This is an image of Sam, Zahid, Doug, Elsa, and an unnamed teenage girl standing on a porch. Sam is wearing his favorite hoodie.

Atypical: Season One, Episode Eight

This is it. The final episode of the first season of Atypical. Unless Netflix addresses some of the significant problems with Atypical and includes some actual autistic voices, I hope it is the last episode ever. Despite a few positive moments, Atypical laughs at autistic people, not with us. Rather than inform people about what our lives are like, it provides a cartoonish and heavy-handed caricature that plays into almost every negative stereotype about autism.

Treating women like sex objects is not a natural extension of autism. Limiting how often someone is allowed to talk about what they love is abuse, not a real relationship. Autistic women, autistic people of color, queer autistic people and transgender autistic people exist. Autism doesn’t cause families to fall apart. It isn’t even true that families with autistic children have higher divorce rates than the general population. The fact that Netflix could release something like Atypical and run a campaign like #FirstTimeISawMe at the same time shows that Netflix completely fails to understand what disability even is to the people who live it.

‘Julia, I’ve wanted to be your boyfriend ever since the day I gave you my brain.’

‘Adelie, chinstrap, emperor, gentoo.’

Sam’s parents take him home and put him in his bed with his favorite sweatshirt. Is this what it’s like when your parents know you’re autistic? I will have to defer to people who were diagnosed earlier than I was. I feel some envy if Sam’s treatment of him post-meltdown is realistic. When I was younger, if I had a meltdown, I would be punished for it. I didn’t have an autism diagnosis then, so nobody knew what it was.
Doug then confronts Julia. At this point, I lost all respect for Doug. Sam broke into Julia’s house, contributed to the end of her five-year relationship, and declared his love for her, despite full awareness of “conflict of interest” and professional boundaries. Sam did not, at any point, consider how Julia might feel. Part of how Sam got to this point in the first place is that nobody was willing to tell him, clearly, what was appropriate and what wasn’t. Sam’s meltdown is not Julia’s fault at all. Rejection hurts. Meltdowns happen. The person or thing that causes the meltdown isn’t automatically evil. This was not avoidable. What was Julia supposed to do? Agree to have a romantic relationship with her teenage client so he wouldn’t get upset? “You know how many people that kid has in his life that actually treat him like a person, and that’s what you do?” Doug scolds. I’m not sure what Doug thinks being treated like a person actually means. The only person in Sam’s life who treats him like a person is Zahid. The therapist-client relationship is not friendship.
‘Sometimes I wish it would snow and just never stop snowing.’
Evan visits Casey at home. She’s been avoiding him and ignoring his texts since they had sex last episode. Evan is in a pretty emotionally vulnerable place and says exactly the wrong thing. “If it’s about that ‘I love you’ thing, I take it back. I didn’t mean it. I just thought it’s what girls like to hear after,” he lies. He’s trying to save face, but instead he just widens the gap between himself and Casey. “You’re such an asshole, you know that? Just go home!” Casey slams the door in his face. This kind of misunderstanding and miscommunication has been a staple of teen romances for decades. While the actors who play Casey and Evan don’t exactly make it feel knew, they at least execute it well.
Casey joins her brother in his room to watch a nature documentary called, “Frozen Planet.” It is a real documentary and you can watch it on Netflix. “Sounds boring,” Casey remarks, but she cuddles up to him anyway. “Can I have some blankets?” she asks. “No,” Sam responds. I love their relationship. Despite how prickly they are towards each other, it is clear that they also love and support each other. It’s a beautiful scene.
In the kitchen, Elsa is doing girls’ hair for the winter formal, even though Sam is no longer going. She made a commitment and kept it. Not with her marriage, but with the parent-teacher association. Elsa clearly has her priorities. Casey, who now knows about her mother’s affair, points out the hypocrisy. She continues to say all the things I’ve been thinking about Elsa for the entire season, and I want to give her a high-five. “You can’t keep taking it out on me,” Elsa protests. “I haven’t done anything.” Uh. Yes you have Elsa. Several times. Zahid brings the headphone donation from Techtropolis for the dance and proceeds to sexually harass almost every girl there, except for one who he deems, “too young for [him.] Elsa shoos him away before he can sexually harass anyone else.
“What’s up dude? Why are you all wrapped up in bed like a skinny white burrito?” Zahid asks Sam after joining him in his bedroom. Sam confides in Zahid that he was rejected by Julia. Zahid actually gives Sam some pretty healthy advice. It is, of course, delivered in the most misogynist way humanly possible, but I will still give him points for being right. Sam shouldn’t give up on girls. He needs to just accept rejection, let it go, and move on.

‘Screw you, Sam Gardner!’

Suddenly, Paige is on the lawn outside Sam’s house. “Screw you, Sam Gardner!” she screams. Sam and Zahid go to investigate. She is holding a white box. “Since you thought it would be appropriate to take a giant dump on my heart, I thought it would be appropriate to dump all of your stuff.” For a second there, I was concerned that Paige had defecated in the box. Fortunately, all that falls out an AP bio test, a drawing of an Antarctic krill, and a detention slip.
Sam’s entire family and some of the high school girls from the kitchen join Sam on the porch as Paige announces that Sam didn’t get her virginity and that she will never have sex with him. I am unclear on why Sam’s meltdown on the bus is horrible, pathological, and tragic, but Paige’s meltdown outside Sam’s house isn’t. Actually, this seems much worse since it’s intentional.
Sam narrates that while autistic people feel empathy, it can be hard to tell how other people feel. Once we know someone is upset, we feel lots of empathy. That’s true, but contradicts basically everything else that Sam has done so far. Paige then takes out a large knife and slits the throat of an enormous Penguin she intended to give him for Christmas. Everyone seems to think this is a reasonable reaction. For some reason, nobody calls the police.
Casey goes to confront Nick the Bartender. Then entire conversation feels a little forced. Questions like “why did she do it?” don’t seem like questions a real fifteen year old would ask. “I think your mom has spent a really long time sort of stuck in a role… There’s more to her than being a mom, you know? I think she just needed to be reminded of that.” There are a million and one ways she could have done that without cheating on her husband. Casey responds sarcastically, “Wow, that’s super deep, dude” and smashes a glass on the floor. Once again, I’m not sure how realistic it is that a 15 year old would do that, but it is certainly emotionally satisfying to watch.
Sam puts on a tuxedo and announces that in order to apologize to Paige, he is going to find the penguin necklace he gave her that she lost. Zahid sends a picture of Sam wearing a tuxedo to his parents. Elsa and Doug are moving the igloo into the gym for the school dance. “You know, you were right. You were right to push him,” Elsa tells Doug. Now would also be a really good time for her to confess to cheating and apologize. Instead, she blames Doug for leaving. Again. Even though it’s been over ten years. Elsa is the worst. “It was wrong and I’ve been so angry and I was holding it over you for so long and I’m done… I’m sorry,” Elsa admits, doing the right thing for once. Now would also be a really good time for her to apologize for cheating on Doug. Nope. She does delete Nick the Bartender’s contact from her phone, though.

‘I just got a hand job in an igloo!’

Casey and her friends enter the dance. Her mother and Christopher’s mother are staffing the entry table. Does Christopher go to the same school as Sam? “I want to leave,” he announces. I’m a little bit upset that he isn’t allowed to leave. It’s OK to leave a teenage boy alone at home for a few hours. He would probably be fine. I recognize that autism is a developmental disability and Christopher probably has some daily living challenges, but he seems to understand that he shouldn’t do things like stick a fork into a wall socket or put his hand down the garbage disposal. Please don’t force your autistic kids to go to school dances if they don’t want to go. School dances are supposed to be fun for teens. If your teen doesn’t enjoy them, making your teen go to one is completely pointless.
“Teenage girls are assholes,” Christopher’s mother announces with another crowd of teenage girls within earshot. In real life, she would probably be asked to leave school grounds for that, or at least get a talk from an administrator about appropriate behavior. Inside, the silent dance is going well. Kids are having fun.
Sam and Zahid refollow Paige’s steps through her day to find the missing penguin necklace. Eventually, they find it in the pool. Sam jumps into the pool wearing his tuxedo. He is definitely going to lose his security deposit on that tux. Sam returns the penguin necklace to Paige and asks for forgiveness. She tells him to meet her in the igloo. Casey tells Sam that she can stay at Sam’s school if he needs her. He tells her to go to Clayton Prep and that he’ll be fine. Casey calls Evan to meet her at the school.
In the igloo, Sam gives Paige a heartfelt apology. Paige accepts that they shouldn’t be boyfriend and girlfriend. Then she gives him a hand job.  He announces it to everyone.This is apparently supposed to be touching. Casey makes up with Evan. It follows a pretty standard teen romance trajectory. They declare their love for each other. It’s sweet. Sam hugs his father, unprompted. Doug is touched. Elsa’s infidelity is revealed when Doug sees that Casey has written, “stop banging the bartender!” on her schedule whiteboard. That’s it. That’s the end of the season.


What worked

  • The meltdown scene was mostly handled well.
  • The silent dance was great.
  • Elsa finally facing some consequences for her actions was a very emotionally satisfying way to end the season.

What didn’t

  • Near the beginning of the episode, Sam is on a bus wearing a backpack. Since the backpack is between him and bus seat, he looks like he is sitting completely normally. For all the talk of “replacement behaviors,” this is actually something a real autistic person who couldn’t deal with bus seats would do. I probably know someone who does this, come to think of it. He could easily have done the same during the first episode of Atypical, but then the writers would have missed out on an opportunity to laugh at how weird and autistic Sam is.
  • Julia is not responsible for Sam’s meltdown. She is not a bad person for telling her teenage client off for breaking into her house and contributing to the destruction of her relationship. She is very bad at her job, but Sam is still responsible for his own behavior.
  • Casey confronting Nick the Bartender seemed awkward and forced.

Neurotypical Bullshit (NTBS)-O-Meter

  • Let Christopher leave the dance!

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

4 thoughts on “Atypical: Season One, Episode Eight”

  1. Great overview Sara!

    “If Rashid thinks meltdowns are hard to watch for parents, I would like to assure her it is much, much harder for the person actually having the meltdown. Sam’s meltdown on the bus felt like pity porn for people who have never had one themselves.”

    I feel like people who have never been to the nightmarish nadir of the soul shouldn’t pretend like they understand it. It actually just ends up hurting worse. Also, the description of how this meltdown happened just makes me if anything more annoyed. Sam deserves sympathy, but he also deserves solid instruction on normal social relations and the fact that women are people. All of this pain could have been avoided.

    “Sam’s parents take him home and put him in his bed with his favorite sweatshirt. Is this what it’s like when your parents know you’re autistic?”

    … Unfortunately no, it’s not. Or at least it wasn’t in the 90s/early 2000s. My parents were well aware I was autistic and still behaved as if my own meltdowns were a burden I imposed on them. This was largely due to their extreme frequency— I had about one per week as a kid. One of my most traumatic memories is associated with one, and my regular emotional numbness as an adult can probably be traced to the disdain with which people seemed to view my meltdowns. If nobody seems to like you when you’re upset, then eventually you’ll…stop feeling anything strongly. All that said, I don’t have any kind of hatred or disdain towards my parents— They were actually pretty solid, and not at all “autism parents.” They did what they could. Those things that wounded me permanently are things my father will never know. He’s had enough trauma in his life.

    Also Sam needs a hug and live five autistic mentors. <____>

  2. About Casey, Nick and the drink:

    Yes –

    it is indeed realistic that a 15-year-old would do this.

    I am thinking in particular of Alyssa Quart in BRANDED and some of the teenagers – who are ~15 years older now [2003] – would most certainly do this. I am thinking of Josie the duck-faced sophisticate who would go to Sex and the City style bars and order mock cosmopolitans. [Chapter 2 the Delia’s chapter / marketing through pre-teen and teen-oriented catalogues].

    And it is probably something my 15-year-old self would do – under conditions of provocation. I had really some violent thoughts and big impulses. Even now I have to be very careful about drinks and tiles and shampoo containers.

    INTROVERTED MATRIARCH writes about her own kids and the impact of hormones upon them.

    The conversations – probably not quite so realistic. Keep in mind that Casey has been parentified since she has been conscious, and Nick’s extreme immaturity. Maybe a power imbalance or canyon.

    Now to “Head Job in an Igloo”!

  3. Its nice to be more informed on this series without having to watch it myself so i really appreciate this compilation. Your commentary is quite amusing and relatable. Ive been in a few awkward situations where i have heard people speak about how much they enjoyed the show and i didnt feel knowledgeable to speak up. I’m still not sure if i would but i really hope netflix NEVER makes a second season of this show. Although a sequel may be better than the first and improve upon negative aspects it would be way better to make a cool new and actually good show with an autistic main character. I saw a cool suggestion somewhere that perhaps if the support group was for the autistic kids instead of parents and we could see them interact and learn from each other that could be cool but then again i doubt they could pull something off without making fun of them. :/
    Maybe one day…hopefully soon

  4. “It doesn’t seem to occur to Sam that Julia feels the same way about him that he feels about her.”

    I think you meant to say THIS instead: “It doesn’t seem to occur to Sam that Julia does NOT feel the same way about him that he feels about her.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *