Netflix’s Atypical is Ableist

A screenshot from the show Atypical, Sam the main character sits in the centre, pointing forward, with his family around him
A screenshot from the show Atypical, Sam the main character sits in the centre, pointing forward, with his family around him

Atypical was exciting to discover in 2017, as a young autistic person myself, I thought finally people were going to see autistic people and love us. Unfortunately, I could only get through one episode before turning it off and feeling a strong sense of dread of what this show would teach its large viewer base. In GLAAD’s “Where Are We on TV” report, it is noted that characters with disabilities on broadcast programming dropped from 1.4% in 2014–15 to 0.9% the following season, and with 95% of disabled actors being portrayed by able bodied actors, it is clear that we don’t get opportunities like Netflix’s Atypical often. Atypical could have been powerful and empowering, however it fell into pushing ableist perceptions to a young audience.

Autistic and disabled people truly deserve more space in the media, as the Ruderman Family Foundation found in 2016, disability has a 2% representation rate in the popular media. I cannot discount the fact that there are some people on the autistic spectrum who do find they do feel represented by Sam, the protagonist, and I do not want to say autistic people are not allowed to, as we are not all the same, however I think it is so disappointing that our total lack of representation has to be filled with this show. Robia Rashid, Atypical’s writer, told Teen Vogue that she worked with UCLA’s Centre for Autism Research and Treatment when developing the show and that Sam’s friend in an episode is played by Antony Jacques who does have autism. She said, “We’re telling a very specific story, Sam’s story, and not trying to speak for every person on the spectrum.” Although this is good, the lack of autistic creatives especially in Season 1’s creation means that there is bound to be issues — which there are.

As I stated before, I have only watched the first episode of this show as I was genuinely upset by it, but I have read lots more about this show since. I saw that they employed some autistic creatives for season 2 and I do credit them for this, yet critics have also still said there were issues there too — Sara Luterman stating, “Yet some of the issues I had with “Atypical” in Season 1 persist. Sam is still portrayed as more of a checklist than a person.” Also, I do think if you’re going to make a show about autism, the first episode should be done well as it is your hook for the audience.

Immediately my issue came with the comedy of the show. I love comedy and I believe it is one of the best art forms as it is the most accessible and therefore I was excited to see this show had humour. However, the jokes being made about Sam were not comedy for him, they were his reality and he wasn’t laughing. His lack of social understanding, with the bluntness he spoke to his therapist was played off as comedic, yet Sam didn’t know this. His repetition of the word “twat” is portrayed as funny, but again, Sam doesn’t seem to know this. His desperation to find a relationship makes him appear creepy (and also the show made a weird choice of making Sam misogynistic which is not positive either), and this is again a joke which helps perpetuate negative stereotypes and perceptions of autistic people. Disabled people aren’t your punchline.

In Season 1, Sam’s autism is presented as the bane of his family’s life and ultimately harmful to them, with literally no consideration of how damaging this ideology is to autistic viewers. His parent’s say how they were unable to go on a date due to their son’s autism and displaying these conversations on a show supposedly celebrating autism is so harmful and clearly from a neurotypical gaze. A critique I personally have with shows about disability is that they regularly include conversations that in real life would be done behind a person’s back, and these negative conversations although they may be real, are now being put as a part of the autistic story narrative. This is why it’s clear to me that Atypical clearly did not consider autistic people in their writing room as why would you enforce these ‘martyr parent’ stereotypes in a show for autistic people? I recently saw this in another show, in which I don’t have the disability portrayed so it isn’t my place to discuss the representation, but it still includes a trope common to shows about disability, There She Goes (BBC). There was a conversation in this show where Rosie’s, who is the disabled character, brother says behind her back to his mum that he hates her. And while these conversations may exist, I found the inclusion of them confusing as it adds to the pain that disabled people are already facing, where we feel like burdens. Allowing media that is supposed to suffice as representation for us, to actively bring us down is painful to watch. As Mickey Rowe stated in their article for Teen Vogue, “they talk about Sam as if they don’t have anything in common with him and at times appear to present their son’s autism as a tragedy.” Ultimately in Season 1, Sam is portrayed as the reason for the breaking down of his family, which is so upsetting to watch as an autistic person.

I have read that some of these ideologies were actually fixed as a result of the inclusion of an autistic writing consultant, David Finch, for Season 2 and the family members all gain their own story line which does not blame Sam which is positive and I commend them for that, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to watch through a whole season just because the next season marginally improves their problems. Sara Luterman’s New York Times article talks about what Atypical did well in improving in Season 2 and what they still failed on which I’ve linked here and quoted a section below.

“When I asked Ms. Rashid via email about how the Season 1 criticisms from the adult autistic community (including my own) might have affected her approach to the new season, she responded, in part, that she “definitely heard the criticism and it was a guiding principle for me in Season 2.” She added that she was “thrilled with the results,” a reaction I don’t quite share. Season 2 is better, but it had an extremely low bar to clear.”

Autistic people are underrepresented in media and rarely represented well, and unfortunately Atypical was not the show to change that. With their cast members even spewing ableist tweets using the R word which have since been deleted from Michael Rapaport, produced at the same time as the show was being made and aired, it was unlikely they were going to be our new best representation — but I hoped. It’s quite clear the lack of autistic people included in the making of the show, especially Season 1, and with Sam played by Kier Gilchrist (who is not autistic), did not help this show. If only autistic people and disabled people were given voices to tell our own stories, yet our voices are constantly undermined and ignored in place for able bodied, neurotypicals.

There is nothing I want more than to see myself presented authentically and positively and ultimately happy in a TV show. I want to see and I want others to see how brilliant autistic people are and to love us and want to work with us, but damaging representations such as these only add to the discomfort and fear lots of non autistic people have for us which is why our voices are so drowned out. In Season 2 and 3 I have read the character of Casey explores her sexuality and is a major celebration for the Sapphic community and I love that, however when this show is about autism, to ignore ableist tropes and portrayals, to focus on non autistic characters feels ableist. It’s another form of our silencing that hurts. I wish more people would listen to autistic and disabled people and uplift our voices rather than interpret them into their own words.

One day autistic people will be able to be seen and celebrated, and I hope my fellow creative autistic people want to push for this with me, but we also need non disabled people to fight with us for our representation and for our rights. So will you listen now?

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