This is an image of Sam, the main character of Atypical. He is a white teenage boy wearing black headphones around his neck. He is talking to a white teenager girl.

Atypical: Season One, Episode Three

The overall theme of the third episode of Atypical, “Julia Says,” is change. An often discussed “core symptom” of autism is what diagnosticians call “inflexibility.” Ironically, the most inflexible person in this episode is Elsa. She has built her entire identity around Sam being dependent on her. As her family grows and changes around her, Elsa acts out. By the end of the episode she has assaulted a store clerk and is sleeping with Nick the bartender. Somehow, this is autism’s fault or something. I still can’t tell if she’s supposed to be relatable or likeable.

‘Humans can’t be perfect because we’re not machines.’

‘I’m not a little kid anymore. I can go shopping. I can do things.’

Sam asks his mother if he can to to the mall with her to pick out her own clothes. Predictably, Elsa argues against Sam’s attempt to grow, learn, and make the simplest decisions independently. Her reason is that at some indeterminate time in the past, Sam had a meltdown at the mall. I am personally grateful that my parents did not exclude me from every place I ever had a meltdown or otherwise found difficult. If they did, I probably would never have been allowed to leave the house.

At the mall, Sam’s mother draws attention to all of the sensory distractions and seems disappointed when Sam ignores them. She seems disappointed that he is dealing with a difficult situation successfully. It is mind-boggling. Sam is joined by his friend Zahid. “I invited Zahid because he’s the most stylish person I know. Sometimes he wears two watches.” For some bizarre reason, Elsa seems jealous of Sam’s friendship with Zahid. Zahid is a sexist creep, but he seems to genuinely like Sam and doesn’t bully or take advantage of him. Elsa also seems jealous of Julia encouraging Sam to choose his own clothes.

Zahid helps Sam pick out some clothes, including a leather jacket. Sam is clearly uncomfortable with the zippers, buckles, texture and general aesthetic. Zahid then proceeds to give terrible advice that is consistent with what everyone else in Sam’s life is constantly telling him: “You’re trying to get girls. The last thing you want to be is yourself.” It’s a terrible message for teenagers, autistic or not.

Sam tries on a short and gives what is probably one of the most endearing lines he’s uttered in the entire series so far: “I love it. It’s 100% cotton which is my favorite percentage of cotton and it has eight Antarctic whales on it which is a higher number than I have seen on any other shirt.” Sam is at his best when he’s allowed to love what he loves. I strongly suspect, however, that the line is intended as a laugh line for non-autistic viewers, which is frustrating.

Elsa goes on to throw a fit in the store and assault a black store clerk when her son isn’t given accommodations he doesn’t need or want. She is escorted out of the store by a security guard and explains what happened to Sam as, “trying to be too good a mom.” How much more unlikable can Elsa get? A lot more, it turns out.

In the car, Elsa suggests to her son that the nervousness he feels is akin to the danger of “gang boys with knives.” Is that racist? It seems racist. Especially after the way she treated that store clerk.

Finally, Sam gives the closest thing we’re going to get to an explanation for why he wants to date in the first place: “Mom, I’m getting older, and at some point I really, really hope I get to see boobs.” For some reason, Sam’s mother doesn’t bother to explain that women are made up of many other body parts and are actually whole people.

At school, Sam has sensory difficulty with the jacket Zahid picked out for him. He jumps up from his desk and throws it in the trash. This is obviously played for laughs for a non-autistic audience, and I find that somewhat depressing.

‘That’s the year he left us.’

A major thread in this episode is Casey discovering that her father left their family for eight months after Sam’s autism diagnosis. After finding a mysterious family photo where her father is missing, Casey tries to discover the truth. After her father lies to her and her boyfriend points it out, Sam tells Casey the truth: Their father left the family for a little over half a year because of Sam’s autism diagnosis.

Something that floored me and wasn’t explored at all is that Sam knew about this the whole time. Why doesn’t Atypical explore how Sam feels about his father leaving their family? Doug left because Sam didn’t smile or make eye contact. How has Sam dealt with this emotionally? Being told, straightforwardly, that your father abandoned your family because he saw you as defective is incredibly damaging. When was he told? If he was told, why wasn’t Casey? Did Sam figure it out himself? But then, if the writers explored Sam’s feelings, they’d have to actually treat Sam like he’s a person with an inner life beyond boobs and penguins.

At least Doug takes responsibility for his own actions and mistakes, which is more than I can say for Elsa. When he tells Casey the truth, he leads with, “it wasn’t your fault and it wasn’t mom and Sam, it was me.” Doug is officially in competition with Casey for most likeable character. He made a mistake, but he acknowledges that and has gone on to do better.

‘Everything is Changing’

Elsa manages to be even more unlikeable. She admits to reading all of her daughter’s texts, demonstrating that Sam isn’t the only child she has unhealthy boundaries with. She rubs her bare butt on Julia’s car, based on clearly ridiculous advice given by Zahid, a teenage boy. Finally, she sleeps with Nick the Bartender. In group, Elsa says she doesn’t know who she is anymore, as if this is somehow an adequate explanation for her infidelity and awful, controlling behavior.

What worked

  • The ambulance banter was genuinely funny, despite playing into patriarchal tropes.
  • “Hi, I like your shirt!” “Are you being sarcastic?” “No.” “Oh, then thank you.” I have totally had that exact interaction. It’s real.

What didn’t

  • Why does Sam want to date? His motivation remains mysterious. If all he wants to do is see boobs, he can do a Google search with Safe Search switched off.
  • Why does Sam know the bee on the valentine was a Western honeybee? It’s not related to his special interest, since there are no bees in Antarctica.
  • What 26 year old PhD has her own reserved parking space at a university? In real life, Julia Sasaki would be an adjunct making what is essentially below minimum wage.

Neurotypical Bullshit (NTBS)-O-Meter

  • Is a child not smiling or making contact actually an understandable reason to abandon your family? I’m really interested in hearing from non-autistic people on this one, because it is incomprehensible to me.

So what did you think? Good, bad, or just indifferent? Weigh in on the comments below.

7 thoughts on “Atypical: Season One, Episode Three”

  1. “Is a child not smiling or making contact actually an understandable reason to abandon your family? I’m really interested in hearing from non-autistic people on this one, because it is incomprehensible to me.”

    I can relate to this in a sense. When my son was diagnosed, my husband became withdrawn and wanted nothing to do with doctors appointments, psychological visits and would not take my son to any of his therapy. When we finally had a heart-to-heart as to what was going on, he admitted to being scared. He did not want to think of my son any different than he has always looked at him. He could not admit that our son was autistic. He found it very hard to relate to our son because he is not interested in sports or cars. He never left our family. After discussion, he learned about Autism at his own pace and decided on his own that he wanted to understand our son and have a deeper relationship with him.

    In the show, I can relate to Doug leaving. I think that denial and being scared of the diagnosis is human. I can also understand why some would run instead of dealing with what was in front of you. I find his character very likable, especially for admitting that he was wrong and that he came back to his family.

  2. The gangs –

    it’s racist; it’s sexist; it’s classist; it’s ageist [discriminating against teenagers and young adults].

    Zahid is really cool in this one. And it gives context for that family meal in episode 4/5. I have liked the scenes of Sam at work.

    That is a great endorsement of 100% cotton. And the 8 whales.

    “Sam is best when he is free to love what he loves”.

    In the UK and Australia there is Quiet Hour in one supermarket. A mother wrote it up in a way that walked the line of respectful/ableist.

    And Doug – yes, he is a very likeable character. I see more of this when at the athletics trial Sam smashes his hand. Also for the reasons Crystal talks about.

    “No bees in Antarctica”? Yes, that is true. And perhaps Sam has a very “buzzy” brain when it comes to all sorts of actual and potential threats. And all those sensory overloading stimuli which Elsa points out – bees near the fruit, making it ripe, for instance.

    And I would really like to know if the team behind ATYPICAL read NEW WORRIES which is the chapter where Temple Grandin experiences and expresses her sexual awakening in EMERGENCE: LABELLED AUTISTIC.

  3. And another Grandin thing:

    About the same time as NEW WORRIES or a few years later, Dick Grandin and Eustacia Cutler [she writes to psychologists and psychiatrists as “Mrs Grandin” so I am thinking 1958-9 maybe – the letters published are from 1956] separate and divorce.

    Grandin claims she was oblivious to the emotional undercurrents of the parents leaving which the siblings felt especially her immediate younger sister, Jean. [This is the Jean who was there during the speech therapy session where Temple screamed “ice ice ice”].

    Thinking about the connections between Sam and Casey and Temple and Jean.

  4. “She rubs her bare butt on Julia’s car”

    wh-wh-whaaaaat?

    I don’t want to watch this awful show, but how the heck does this happen?

    1. Zahid told her, remember?

      And it comes into NICE NEUTRAL SMELL.

      And there are animals which have protective pheromones. And pelts.

      Haven’t watched episode 3. Tupped over for the curiosity.

  5. The thing about Elsa that I found … not relatable, but identifiable, maybe:

    I’ve witnessed parents – all sorts of parents of all sorts of children, but especially white mothers of children with significant support needs – who shape their entire identity around being their child’s parent. They are their child’s first, last, and best support. They are their child’s first, last, and best advocate. Their child needs them, and they *need* to be needed by their child.

    They withhold information and life skills from their child (usually unconsciously, but sometimes intentionally if they are narcissistic abusers) on the assumption that they will always be their child’s only support.

    These parents also tend to resent anyone else, including therapists and co-parents who encourages their child’s independence or who their child turns to for support.

    When their children start to achieve a degree of independence and rely on the parent less, these parents seem to *lose their fool minds!* Their entire identity is bieng ripped away from them. They lose their bearings and tend to lash out.

    Elsa is one of these parents. Her infidelity and such isn’t because of Sam’s autism, it’s because she has shaped her entire world around her perception of his need for her. And when he turns out to be a human being who grows up, her world falls apart.

  6. As an autistic, I am highly sensitive to scents and odors, including the ones in detergents. By my parents just used unscented products for everyone, partly because my mother is somewhat sensitive as well.

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