A Focus on Atypical’s Moments and Characters – Is Sam Actually the only Atypical in Atypical?

Spoilers ahead – wait to read after you watch the show if you intend to watch it spoiler-free. If not, please proceed.

So, is Sam actually the only Atypical in “Atypical”? Maybe not – but that character I’ll save for last. First, I’d like to take a look at some of the things I found… aggravating in characters or specific moments.

Most of the characters in this show bothered me at least a little in one way or another, but two that ranked the highest on my list are the mother and the psychologist. They both have their good moments – for example, the psychologist encouraging Sam and the mom supporting him… which for the most part is good, but we’ll get to that. I’d like to start with the psychologist, Julia.

First of all, she starts the series off by asking Sam to donate his brain after he dies to be studied. What kind of psychologist asks a struggling teenager to donate his organs? While I don’t think it’s her intention, the insinuations I got from this request were as such:

  1. She sees him as an object to be studied.
  2. Even though she is older than him and therefore statistically unlikely to outlive him and get a chance to study his brain, she seems to really, really want it. Does she think that he’s going to die prematurely?
  3. I went to a psychologist for years… you don’t ask this of someone who’s struggling. Autistics are far more prone to depression than neurotypicals are, and as such the topic of death shouldn’t be brought up so casually, and she shouldn’t be so cheerful about the thought of him dying so that his brain can be poked at. Maybe Sam’s specific case it’s fine… but as essentially the only autistic character in the show (the only one that matters at least), it’s insinuating that this isn’t a big deal for autistics in general. It is – or at least it can be. The show doesn’t give a variety of autistics to show to the neurotypical audience that we’re not all clinical about the concept of death, and only provides one real autistic perspective in order to essentially represent all autistics. It’s not right, but that’s now media works.

She’s not the worst character in the series, and doesn’t even do significant harm to Sam. But one line really, really bothered me the most when I was watching this show, even more than the ‘can I have your brain’ zombie scientist moment. It’s in a scene where we get a few seconds of her teaching a lecture about psychology and autism to a class. She mentions special interests and how one of her patients figured out ninety-five ways to cook an egg. It’s not so much what she said, but how she said it. She said it like a punchline, like she was trying to get her audience to chuckle at how absurd such a thing is. But think about that for a moment. How many ways can you think of to cook an egg? Off the top of my head, I can’t even think of ten. This person came up with ninety-five? That’s brilliant. It should be shown as something brilliant. This specific autistic could go on to become an absolutely fantastic chef full of innovative new ideas. Instead, they’re a punchline.

Autistics often have special interests about which we are capable of memorizing lots of information or creating fantastic innovation. We’re not all savants, of course, and while cooking eggs in a new way isn’t going to vastly improve the world, our special interests can bring anything from advancement to joy to people in many fields ranging from technology, biology, medicine, literature, music, art, history, or really anything at all – as well as being fulfilling to us as people. Putting down a special interest stifles the autistic person, and anything they might have given to the world if they hadn’t been robbed of their confidence by a neurotypical who thinks eggs are hilarious.

This takes me to another point in this series: Sam’s special interest of penguins and all things Antarctica. He is constantly put down about this by almost everyone – his best friend, his girlfriend, his sister. His girlfriend tries to ‘train’ him not to talk about Antarctica, and the show seems to portray this as almost a good thing. His sister when setting him up with an online dating profile tells him not to mention anything about his real interests. His best friend tries to force him to either not buy or hide a shirt with Antarctic whales on it. This is all wrong. First of all, as far as dating goes, if you’re autistic you need to find someone who at least can appreciate your special interest, if they don’t have an interest in it themselves. The only person who seems to give Sam any real support with his interest (and with the right support, he could become a biologist studying wildlife in Antarctica one day) is his father. While the father is shown as not completely in touch with his kid, having a line about how he doesn’t have anything in common with Sam, there’s still a great scene where he takes him to a zoo and they’re sitting watching penguins together. His dad doesn’t get it, but he still supports it. Everyone else gets it, but they don’t support it – the first option is a million times better than the second. The dad’s honestly one of the better characters in the show because he has his flaws, but he treats Sam like a person and tries his best.

On to the mom. I’m on the fence about her, to be honest. I absolutely hate her for a lot of reasons (she flicks off Julia for saying that Sam has the same desires as other people, she doesn’t want to allow Sam to do anything on his own like dating or shopping, she wants to moan about how hard it is to raise an autistic kid and how he’ll never get to do any ‘normal’ things while actively trying to keep him from doing things even when he expresses an interest in them… etc.), but I think that perhaps I’m meant to as a character. For example, there’s a scene where Sam decides he wants to go to the mall to pick his own clothes instead of having his mom pick and buy all his clothes. She tries very hard to talk him out of it, but eventually relents. She calls ahead of time and asks the store to arrange for specific accommodations for Sam. Now, perhaps this can be seen as a good thing in some cases. This was not one of those cases. Sam expressed no desire for the accommodations. When she gets upset, he absolutely doesn’t care that things aren’t exactly the way she wanted them and goes on with trying on clothes, but she goes and makes a big problem out of it. She manufactures a situation of stress for absolutely no reason and gets herself kicked out, even though Sam was fine. I think that the show doesn’t mean to portray this as a case of her doing the right thing, I think they intend to show that she’s being punished for denying Sam agency, which is great. But she’s still a very, very aggravating overzealous helicopter parent. While she tries to advocate for her child, and that is good, she does so in a way that had me pulling out my hair and wanting to yell at her. And she has one more sin that’s far less easy to overlook.

Sam’s mother (and his father) fall into the trope of ‘autism will ruin your marriage’. Now, I understand that for a plot to move forward there needs to be conflict. And that’s great. However, writers need to be aware of the situations they’re creating in context of the real world. Certain organizations have tried very hard to demonize autism as some sort of curse that will destroy otherwise perfectly healthy marriages, driving parents apart. Sam’s father is revealed to have abandoned his family when the children were very young after Sam’s diagnosis. Sam’s mother has an affair with a bartender because the stress of her life gets to be too much. Even though the script has a moment where the dad says that it wasn’t the kids’ fault, the fact that it’s there is just reinforcing that harmful stereotype. If a marriage fails, it’s because the people weren’t ultimately good life partners. It has nothing to do with a child being autistic. There’s likely more stress involved because of that, sure, but a strong relationship and a good marriage can manage stress together as a team. A bad one won’t. And then ‘autism’ gets blamed by association. Putting these two together in fiction needs to stop. We need to see cases of parents of autistics who have happy, functional relationships. There could be plenty of other ways to insert drama without going the ‘parents relationship troubles’ route.

Sam’s girlfriend is another prominent character who deserves at least a few sentences: she claims to have read up on Sam’s condition once they decide to date, but when she’s in his room she starts messing with all his stuff. Then he locks her in the closet for it – which if you want to know my opinion on that, go back to my first post about this and apply “locks girlfriend in closet” wherever you see “acts abusive” or “breaks into his psychologist’s house”. As I mentioned earlier, she also tries to stifle his interest in Antarctica, proving that they should not be together. They’re a bad match, and that’s all I really want to say on her.

I saved the absolute best for last, of course, as promised:

It’s Casey, Sam’s younger sister. Generally speaking, she invades Sam’s personal space, undermines his agency, belittles his special interest, but also tries to help him when she can. I think that her flaws are acceptable in her being as a character simply because it’s a realistic relationship – though if anyone climbed over my laptop like that while I was working on it there would be a serious problem! Why I think she’s the most important character possibly in this show is that she could easily have Aspergers. As many of you may know, Aspergers/Autism/ASD can often present differently in females than in males, leading many psychologists to ignore, misdiagnose, or completely overlook it. Casey is very focused on and good at track and running – it could have been written as her special interest/focus (for those who say that Autistics can’t do physical things – yes I’ve actually heard that – two of the top fencers on my high school’s team were on the spectrum, myself and one other student. It is possible). She has difficulty controlling her temper such as when she punches a girl for being a bully (the first ‘mental condition’ I ever got sat down in front of a therapist for was anger management in elementary school, because I couldn’t stand when people would be bullies, and had lashed out physically at another girl for teasing and mocking me). She doesn’t think that the girls who pull a cruel prank on her by stealing her clothes are up to anything even though they’d been shunning her previously then suddenly switched on a dime to be fake nice (I had a terrible time navigating the social web that was middle school social systems and would take people at their word because I couldn’t read them well only to be taken advantage of or teased).

A fantastic storyline would have been if all the focus being on Sam meant that her entire family completely ignored that she too was on the spectrum. If halfway through the series, the focus shifted completely to make her the main character, with her as the newly discovered ‘Atypical’. Heck, imagine if they’d decided to make her a lesbian. We would then have a well-written autistic, female, lgbt character with depth and dimension that could do absolute wonders for representation and for the autistic community. It would show us truly as people who can be as varied and real as neurotypical characters. But the show doesn’t have that sort of imagination. It goes for the easy jokes, the easy storylines, the easy caricatures. All we get is the stereotype that is Sam Gardiner.

There’s more I could go into… but I believe I’ve covered all of the major points. Thus ends my analysis of Netflix’s Atypical. If they make a season two, I demand an autistic Casey.

 

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