This is an image of Sam, the main character of Atypical, sitting on a public bench. The bench is metal. Sam is a white teenage boy with dark hair. he is wearing a hoodie.

Atypical: Season One, Episode Five

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’

Elsa checks her email and finds an invite to Nick the Bartender’s birthday party. When she calls him, she apologizes for blaming Nick for her infidelity and finally takes some responsibility for her actions. Unfortunately, this newfound self-awareness doesn’t last to the end of the episode. Meanwhile, Julia is convinced that her boyfriend is cheating on her after finding the chocolate covered strawberry Sam dropped in her house when he broke in. She’s been looking through his things and wants to track his car. Yikes.

‘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.

What worked

  • 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.

What didn’t

  • 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.

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

  1. i hate this show. the characters are repellent. as you point out, much of what is being presented as autism is really just garbage behavior from mean-spirited characters. it’s just a nightmare that this is out there, presenting itself as a look at autism and that it’s on a huge platform and that so many people are just laughing at the awful characters and liking the show. it’s fucking depressing and discouraging. your reviews are the only thing making this week bearable.

  2. And then six out of every ten autistic people had a traumatic flashback when exposed to that three-card Antartica thing. o__O; I mean Jesus Christ that’s disturbing, especially if you have a certain background with it. Kudos to you for slogging through this for us, Sara.

    1. Moi aussi.

      I remember there are Power Cards which people prepare themselves.

      And there are Red Cards and Blue Cards which were supposed, in the early 2000s, to “develop the skill of thinking inside your head”.

      Yes – very coercive and manipulative.

  3. In that way – the hollow people – felt like HARRY POTTER especially in the earlier books when we moved from third person limited to get more and more of Harry’s point of view.

    And, yes, in science fiction and fantasy you can do that. Especially in folklore and fairy tales which Rowling had some background in.

    Those two thoughts are coming from Red Hen’s work about the History of Magic and related Potter work/concepts.

    Now about Sam and his avoiding Paige:

    “For some reason, nobody explains to Sam that if you’re avoiding someone, it means you probably shouldn’t be dating them. Sam’s manager, who isn’t autistic, sympathizes and apparently stays late at work to avoid his wife sometimes. I feel sorry for his wife.”

    True, true. We don’t know how the wife feels about it, though.

    “Elsa checks her email and finds an invite to Nick the Bartender’s birthday party. When she calls him, she apologizes for blaming Nick for her infidelity and finally takes some responsibility for her actions. Unfortunately, this newfound self-awareness doesn’t last to the end of the episode. Meanwhile, Julia is convinced that her boyfriend is cheating on her after finding the chocolate covered strawberry Sam dropped in her house when he broke in. She’s been looking through his things and wants to track his car. Yikes.”

    That – about the strawberry and its chocolate covering – was a scene and a half. And I was not sure about Sam dropping the strawberry. And that part about tracking his car and looking through his things. This is quite a theme – the discipline, punishment and surveillance.

    The Clayton Prep scenes were really something, especially with the admission student and the few short scenes outside the school with some of Casey’s contemporaries.

    “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.”

    Ah! And om!

    In 1994 I read the World Book Encyclopedia pages about autism and mental illness. Even the intellectual background involved – when I discovered Cohen and Volkmar had made these pages in the shade of the DSM-IV three years later … and Bernard Rimland had put in his oar also.

    “It turns out Paige is actually horrifyingly controlling. She’s given Sam 3 cards. Every time he talks about Antarctica, she takes one card away. Then after they’re all gone, he’s not allowed to talk to Antarctica anymore. In what universe is someone’s partner controlling how much they’re allowed to talk about what they love considered remotely OK? It’s abusive. Even Elsa seems a little shocked at the degree of control this teenage girl is exerting over her son. I wonder if ABA and compliance training made Sam more receptive to this kind of abuse. It is unlikely the show will explore it.”

    The difference with Wiki is that anyone can edit it. And change it. It doesn’t have to be the elite any more. And “this universe” I thought with a sinking feeling in my stomach.

    “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.”

    Mine too. And if Sam was undone by compliance therapy; I can easily imagine this young man at Clayton Prep being copacetic about racism – his own and others. Too too easily. And again, we did not have phones back then.

    The bit I did like – sort of – was the Julia-Miles dynamic. And Julia’s reaction to things in the house. Which may or may not be in episode six. And the things she took back and the things she left. And then she gets very very sick.

    Can confirm: macadamias are the rich man’s nut. They are constructed/cultivated/bred and have been in the Australian canon since about 1850.

    Again – I have seen this “Emptiness” in the behaviourist world. There is a young man called Tom who Lindsay Weekes writes about in A VOICE IN THE EMPTY AIR [intended for the reading of autistic adults – probably not filmmakers or researchers or series writers]. The workers had to be placid and impersonal – “he hated to distinguish and hated to be made to do so”. And there was this programme in a country town which is one of the first LW worked on.

    I’m thinking that the penguin necklace doesn’t count or Paige is so happy to have a nice quirky gift that it snuck through the keeper:

    “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.”

    Better go up and find the director/showrunner for THAT’S MY SWEATSHIRT.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.