An Atypical Perspective on Atypical


Three things must be said: first, this will not be a normal review as it will be heavily rooted in my personal experiences as an adult with high-functioning autism. Second, every person’s experience with autism is unique; my experiences and perspectives should not be taken as representative of every person with autism. Third, this is only regarding season one, as after watching the first season, I could not immediately force myself to try and suffer through the second, though I will likely review it at a later date…

Atypical is a Netflix original dramedy about Sam Gardener, an 18-year-old with high-functioning autism, as he and his family deal with the difficulties of Sam’s autism. Therein lies the problem: this show lives or dies on the strength of its characters and, for the most part, its characters are terrible.

Let’s begin with Sam, because he is the most problematic. It would be more accurate to call him what many critics have: a checklist of autistic symptoms. So much of Sam is wrapped up in representing every aspect of autism that there’s very little room left for him to be an actual person, and from what little of his personality we do see, he’s a jerk. In its attempts at representation, the show exaggerates his symptoms to the point where Sam comes off as more of a parody than a person.

Another issue is how pronounced Sam’s autism is. Sam doesn’t just miss social cues, he misspeaks or says something inappropriate in every single line of dialogue. He’s not just blunt, he seems to take no account of anyone’s feelings but his own. A large part of this problem is his age; none of this would be as strange if he was eight or even as old as 13, but at 18 he should be better adjusted than this. You see this kind of behavior in high-functioning autistic children, but someone as independent as Sam is (attending regular school without an attendant and holding a normal job) would have spent years learning to curb these tendencies. Just as importantly, we’re never led to believe that Sam’s autism is more severe than normal.

Then there’s Paige, Sam’s girlfriend. The problem with Paige is that she’s supposed to be attracted to Sam. Given that Sam is essentially a checklist of autism symptoms, she seems to be attracted to autism, and as such comes off as viewing Sam as a fascinating new pet or a case study. Having been on the receiving end of this kind of relationship, I can assure you, it should not be portrayed as positively as it is here.

Then there’s his mother, who is admittedly somewhat realistic in that many parents of autistic children struggle to balance attempting to help their child deal with their unique challenges and avoiding becoming an overprotective hinderance. The problem is that this character comes off as an actively negative element in Sam’s life. This could be a reasonable explanation for Sam’s lack of maturity and adjustment. However, if this is the case, it isn’t explored enough.

Sam’s father is a more positive and realistic portrayal, struggling to connect with his son despite their differences but still actively trying.

The saving grace of this show is Casey, Sam’s younger sister. It certainly helps matters that she is the only character with a story arc relatively independent of Sam. Her portrayal is realistic, complex and likable. She is shown to care deeply for Sam but is frustrated at her parents always putting her second. The best example of this is a scene where, after screaming at Sam in irritation, she immediately follows up by telling him to find her if he can’t find someone to eat with at lunch. These were the only scenes I found myself really enjoying.

All in all, One star out of Five. Casey is the only thing worth watching here.