Right before atypical came out on netflix, I thought I’d watch it and write a blog post about it. A hot commodity in the autism blogosphere and cyberspace, I knew it was bound to generate some controversy. Those who have read my blog for the past nine years know I seem to thrive on controversy, or at least jump into the forefront of it, either intentionally or unintentionally. However, I got sidetracked by the shock of watching the first few moments of the opening first scene of the first episode, noting Sam the protagonist doing a behavior called “twiddling” a form of self-stimulation similar to the identically named activity I do that I’ve written about from time to time. His therapist next asked him if he wanted to donate his brain of science, mirroring the NPR show “morning edition” which I appeared on, discussing my donating my own brain to science, in which I discussed my twiddling in words close to identical to what Sam said. It seems improbable that this is a coincidence, but I suppose there’s a middling to fair chance Robia Rashid listened to my NPR interview while doing research for her show.
Now that I’m over my initial shock, I’ve decided to do what I’d originally planned to do and give my $.02 worth take. I suspected that the irascible ND’s would take umbrage to this show, and I was not disappointed. This show is bound to generate some controversy in the next few days.
There are some things to like about the show. As I wrote in my previous post, celibacy is a problem for many autistic people that gets very little play in the media or in literature and other entertainment mediums. I’m glad that the show takes up this theme, but there’s a downside, but more about that later. Amy Okuda, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Brigette Lundy-Paine are attractive actresses who add some eye candy. (At my age, 55-year-old Jason Leigh is attractive, though possibly not to younger viewers). The show has a certain intensity and conflicts between the various characters that adds some intrigue. Also, each episode has an old Sidney Sheldon style “cliffhanger” ending that may compel at least some viewers to watch more. The end of the eighth and final season episode is particularly intriguing in this regard, but I won’t spoil it for anyone. It appears Rashid planned to make more episodes and hook her viewers further. Lundy-Paine’s character is fleshed out and provides some intrigue to the show. The episodes do show some (though not much) of the angst of living with autism.
However, the pros stop there and are inundated by the plethora of cons. I was prepared to possibly refute some of the hostile remarks about the show the ND hatemongers would inevitably make. However, I found myself nodding in agreement with their take on Sam Gardner as a sort of cardboard one-dimensional character who represents a conglomerate of autistic symptoms, rather than a believable autistic person. He wears headphones to eliminate sensory noise, despite being mildly autistic enough to work part-time, go to a mainstream school and get A’s. This is much more common in lower-functioning kids such as Judith Ursitti’s son than in someone with mild autism. It shows him on a job not having any problems with co-workers or job performance, particularly intriguing when he’s working in a store and it involves customer interaction. He also has a ‘typical’ friend who is Pakistani and probably an alter-ego of Rashid herself. He develops a crush on his therapist, a 26-year-old clinical psychologist. Someone that young already having a ph.d., finishing their internship, and being an adjunct professor seems over-the-top.
The protagonist’s mother appears to be intentionally presented as one of the most unlikable characters you could imagine. She is overprotective of her son, invades her children’s privacy and commits adultery and then blames her boyfriend for having an affair with a married woman. Why the show’s creators would not want to make the mother a sympathetic character seems baffling. Other episodes seem way over the top, including his nearly hooking up with a girl he scares off initially, being insensitive to other girls and people and then being easily forgiven. One of the most over-the-top things was a sensory dance where the entire school accommodates the protagonist by having a silent dance without a band where the students can listen to music on optional head phones while they dance.
While the show is billed as the protagonist having women problems, there seems to be a bait and switch tactic where he is actually successful with at least one girl who seems to have some behavioral quirks which might place her on the spectrum, but this is not mentioned explicitly.
There is no one telling him he should find an autistic girlfriend which happens to us so typically. Perhaps I should excuse Robia Rashid’s ignorance about the problems that celibacy presents for many autistic males, but it seems a writer should be more aware of a subject they choose to tackle.
In essence, there is not much compelling about “atypical” and as is typical (ironic use of the word) as it presents a very warped and optimistic view of autism that does not ring true or jibe with real life, seemingly par for the course of Hollywood depictions.
I was not sure I would watch all eight episodes but I ended up doing so, compelled mostly by the controversy and apparent borrowing from my life in the first scene. This show seems to be getting so much press and traction, I suspect it may be one of Netflix’s golden eggs and there will probably be more episodes but I don’t think I will be watching them and I don’t recommend to my readers that they do so either.