By Robert Rozema
“It must be hilarious being you,” Casey tells her autistic brother, Sam, in the first episode of the second season of Netflix’s teen drama Atypical. Casey (portrayed by Brigette Lundy-Paine) voices what might be the main conceit of this show: namely, that autism spectrum disorder is mostly a laughing matter, especially when it comes to an awkward adolescent looking to get laid. The second season diverges little from its season one formula, continuing the story of Sam (portrayed by Keir Gilchrist) as he learns the complexities of adolescent dating and sex. Season one finishes with Sam’s first sexual experience; an early episode of season two sees Sam flatly asking his sometimes-girlfriend Paige to “discuss the hand job and its implications for the relationship.”
Another typical Atypical scene occurs in the fourth episode, “Pants of Fire,” when Sam is working on college applications. Viewers are meant to believe that Sam—and other autistic individuals, by extension—would consider his visit to a strip club an appropriate subject for his college application essay. “Sam!” his guidance counselor scolds, “You can’t write your college application essay about seeing an exotic dancer’s boobies.” Like so many other scenes in Atypical, this one as ludicrous as it is puerile, an invention played solely for a laugh.
But if we do laugh at these situations—and some are admittedly funny—we do so because Sam, an individual with high functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder, lacks the pragmatic language skills required by social situations and intimate relationships. His frankness, part and parcel of his neurodevelopmental disorder, is for Atypical the stuff of comedy. Viewers see Sam fail repeatedly in a range of social contexts, with each of his unflinching utterances serving as a punchline for his neurotypical friends, family, and ultimately, his viewers.
Sam’s frequent miscues make him “a perfect stereotype,” as the autistic blogger Haley Moss noted in a recent Huffington Post review. “Sam simply misses every social cue, finds every excuse possible to talk about penguins and Antarctica, and appears inherently selfish and inconsiderate. He becomes the joke.” But Sam is just one stereotype among many: the show abounds in them, none more obvious and cringe-worthy than the character Zahid (portrayed by Nik Dodani). Zahid is Sam’s lascivious wingman and minority sidekick whose comic force, like Sam’s, results from a kind of incongruity: it seems unlikely that Zahid, the bespectacled tech nerd from India, is the libertine he claims to be. Other stereotypes populating the world of Atypical include private school mean girls, cruel jocks, and a rough-hewn heartthrob from the wrong side of the tracks (portrayed by Graham Phillips). Of course, all comedy traffics in stereotypes, but in 2018, it seems especially troubling, even exploitative to stereotype a disability that now affects 1 in 59 children.
Making matters worse, Sam is played by a non-autistic actor, a criticism rightly raised by many in the autism community. This casting is analogous to Johnny Depp playing Tonto in the 2013 film The Lone Ranger. To her credit, show writer-producer Robia Rashid cast eight individuals with autism for season two, adding to the lone autistic actor from the first season (Anthony Jaques). The eight new actors serve as a peer support group for Sam, but they too seem thinly drawn and out-of-step with their neurotypical peers. God forbid that one of them tell a joke, talk about sports, mention a favorite video game, gossip about a friend, or otherwise show themselves to have normal adolescent concerns.
Even with its cast of stereotypes, the show wants to be taken seriously. It sets Sam adrift in a sea of domestic troubles: in season one, his mother (portrayed by Jennifer Jason Leigh) has an affair with a local bartender; in season two, his father (portrayed Michael Rapaport), who had once deserted the family, now must cope with the anxiety and stress of raising two teenagers alone. The show actually succeeds in depicting a family as it fractures, with the schism caused at least in part by the persistent pressures of raising an autistic son. And there are wrenching moments that Aytpical gets precisely right—Sam’s bus meltdown from season one the most affecting of them.
So too, Atypical wants to raise awareness about autism: each episode presents valuable information about ASD, usually in digestible snippets doled out by Sam’s therapist, Julie (portrayed by Amy Okuda) or his school counselor, Ms. Whitaker (portrayed by Casey Wilson). But as Atypical pitches wildly from slapstick to melodrama to autism infomercial, it ends by making light of autistic adolescents, a group significantly more likely to be bullied, to lack friends, and most seriously, to commit suicide than their neurotypical peers.
In a recent interview, Robia Rashid said she envisioned Atypical as a “cool way to tell a dating story.” The increasing number of television series that feature characters with ASD prove that it has indeed become “cool” to employ autism as a narrative device. These include The Good Doctor—autism as a cool way to tell a medical drama—and Criminal Minds—autism as a cool way to tell a detective procedure. It’s not that these shows get the details about ASD wrong or fail to raise awareness about ASD. They are generally well-researched and informative. It’s that they, like Netflix’s Atypical, finally reduce ASD to a kind of trope—and that that isn’t cool or funny.
Featured Image: Class Classroom; public domain via Pixabay.
Robert Rozema is professor of English at Grand Valley State University, Michigan. He is the author of Seeing the Spectrum: Teaching English Language Arts to Adolescents with Autism.