This is an image of Sam and his parents sitting in the bleachers at a sports event. Someone behind them is holding a sign that says "Go Newton!"

Atypical: Season One, Episode Four

In Atypical’s fourth episode, “A Nice, Neutral Smell,” Sam’s Odyssey to date continues. A girl, Paige (Jenna Boyd), shows interest in him! Why exactly is mysterious, since he treats her and other women terribly. She’s a little quirky and probably has low self-esteem, so apparently that means they’re perfect for each other? Of course, the writers continue to portray Sam’s awfulness towards women and girls as some kind of natural extension of his autism. Last time I checked, misogyny isn’t part of the diagnostic criteria for autism, although I suppose I should give them props for giving Sam a personality trait beyond an autism symptom checklist, however unintentionally.

‘Gonna break that record, superstar?’

Elsa gets a text from Nick the Bartender, lies about it, and then accidentally drops her phone, insuring that she misses her daughter’s race. Somehow, this is autism’s fault.
The girl sitting in front of Sam has a ponytail and keeps flicking it in his face unintentionally. For all of Sam’s unrealistic, heavy-handed talk about “replacement behaviors,” somehow he doesn’t do one of the most basic sensory strategies in existence: If something is bothering you, move away from it or leave. Instead, he grab’s the girl’s ponytail and won’t let go. He then falls and cuts his arm. Doug rushes off with Sam to First Aid to help clean him up. He misses Casey’s race too. Triumphantly, she breaks the record. Her family isn’t in the stands watching. Of course, Doug and Elsa lie about it.

‘Oh Doug, let me stop you. We use People First language here.’

Doug agrees to go to group with Elsa. This time, there is one black mother. When she talks about how excited she is that her son spoke to her, the facilitator responds, “you know, it’s so easy for those of us with higher functioning kiddos to forget what it’s like for some of the other parents.” Functioning labels aside that seems like a very invalidating thing to say to someone. “My kid is better at talking than your kid, you must really be suffering,” is the awful subtext of the comment.

Frustratingly, the facilitator shuts Doug down when he calls Sam an “autistic kid” instead of a “kid with autism.” There was nothing wrong with what Doug said in that instance. Most autistic adults prefer identity first language anyway, and it is a completely irrelevant semantic difference in the context of a support group.

The same facilitator goes on to shut Doug down multiple times for using the wrong language and terminology to talk about his feelings in different ways. What kind of support group tells you what kinds of feelings you are and aren’t allowed to have? Isn’t support and validation the entire point of a support group? I can see why Doug hasn’t been in years. I wouldn’t want to go to a support group where I wasn’t supported either. Is this actually what autism parent support groups are like?

There is officially a character who is worse than Elsa onAtypical, and it is the facilitator of the autism parent support group. As an aside, if I never hear the word “kiddos” used to refer to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities ever again, it will be too soon.

‘Can my special dish be not coming?’

Sam decides to make a list of pros and cons about dating Paige. While doing so, he treats her with no human consideration. Elsa decides to assuage her guilt about cheating by making a special dinner with everyone’s favorite foods. She doesn’t remember Casey’s favorite food — When she suggests bacon wrapped figs, Casey counters that she hasn’t eaten pork in two years. I guess it’s time for the “autism means your normal kids get neglected and ignored” trope. Fun.

Doug runs into Julia and continues to accidentally be a really good dad. When talking about people first language, Doug remarks to Julia, “it doesn’t really matter, does it? He’s still autistic. It doesn’t change how he is in the world.” It’s really important insight and I appreciate it.

At Techtropolis, Zahid reads Sam’s pros-and-cons list. He then proceeds to give Sam terrible advice. “There’s only one pro you need: That she’s a girl who wants to touch your peen.” Lovely. Zahid suggests that Sam ask Paige to spend time together out of school, in order to get to know her better. For once, Zahid gives advice that isn’t completely terrible. Sam promptly invites Paige over to his house for family dinner.

Casey is called to Coach Briggs’ office. A recruiter from Clayton Prep, a fancy private school with an excellent track team. “They’re girls go to Division I colleges and the Olympics and they had a girl that was in a Nike commercial. She outran a tornado.” Evan, Casey’s boyfriend, is also supportive and encouraging, even though it means that she would be farther away from him and he’d see her less often.

Casey decides to bring Evan to family dinner without telling her family she’s doing so. Before her parents can get too upset, Sam shows up with Paige and Zahid. “Zahid is my friend. Paige is just a girl from school,” Sam intones. Paige has to have terrible self-esteem to put up with this. Paige snags Sam’s notebook when no one is looking and heads to the bathroom to read the list for herself. In the bathroom, she admires his drawings of penguins and maps, then makes an etching of Sam’s pros-and-cons list. It is, unsurprisingly, unkind.

Elsa is back in the running for worst person. She gets visibly jealous when Doug mentions Sam’s therapist. She snaps at Casey because Casey is wearing the same jacket Elsa wore when she cheated on her husband. When Doug smells cigarette smoke on the jacket, he assumes that Evan has been smoking around Casey and gets upset. Elsa, of course, forcibly removes the jacket from Casey, which is not weird or suspicious at all.

Paige announces at dinner that she has seen Sam’s pros-and-cons list. Doug and Casey are both incredulous. When Paige discovers that Zahid has also seen the list, she justifiably storms out. After confirming that Paige is upset, Sam follows after. Paige becomes the first person to have an honest conversation about the unwritten rules of dating and friendship with Sam. “You’re not supposed to write that stuff down,” she tells him. “Why not?” he asks. “It’s a rule.” Sam responds. “Well, now that I know it’s a rule I won’t do it again.” So many problems in this show could be avoided by Sam’s family and therapist having these conversations with him.

Inside, Casey tells her family that she is being recruited by Clayton Prep. Doug is excited and encouraging. Elsa almost instantly shuts Casey down because “Sam no longer has a one-to-one aide and he relies on you heavily.” Chalk up another dream dashed by the cruel grip of autism on a family, I guess. Evan stands up for Casey and says what needs to be said. “You have two kids, but you act like you have one. And I get it, Sam’s got a disability or whatever, but Casey broke a record. She did something really cool and you guys didn’t even see it! I mean, where were you?” I appreciate that he doesn’t blame Sam. Doug starts to warm up to Evan. It’s nice.

The episode ends with Elsa returning to the bar to blame Nick the Bartender for her infidelity. “What are you doing having sex with a married woman anyway? You are bad. You are a bad person.” Uh. Elsa. You were there too. She then asks him for vanilla ice cream, because it is apparently also his fault that she blurted out to the cashier at the supermarket that she cheated on her husband.

Elsa’s problems are always actually someone else’s problems. That’s why she’s the worst. Please tell me she’s not supposed to be sympathetic. It’s ridiculous.

What worked

  • “Yes! Yes! I’m good at my job! Not that teaching history thing, but this? Yes!” Coach Briggs (Kevin Daniels) is acerbic and funny. His relationship with Casey is delightful. I wish he was in more episodes.
  • “Gardner, I think of you like a daughter, much to the chagrin of my real daughter who can’t run fast at all. I think you should at least consider this opportunity.” Seriously, Coach Briggs has all of the best lines.
  • Evan’s speech for Casey was really beautiful and the actor delivered it in a way that was pretty endearing.

What didn’t

  • Sam’s statement that “because humans are week and slow, we can’t outrun anything” is incredibly incorrect. Humans are some of the best distance runners in nature. Somebody needs to get Sam a copy of Born to Run.
  • Seriously, the facilitator of that autism parent support group is The Worst. I’d love to hear from any parents reading this about whether this portrayal of an autism parent support group was realistic or not.
  • It is completely unclear why Paige is interested in Sam. He is consistently terrible to her and rarely apologizes for his actions. Can we have a follow up series where Paige is in college and learns how to stand up for herself? Maybe she finds out she’s autistic herself and is diagnosed as an adult — Not uncommon for many weird, nerdy girls. God knows plenty of us were like Paige and were willing to endure terrible treatment to avoid being alone.

Neurotypical Bullshit (NTBS)-O-Meter

  • “You know, it’s so easy for those of us with higher functioning kiddos to forget what it’s like for some of the other parents.” “Let me stop you right there, Doug. We use Person First Language here. Person before the diagnosis.”

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

2 thoughts on “Atypical: Season One, Episode Four”

  1. Sara:

    You made some excellent points about Autistic Presence which are supported by the literature. Specifically Stuart Murray and Irene Rose in two papers in 2008 for LITERARY DISABILITY STUDIES.

    Murray exposed Autistic Presence in the writings of Kanner and Asperger to a depth and a level which we might not have looked at before then.

    Rose wrote about “Autistic autobiography or autistic life narrative”? It was so good especially the parts about the late Polly Samuel and Jessica Kingsley Press where she went to after 1998 and LIKE COLOUR TO THE BLIND was shafted after it became a trade paperback and Times Books had their merry way.

    And of course Sam being in the stadium is support for Casey. It shows people that autistic presence is enough and it is powerful. Existence and essence [Father John Misty song playing right now as I am writing this].

    Now the NICE NEUTRAL SMELL episode is one I actually watched. I loved the opening of context when he said that. The whole notebook scene was I think nicely handled. There might be a lot of social and performance anxiety for Sam involved even and especially as he writes and draws his safe things. Like “Dibs in search of self”.

    And Zahid and Paige were really good. And I liked meeting Evan for the first time.

    Coach Briggs does have those awesome lines, Sara. I am thinking of 13 Reasons Why where the counsellor was horrible and not just to the late Hannah Baker. In my headcanon she is still alive until November 2017 because the show is in real time.

    And too many support groups fall on their swords when it comes to semantic differences.

    Fight and flight and freeze, right? I think Sam does deal with this in the next episode.

    Move away and leave? I feel like he might have been trained away from it like so many who have faced, are currently facing, or will face – compliance-based interventions.

    And your observations about Paige. I wish! I got that vibe, well, not precisely that vibe. I think of Tony Attwood and the strategies he has mentioned in ASPERGER SYNDROME.

    I don’t remember that part of “Sam no longer has a one-on-one aide”. I do remember “he relies on you [Casey] heavily”.

    And the Nick-Elsa scenes I did take in. This is where I got feels about Elsa and black-and-white morality and change.

  2. “Is this actually what autism parent support groups are like?”

    No. Prior to watching the episode I saw a lot of criticism over the person first language bit. Realistically, that’s what a lot of parents/therapists use so if they’re trying to make the show “accurate” then yes, a support group would use that language. I was not prepared to see Doug interrupted multiple times. That was seriously messed up. I’ve only been to one special needs support group, but it was NEVER like that. Meetings had a speaker who talked about some special needs related issue/topic, then people could stay and discuss whatever they wanted. People listened. Everyone was supportive. No one cut people off or criticized. The group in Atypical was very toxic.

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