever girlfriend. A common misconception of people on the spectrum is that they are often incapable or uninterested in intimate and loving relationships. While Sam does have some reservation about being hugged in a certain way or what to do when he decides that he’s ready to have sex, he goes through the same motions of relationships just like a neurotypical would. It simply just takes him a little more time to get used to being intimate.

 

In addition to Sam’s quest for love, the family dynamic in Atypical shines through. Before watching, I was under the impression that families with children on the spectrum were so busy coping with how to give their child the best life and opportunities possible, that they simply don’t have time to joke around or have fun. I’m not sure where this stemmed from, but I am sure it did some old fashioned media that somehow stuck in my brain in previous years. Atypical shows a normal family dynamic; a family that fights, pokes fun at each other, but also knows how to get over these bumps quickly so they can go back to being a family.

 

While the show has gotten mixed reviews, from “surface,” to “refreshing,” to “try-hard,” I think its attempt at a new form of representation should be applauded. Each review, click, and social media share is pushing characters on the spectrum further out into the world, and hopefully reaching people who feel that characters like them are few and far between.

 

My advice would be to watch Atypical, spread the word, leave your review and help writers and directors in the future better represent people on the spectrum. Every step taken is one step closer to people on the spectrum to look at a character and say, “that’s me!” just like neurotypicals have been able to do for years.

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