Photo by Greg Gayne/Netflix

Atypical: showing the spectrum

A new Netflix original changes the view of people with autism.

 By Shyanne Norton, Editor

A few weeks ago while browsing through my Twitter feed, I came across a video that sickened me. Through the view of a body camera, a little boy with special needs, about 10 years old, was roughly restrained by his school’s resource officer. Although I didn’t know the child, my heart hurt to see someone so confused and I felt for the child’s family. I found it too horrid to watch and found some of the comments too ignorant to read. I moved on, trying to put the video out of my mind. Weeks later, however, I came across a TV show that made me actively think about the way society handles people with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Looking for some background noise, I found “Atypical,” a Netflix original that turned my indifference towards dramedies into an obsession. The main protagonist, Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), was diagnosed with autism as a child. The show goes in depth during his last year at high school. He is learning to navigate dating, lying, bullying and graduation while also dealing with his parent’s deteriorating marriage. To cope with the challenges he faces, Sam clings to his fascination with Antarctica and the animals that live there. It’s interesting how the show draws parallels between the icy continent and the events that are taking place in his life and it gives good insight to Sam’s thought process.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

The show is not only about Sam struggling, but also about his family and friends and the impact that his diagnosis has on them in addition to the normal chaos of life. His mother, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, has trouble letting her son be more independent and turns to an affair to help her cope. Sam’s sister deals with switching schools, a new boyfriend and questioning her sexuality. His father, who is shown early on having trouble coping with his son’s diagnosis, begins to become more involved with Sam. The character growth in this original show is complex, simultaneously making you hurt and laugh at the same time.

While entertaining, the show also spreads awareness of how common encounters with people on the spectrum spiral out of control. The show mentions children not being diagnosed early because of their parents’ denial and how first responders sometimes don’t know how to handle children with ASD. Recently, in the second season, an overstimulated Sam encounters a police officer who mistakes him for someone on drugs. Because he is afraid and nervous, Sam has trouble communicating what he needs.

Since the disorder lies on a spectrum, the way a person reacts or their range of communication varies from person to person. Most people with ASD have a hard time when there are too many lights or loud noises around and this is portrayed in the show very often; Sam wears noise-canceling headphones and finds quiet places to hide when he becomes too stimulated. The show is only one in about five TV shows that showcase a character on the spectrum. Other shows like “The Good Doctor” or “Touch” take a more dramatic approach to it and while those shows create compelling drama, they definitely feel less genuine than “Atypical.” Perhaps if there were more comedies and small dramas that starred characters with autism, people would be more aware of how to react to people with ASD in tough situations and maybe more parents would be open to having their children tested.

This Netflix original is ingenious with laughs, family and high school drama. “Atypical” encases you in the story and it has certainly made me more aware that we must change the way society looks at people who are on the spectrum.


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