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!

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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.