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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Empathy and Dealing with Disaster

TW: disaster, death, hatred, Nazis

I wasn’t planning this post… but it all came to me about ten minutes ago, and I felt like it was worth sharing.

While it’s often said by bad professionals and those who don’t know any better that Autistics don’t feel empathy, this is actually not true at all. It’s not that we don’t have empathy, it’s that we don’t always recognize situations that require it. In truth, we often have too much empathy. And it kind of hurts.

When I watch the news and read about yet more hatred and more death, it destroys me inside. I can’t comprehend how someone can hate another person just for existing. I can’t see why they don’t see other people as people the way I do. People who just want to live, laugh, and love just like everyone else, regardless or orientation, race, gender, etc. I can’t comprehend what possesses someone to, for instance, ram their car into a crowd and kill an innocent woman while injuring many others. Can’t they comprehend how painful that would be? Can’t they see that they wouldn’t want that done to them? Can’t they understand that hurting people is wrong?

I’ve always struggled to comprehend evil. In fantasy (my favorite genre/special interest), it’s more often than not very easy: some dark force corrupted an otherwise good person, someone thinks they’re doing what’s good without understanding they’re actually hurting people, or there’s simply an impartial force of nature with no emotions destroying things like a volcano or zombies. I can understand those things. I can’t understand Nazis and Confederacy lovers. There isn’t a magical dark power, they know they’re hurting people (in fact, that’s their goal), and they are not a mindless force of nature.

What does this have to do with autism? Well, as overly empathetic people, we can see something like what happened in Charlottesville on the news and feel completely devastated and overwhelmed by it. The volume of bile and hatred expressed by many can become unbearable, and all I can think of are the victims, and how much it must hurt physically and emotionally to be them. How much it hurts me (so many others) to know that there are so many people out there who want me dead because I’m not the right religion, orientation, culture, or whatever other poor excuse they have to hate. How much I wish I could wave a magic wand and banish evil from the world. How helpless and weak I feel with nothing but my keyboard, and how I can’t comprehend how so many people can be so terrible.

Like with most things I can’t understand, I can become obsessive. I read lots of news, feel as if it’s my duty to keep up to date and stand against racism, sexism, and all the other –isms whenever I see them. I’ve cut people out of my life for claiming disgusting things about races and religions, even tried my hand at protesting before (it’s exhausting and draining). And then I end up having anxiety and crying when it gets to be too much. Honestly, if I didn’t go on facebook so often, I probably wouldn’t have as much ‘random’ anxiety. While I think it’s important to call out hatred and bigotry in all forms when you see it and to be aware of the world around you, I’d like to say this to other autistics who might be feeling just as overwhelmed as me: we can’t help anyone if we aren’t taking care of ourselves. There is no benefit to constantly bombarding yourself with images, words, and videos of horrible things you already know exist. If you can’t handle it, it’s okay to turn off the computer and the tv and do something for yourself. You have permission to look after yourself and turn off all the extra input. Focus on your special interests (assuming it’s not politics, in which case ignore me) and use them to self-heal by doing something you enjoy. We can’t ignore the world forever, since we are a part of the world, but breaks are completely acceptable. Maybe I’m saying this for myself more than anyone who’ll read this, but if you can’t handle something and it’s causing you so much stress that it’s painful, you can’t sleep at night, and hyperventilate when faced with the ugliness that exists in humanity, then take a few deep breaths, stim in a way that helps, and let yourself relax for a little while.

Netflix’s Atypical – Things it gets Right and Things it gets Wrong

This is the first in a series of posts about Autistic portrayals in fiction and media, and the first of a two part series specifically on the show Atypical.

Netflix recently released its new original series Atypical about an autistic teenage boy named Sam. It gets a few things right, and a few things wrong… so I’ll start with the good.

Atypical depicts a disabled character as non-asexual. While some people on the spectrum and with various disabilities can be asexual, it is often assumed by the public and portrayed by media to be a universal feature. So definite positive points to the show for going that route.

Also for doing a decent job of portraying things like stimming, sensory management (Sam, the protagonist, often is seen wearing noise canceling headphones, which are a truly beautiful invention), and other difficulties.

Perhaps the best thing that the show gets right is when it shows that Sam understands when he’s being made fun of. There are other portrayals in media and fiction that show autistic characters as completely oblivious to the cruelty of their peers. It’s good to show how it can harm and affect an autistic person, even if they don’t 100% get all the details. Making that empathetic connection to the audience can be a step towards stopping bullying. It’s difficult to stand up to a bully – if you’re under the impression the bully’s target doesn’t care about or understand what’s going on, then you might be less inclined to help. But when you know they are hurt just the same as anyone else, you’re more likely to step up.

Now… the things it gets wrong.

The most obvious is that it plays into the stereotype of the straight or asexual, white, autistic male. This is by far the most common depiction of autistics in fiction/media – at least, the most popular ones. I’m including in this characters who are implied to be or read by the audience to be on the spectrum, despite not necessarily being labeled as such. This includes Rain Man, Sheldon Cooper, Christopher Boone, Sherlock Holmes (technically a high-functioning sociopath, but for some reason audiences conflate the two conditions… I don’t quite get why considering how different they are), Dr. House, and Spock, to name a few. We need more diversity because we are diverse. Sometimes when I hear ‘You don’t look autistic’ I wonder if they actually mean ‘You don’t look like a straight, male stereotype.’ This has real world consequences. There are psychologists out there who refuse to diagnose girls. The color blue was chosen to represent autism by certain groups because they felt it was a boy’s club and blue means male. Aside from gender, race is also a factor. I’ve heard people say ‘black people don’t get autism’ which is just plain false and harmful to any child out there who gets overlooked as a result. Media is a reflection of how we see our world, and it can shape our world when it changes. If we include more diverse autistic characters, people will recognize more diverse autistics as valid. There have been a handful of these more diverse representations in recent years, but they’ll half to wait their turn for their own post, of course.

Next point: Humor. Humor is almost always at someone’s expense; that is a universal truth. In this show, which is meant to be a comedy, the expense is usually Sam’s. We are not meant to laugh with him, we are laughing at him. At how awkward he is when he sits on a bus and bursts out laughing for no reason, at how awkward it is when he doesn’t get something and everyone else does, at how awkward it is when he has a freak out in class and throws his jacket in the trash. We are meant to laugh from a neurotypical perspective. Once in a while it can be excused, but not whenever he’s on screen. I would pay money to see a scene where a neurotypical and an autistic are talking and the humor is played at the NT’s expense, and from the autistic’s perspective. For example, the following:

NT: Oh, you’re autistic? My father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate has a kid who’s autistic! I know all about it!

AT: … Goody for you then?

Or maybe:

NT: You’re autistic? But you don’t look like you’re autistic.

AT: Yeah, well, I peel off my scales every morning and tuck in my tail so I’m not too obvious in public.

But, in my opinion, the worst plot sin is in the episode where Sam is shown breaking into his therapist’s house at night because he has a crush on her. This is not okay. It is illegal, predatory behavior, not just an awkward autistic symptom. It’s stalking. Apparently contrary to popular belief, autistic people do understand the difference between right and wrong. We have empathy and can often understand that if we wouldn’t want to be abused or violated in some way (privacy, mentally, physically) then we shouldn’t do it to others because that will upset them just as it will upset us. Abusive behavior is not to be excused by a person’s neurology. I was in a class with someone once who told me that someone they’d had a sexual encounter with had gotten abusive, but that they weren’t going to press charges because the boy in question was autistic. This is bad for so many reasons. If someone who’s autistic is doing something illegal or abusive, they likely know too and are making a conscious choice to continue based on factors completely unrelated to their neurology. There may be one or two exceptions where someone genuinely has been socialized to believe abuse is normal and an acceptable way to behave (perhaps from a bad home, or with bad friends who normalize it), but that is not right. The media we consume (and that many people will use to educate themselves about autism) should not normalize this behavior as something quirky that just goes along with an autism diagnosis. It hurts both neurotypicals and autistics because people will expect and excuse abuse. Neurotypicals might be more tolerant of abuse, which hurts them, and autistics might be avoided/stigmatized despite not naturally being abusive, which hurts them. No one wins. Fiction needs to not portray autistics as abusive, or at least, not portray the abuse as a symptom of autism. That scene should have been completely omitted.

Not the last thing I have to say about Atypical, but one of the more important points that needs to be made is about research. For one, Sam is shown to have little empathy (in the last episode he claims he has more, but it’s almost the first point in the show where he seriously considers it. For example, he doesn’t consider whether or not his therapist might like him at all and how she feels, only focuses on how to steal her from her boyfriend and how he himself feels), which is an incorrect assumption NTs have about autistics. This shows that the writers of this show researched based off of other NT’s writing/work/experiences rather than talking to autistic adults. I did some reading up on their process for this show, and while they have good intentions, the only interactions they seem to have had with actual autistics is talking to autistic children. An autistic child’s perspective is not the same as a teen or an adult’s. They are making a show about relationships and sex: they needed to interview an autistic adult to understand that perspective. But they didn’t… I’m not sure why.

Here’s a note to all writers. If you are writing about a group of people you are not a part of, you need to be meticulous with your research. If you have a main character who is a race, gender, sexuality, religion, or other that you are not or has a disability that you do not have, don’t shove in stereotypes and call it a story. Don’t talk to people who know someone who’s a part of that community. Talk directly to people in that community, read articles by people in the community, learn about experiences they have that you don’t directly from them. Ask them for input, ask them to review your work, make the changes they suggest. Accuracy is key. We need visibility and diversity in fiction for all types of people, because absence is harmful. But possibly more harmful is inaccuracy. We in the community you portray will zero in on every inaccurate detail, while those not in our community will use those details against us.

This has been part one of my Atypical review. I’ll continue with part two hopefully soon, so stay tuned for more analysis!

I’m Acting

When it comes out that I’m both autistic and enjoy theater, I often get asked some variation of, “But you can’t even make a phone call without anxiety, how can you go up on stage in front of so many people and perform for them?”

My response: “It’s scripted, perfected, practiced socialization in which I can interact indirectly with people I can’t see easily due to the brightness of stage lights, and get praised for afterwards with applause. What’s not to like?”

Perhaps that’s what drew me to the stage. I was shy at first, but after singing the Star-Spangled Banner in third grade for a school talent show, I wanted more. People stood and cheered for me. I could socialize without socializing. I was accepted without needing to speak to anyone.

In middle school, I began acting rather than singing and dancing as I had been up until that point. The difference between the first two and the third is that singing and dancing are highly perfected, ideally the same for each performance. They are a person on their own or in a group doing something that, for the styles I was practicing, did not require anyone else. Acting is completely different – acting is reacting. Acting is learning how to be someone else, to be human in ways you are not. Acting is learning a script and putting on a persona, a mask, and being so in tune with that persona that if the person you’re reacting to messes up their lines, you are capable of adjusting in character as someone else without throwing off the performance. Acting is teaching yourself to think, react, speak, and move like someone you’re not.

I believe it’s likely that my six years of acting lessons attributed significantly to the delayed revelation of my autism (which no therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist suggested until I was nineteen years old and in the spiral of a shutdown). In some ways, I’m grateful for my acting ability. I can pass. I can be normal. I can be Amalena without autism if I need to be. She is a character separate from myself I can slip into. I can look you in the eye, smile and laugh at the right times, and make all the appropriate faces because I spent years studying mine meticulously in the mirror to get it to mimic normal people’s just right, without realizing that I was doing so much more than learning how to play a role on stage. For the most part, I know how to react to other people’s faces appropriately because I trained to react via a character’s reaction to another character’s reaction. There are a lot of good things in knowing how to pass as neurotypical. I can go to job interviews and act the way they expect someone to act, and no one knows I’m not ‘normal’. If I keep my mouth shut about it and don’t slip up, I will not be discriminated against due to outward signs of being autistic. Even if I decide not to keep up with it down the road, it can get me a foot in the door to start with. That’s a positive, considering the world isn’t necessarily a kind place to those who are different.

However, there is a massive negative that’s related to what my mom told me for years (out of good will and no malice, as we had no clue I wasn’t neurotypical). She would point out when I was around others that I should change my expression (“Smile more, you’ll look friendlier! You look like you want to murder someone. Don’t cross your arms, it makes other people think you don’t want to talk to them.”), and that when I was interacting with others, I should put on a persona just like in acting so that I could gain more confidence and be happier. She told me if you tell yourself something long enough, you’ll make it true. If I told myself I was a sociable, happy, confident individual for long enough, that would make it true. If I pretended. Acted. Lied to myself.

But it takes effort to maintain that persona. To be ‘Amalena’ instead of Amalena. It takes a constant emotional toll to act every day, day in and day out. Around family, friends, and acquaintances. To smile, laugh, and hug people I don’t want to. What happens if you wear a mask too long is that the mask starts to crack. Fractures form, the edges chip off, the paint peals back as if exposed to severe heat of the person burning alive inside.

And then you can’t take it anymore, and the mask shatters. And you have to learn what it is to be you without the persona, because you can’t take it anymore and the light shining in your eyes burns because you have no shield between you and the world. You forget how to be you because you’ve been trying not to be for so long. You have to relearn yourself.

I went to college and was alone for the first time while surrounded constantly by people I didn’t know. The stress of that situation and the pressure of maintaining who I was supposed to be according to everyone else caused the chronic depression from high school to deepen, and caused new debilitating anxiety. I often found myself trapped in my dorm on the eleventh floor with no motivation or too much panic to be able to leave the safety of being surrounded by my clutter and my blankets.

Then my psychologist suggested that I was Autistic, thanks to a casual mention of an apparent ‘symptom’ I hadn’t considered unusual. (Doesn’t everyone count their steps to make sure that they take an even number of them?) I read about Autism and how it presented itself – specifically how it presented itself in girls. It seemed so obvious. The terrible temper tantrums and anger management problems I’d inflicted on my parents weren’t just bad behavior. They were meltdowns. The nauseating hatred for the texture and smell of certain foods wasn’t just the sign of a picky, spoiled child – they were sensory overloads causing aversion, as was my sensitivity to loud noises in places like concerts and movie theaters. The way my brain worked wasn’t the experience everyone else had – it was autistic. And that was okay.

I don’t act as often anymore. I have the persona of ‘Amalena’ I can slip into if necessary, a metaphorical mask kept in a metaphorical case on a metaphorical shelf, but I don’t force myself to try as often as I used to. I feel free now, knowing why I am the way I am, and knowing it’s alright not to act. It might not be socially acceptable all the time, but I’ve learned not to care because it’s simply not worth the stress.

I think that acting is a good skill to learn for an Autistic individual, if they can handle the stress involved in taking some of the classes. It’s a handy thing to have in the back pocket and can be a sort of ‘foreign language’ course in tone, body language, and all those other things that elude so many of us. But it should never be used to make an Autistic person be a neurotypical person. Characters belong on stage, not in your life. Be yourself instead of pleasing people who don’t want you to be. Ultimately, I believe that is the key to being a happier, well-adjusted Autistic.