In the fifth episode of Atypical, “That’s My Sweatshirt,” Paige overtakes Claire for the most unlikeable character in the show. She seemed quirky and sweet last episode, but as she systematically violates Sam’s space and controls him to an abusive degree, she’s completely lost me and has taken the crown for the Worst Person on this show. And that’s saying something, since the episode caps off with Elsa cheating on her husband, again. Which is still, somehow, autism’s fault and not hers.
A core part of the family dynamic on Atypical is that somehow, Sam’s autism makes everyone around him’s life worse. How, exactly, is unclear. It seems that the mere fact of Sam’s autism negatively impacts everyone around him to a degree where any and all terrible behavior is excused and justified. It’s a completely toxic dynamic. It’s not funny. It’s not even sympathetic. It’s horrifying. I feel sorry for Sam. He’s not the only one who is poorly written and hollow. The people around him are too.
‘I had curly fries for lunch and I have a girlfriend now’
‘I bet they eat cashews. That’s the rich man’s nut.’
Casey is dressed to the nines for her interview at Clayton Prep. Elsa lets Casey know that she now supports Casey’s decision to go to Clayton Prep. “Oh yeah? Does this have anything to do with the five-hour conversation that you and Dad had the other day?” Casey informs Sam that because she will be at Clayton Prep interviewing, she has given his lunch money to someone else to hold onto. Sam is 18 years old. Why can’t he hold onto his own lunch money? This is another bizarre instance of Sam’s family not teaching him the skills he needs to live independently.
Clayton Prep is every private prep school stereotype rolled together. The students wear uniforms. It has a peace garden, yoga room, and biosustainable duck pond. Casey meets with a Clayton Prep student for an interview. She tells him he looks familiar and he responds, “oh yeah, I’m black so they put me on all the brochures.” I am not a person of color but I have a hard time imagining anybody, especially a teenage boy, being so copacetic about blatant racism.
Sam answers her phone during the interview, much to the chagrin of her peer interviewer. Apparently Beth can’t find Sam to give him his lunch money. It is unclear why this is an emergency. Plenty of non-autistic students miss lunch sometimes. When Casey’s interviewer objects to her answering her phone, she tells him that Sam is autistic and she has to answer, “in case he’s freaking out or disappeared. It’s kind of my job as his sister.” Casey’s interviewer gives her a look of pity. Then Casey says something that makes me hate her a little bit. She gives a short monologue about how Sam is such a burden for her. It broke my heart a little bit.
‘But. That’s my sweatshirt.’
Paige continues to violate Sam’s space by stealing Sam’s favorite sweatshirt from his closet. Sam decides to go hide from Paige rather than interact with her further. If you’re hiding from your partner, it’s a bad relationship. For some reason, his unhappiness about this is portrayed as the real problem. “Girls like wearing something that reminds them of their boyfriends,” Zahid’s girlfriend Kayla tells him. Nobody tells Sam that actually, he’s allowed to have perfectly healthy boundaries.
Casey tells Paige that she should break up with Sam. “Why are you with him? What’s in it for you? Are you desperate or do you think you’re going to get extra credit for dating the weird kid? My brother’s not a science experiment.” I was back to rooting for her for a second! But then, she adds, “what happens when he comes to rely on you, when he needs you and you leave? That shit can mess him up.”
There’s this trope where the families of autistic men and boys expect potential wives and girlfriends to take over caregiving tasks for their sons and brothers, rather than teaching self-care to the men and boys themselves. Autistic blogger Kassiane has written about some aspects of this phenomenon. Casey, unfortunately, seems to have bought into this trope. She tells Paige to break up with Sam not because Paige is abusing Sam, but because she has personally decided that Paige inadequately serves Sam’s support needs. Paige promptly breaks up with Sam and returns his sweatshirt.
At his therapy appointment, Sam tells Julia, “Most people don’t even try to get me. Paige tried to get me. And that was nice.” No one explains to Sam that everyone should try to get him and also that he deserves to have boundaries, even if and when someone is nice to him.
‘I like her, I think!’
Sam confronts his sister about her scaring off Paige. During the interaction, he reminds the audience that he doesn’t think of Paige as a person, so much as a thing he possesses. “You’re just like Paige, but instead of touching my books and my turtle, you’re touching my girlfriend!” Casey asserts that she was just trying to look out for him. I’m happy that Sam stood up for himself, but he’s still failing at seeing women as people.
Casey then gets a call from her peer interviewer at Clayton Prep. Her suspension from public school for punching a girl might mean she has lost her chance to attend the school. Casey is heartbroken. Paralleling this loss, Julia’s boyfriend, Miles, appears to have left her in the worst way humanly possible. He’s only left a note that reads, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m sorry. P.S. I took the sheets and TV. They were mine.” Julia and Miles had been together for five years and had been living together. I feel like the writers want to pin this on Julia’s suspicious and intrusive behavior, but what kind of awful person leaves their partner of five years like that?
Doug has Chuck, a friend from work, over for dinner. During conversation it comes out that Doug never told Chuck that Sam is autistic, despite having worked with Chuck for five years. This upsets Elsa. I have to side with Doug on this one, though: There’s no reason Doug needs to share his kids’ medical history with his coworker. It doesn’t have to be a central part of his identity. Elsa compares it to her friend Diego, who waited a year to come out to her as gay. Elsa is making the mistake that I personally find most frustrating about so many autism parents. She is failing to differentiate her own identity from her son’s. Being an autism parent is not an identity the same way being gay is an identity. It definitely isn’t an identity the same way being autistic is an identity. Doug calls her on it, saying, “everything with you revolves around being a mom. Maybe sometimes you should just, you know, be like an individual person… Everything is Sam this and autism that. Maybe it’s time for you to step back and have your own life!”
Elsa, having gone exactly one episode taking responsibility for her own actions, goes back to cheat with Nick the Bartender again, seemingly as a direct response.
Sam goes to French class to declare his love for Paige, even though she is awful and controlling, because she is the only person he feels has ever tried to understand him. This is played to be romantic and climactic by the show’s director, with rising music and a painting of the Eiffel Tower in the background. As an autistic person who struggled to find people who really loved and appreciated me, it makes me indescribably sad. He gives her a penguin necklace as a token of his affection. It’s not clear if this counts toward’s Paige’s cruel 3-card limit on what he’s allowed to like and talk about.
- Nothing. This is the worst episode in the series so far. I could find at least one or two things I liked about the previous episodes. Not this time.
- Please, for the love of god, somebody in Sam’s life needs to have a conversation with him about healthy relationships. Why is every single adult around him failing him like this?
- I am pretty sure everyone eats cashews. If any nut is the “rich man’s nut” it’s macadamias.
- There is no way an autism mom in the early 2000’s would know or use the word “neurotypical.” It was still a word used almost exclusively in the neurodiversity community. I know this is a historic continuity nitpick, but it’s consistently annoying how little research the writers did regarding autistic history and culture.
Neurotypical Bullshit (NTBS)-O-Meter
- “When I was growing up, my mom and brother used to refer to people who weren’t on the spectrum as neurotypicals, “NT’s” for short. But when I was little I always thought they were saying “empties” because sometimes it feels like Sam takes up so much space that everyone around him needs to be empty.” Nobody needs another monologue about how much of a burden autistic people are.
So what did you think? Good, bad, or just indifferent? Weigh in on the comments below.