NETFLIX Review: Autism is far from “Atypical”

Autism Awareness Day: April 2, 2021


Courtesy of Netflix

Atypical, a heartfelt comedy of a teenager Sam who is on the autism spectrum.

by Leila Gibril, Reporter

Autism is one of the most misunderstood conditions that people like to think they do understand. People always have an opinion, but most of the time, they have it all wrong, they’re just, Typical.

It’s about time a good show addresses the autism spectrum and how living with autism is difficult, but not so different from neurotypicals. I’m happy to watch Atypical–and you should, too. In the first episode, Sam’s desire to date and to find a meaningful relationship is the same as all of us.

This show takes a new look at the life of someone who has autism. There are obstacles in life and there triumphs in life:  Sam Gardeners (Keir Gilchrist) is 18.  He has a job at a big box store, a spunky sister (Bridgitte Lundy-Paine) who fights with him, and two parents who want the best for him.  Atypical, in that sense, is very typical.

The mom is overprotective and fearful, and she is balanced by the father (Michael Rapaport) who cares deeply, but wants to allow his children more freedom.  

People who don’t have autism always have many misconceptions that this show destroys. Being in a cafeteria or even just regular school could be completely different for someone on the spectrum. Sam is obsessed with penguins and Antarctica. What is surprising is how the viewer begins to be interested, too.  We are on his side.

Sam is starting senior year. He’s also adjusting to the new feelings he’s having…He’s starting to notice girls, as well as girls are starting to notice him. Many people think that people on the spectrum don’t date. It’s far from the truth. Sam’s therapist Julia (Amy Okuda) calms his nerves when she tells him that many people on the autism spectrum do find love and marry. The idea of finding someone scares Sam’s mom, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She still sees him as her little boy and only wants the best for him. She’s a  pretty big helicopter mom.

At the same time, everyone is afraid of dating and finding the perfect match. Sam’s first match is a very cute redhead, but the date goes wrong because he doesn’t understand how to relate to her. For example, Sam has a hard time understanding if he really likes this girl, or if it’s just practice, for when his real love comes.

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Does the show really understand how it feels when people mistake their autism for something completely different?

I watched with anxiety as Sam was stopped by a policeman when he felt overwhelmed. The officer mistook Sam having a breakdown. Sam was sent to the station. Thankfully he had his best friend Zahid (Nik Dondani) there to explain. This plot hit close to home. A few years ago,  Ethan Salyor, a man with down syndrome, died in a conflict with police in Frederick. The result of that incident was training programs being instituted across the country so that law enforcement can deal more effectively with people who are differently-abled.

Sam goes through lots of changes, and he’s not happy with change.  Like penguins, people who are autistic need to have a routine, and they are thrown off balance with change.  What becomes obvious in the show is that all people like routine and schedules.

Sam is fascinated by the wildlife in the Antarctic,: he loves penguins the most and really identifies himself with them, they both have similar traits.  It becomes a metaphor throughout the show.

People on the spectrum are often marginalized, simply because people are unfamiliar with their behaviors and don’t understand. Many teens are flat-out disrespectful when working with their peers who have different learning needs. Autistic people are bullied, mistreated and left out of activities.  Sam is faced with lots of bullies with a non-understanding of what he’s feeling. One disadvantage of his autism spectrum is that he can never perceive why it’s happening.

In Episode 1, Sam’s sister punches a girl who is a bully.  The audience is thrilled to see that Casey stands up for the girl.  When the girl bakes a cake to thank Casey, she arrives with her older brother, an adorable Evan (Graham Rogers), and the rest is romance.

Casey would go great lengths to show how much she cares for her brother. Elsa, Sam’s mom certainly would, though she comes off as unlikable.. She’s a caring mom who always wants the world for Sam and has a funny way of showing it. The dad is an old soul who wants the best for his kids as well.

Ultimately, I can identify with the family relationships because they are familiar to all of us.

There are currently three seasons, and the show is set to have a fourth and final season in late 2021. You should binge watch the first three now.

 April 2 (Autism Awareness Day)   is next week.  See this show now to gain meaningful awareness!