This is an image of the main character in Atypical, Sam. he is walking down a high school hallway. He is wearing a blue polo shirt and has large black headphones around his neck.

Atypical: Season One, Episode One

When the trailer for Atypical, a new Netflix series, dropped, the online autistic community shared a collective groan. It’s a story we’ve all seen before: Awkward autistic white guy tries to date girls. Hugh Dancy did it in Adam.

Many autistic people were concerned about poor representation, since the actor playing the main character, Sam, is not autistic. Netflix assured people that the “social production team,” whatever that is, included autistic people. The social production team doesn’t seem important enough to merit a credit. Their full time consultant appears to be a researcher from UCLA — Not exactly someone who would be able to provide input on a humanizing portrayal of an autistic person. And it shows. Sam reads like a DSM diagnostic checklist, not a person.

After watching one episode, I feel confident saying that it is exactly as bad as you thought it was. Possibly worse. I committed to writing recaps/reviews of each episode, and this is definitely shaping up to be an “I’ll watch it so you don’t have to” sort of situation. So let’s dive in.

‘I’m a weirdo. That’s what everyone says.’

We kick off in Sam (Keir Gilchrist) fiddling with a rubber band during a session with his therapist, Julia Sasaki (Amy Okuda). Sam informs Julia that this is what he calls his “self-stimulatory behavior.” I feel fairly confident that no one outside a classroom or a psychology textbook has ever called what Sam is doing with his hands “self-stimulatory behavior.” Sam then proceeds to talk about how he will never have a girlfriend or visit Antarctica. These are his interests, and now that they have been explicitly laid out, that’s all we get from him in terms of character definition and development.

Sam then points out that his therapist’s bra strap is showing, and it’s purple. For some bizarre reason,  Julia doesn’t tell him that this is an inappropriate thing to do. The scene caps off with Julia asking if Sam would like to donate his brain for research purposes. What kind of research? Apparently that isn’t important. She then reassures him that she means she would like his brain after he dies.

I’d totally watch a horror movie where Sam’s doesn’t mean she wants his brain after he does.

‘No, no, no That’s not what I’m saying’

 

‘Penguins.’

At school, work, and finally home the autism diagnostic criteria checklist continues. Sam’s sister, Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), helps him make an online dating profile. When he talks about how much he lives penguins, his sister shuts him down. “OK, I’ll put sports.” Telling autistic teens (or really any teens) that to be attractive they have to lie about their interests is pretty toxic. Here, it’s played for laughs. Repeatedly. We also meet Sam’s pet turtle, Edison. For the record, a real autistic person would name their turtle Tesla. 

Of course, no stereotypical portrayal of autism would be complete without the “an autistic kid will ruin your marriage” trope. Apparently Sam’s parents haven’t gone on a date or been intimate in years. The show works hard to attribute this to Sam, but it doesn’t seem he’s done anything to cause this other than existing and being different.

Sam’s mother continues to being overbearing and controlling by confronting his therapist and telling her Sam shouldn’t be encouraged to date because “he might get his heart broken.” I have to say, this does buck some stereotypes. Most autistic women have had that awkward “you should marry my son!” interaction at autism meetups and an increasing number of autism moms have been hiring sex workers. This is awful in a completely different way. And Sam’s therapist continues to be terrible at her job by failing to enforce healthy boundaries.

In a montage, Sam “studies” dating by watching other men and boys sexually harass women. Then his sister tells him that he needs to make sure he doesn’t talk about, “seals or penguins or whatever.” Because obviously, concealing what you like and care about is the bedrock of any healthy relationship.

‘You’re crossing the line from flirty to creepy’

Sam’s therapist, Julia, continues to fail to point out what’s acceptable vs. unacceptable. When she notices Sam has written “insults = get chick on dick” in his notebook, she ignores it for some reason. She tells Sam he’s being creepy, but doesn’t explain what that means.

Meanwhile, Sam’s parents go on a date. Elsa goes on a tear about how much she suffers and how Sam’s father totally doesn’t understand her terrible agony as an autism parent. Which is bizarre, since Sam’s father lives with her and Sam, and seems fairly involved in Sam’s life. Sam’s father suggests she checks out a dance class. She makes some friends there and goes to a bar with them. Then she almost cheats on her husband with the bartender because… Her son’s autism, I guess?

Sam brings a girl on a date to a coffee shop and insults her, sometimes in a graphically sexual way, then asks her if she’d be willing to get rid of her cat. Is this supposed to be funny? I honestly can’t tell, and I don’t think it’s because I’m autistic. Sam goes on a date with another girl in the tech store parking lot. She takes him back to her dorm room for some reason. She seems completely hollow inside — Even more than Sam, who is basically a walking DSM checklist. Sam doesn’t like light pressure (fine, I don’t either) and when the girl touches him softly, he pushes her off the bed suddenly. Of course, Sam has been trained from the beginning of this episode to never say how he actually feels or thinks. He put up with being touched in a way he didn’t like until he couldn’t stand it anymore, because everyone in his life drills into him that his thoughts and feelings are weird and wrong.

As an aside, if the genders were switched and a college boy brought a high school girl back to his dorm room for sex after one date, we’d all probably agree the interaction is predatory. This interaction is predatory too. There’s an experience gap and power differential involved that matters.

The episode ends with Sam wanting to “mate” with his therapist, so he offers her his brain for research. Yuck.

What worked

  • Whether she’s punching the school bully in the face or standing up for her brother while playfully punching him herself, Sam’s sister Casey is the most likeable, complex character on the show.
  • Turtles are cool.

What didn’t

  • Everything else
  • How is it that a character who is allegedly obsessed with penguins thinks that penguins mate for life? Sloppy research on the part of the writers.

Neurotypical Bullshit (NTBS)-O-Meter

  • “Dude, nobody’s normal” is completely bullshit. There’s a reason autism is a disability.

So what did you think? Good, bad, or just indifferent? Can Netflix turn this around? Weigh in on the comments below.

10 thoughts on “Atypical: Season One, Episode One”

  1. I haven’t watched this, and nothing I’ve heard has made me want to. Your points seem very valid. But I have to ask — why do you say that it’s awful for a mom to hire a sex worker for her son?

    1. Parents shouldn’t be that involved in their children’s sex lives. A parent hiring a sex worker for their autistic or disabled child buys into the assumption that autistic adults can’t form relationships on their own and that they just want sex for the sake of sex. Oftentimes parents do this without the consent of their children, so there are consent issues here. There are SO MANY things wrong with parents hiring sex workers for their autistic children – I may be missing some of the big ones, but these are the first couple that come to mind.

      1. I can’t agree. There has to be consent of course — more than consent, in fact, since the idea shouldn’t originate with the parents. But I don’t think helping someone get safe, consensual sex that they can’t get any other way is wrong. I’m a married autistic person, so obviously I don’t think autistic people can’t form relationships or just want sex to have sex. But some people may find it very difficult to form a relationship, and just because they’re disabled, they’re not sexless beings.

  2. I lol’d at naming the turtle Tesla. Because you’re so right.

    I agree with your assessment. It was like, every stereotype in the entire world, ever, jammed into one show (oh, look…a nerdy white guy who speaks in a monotone and can’t get a girlfriend and makes inappropriate comments and, shocker, works in a tech store! Oh, and he’s the reason his mom is miserable and his parents’ marriage is failing!)The dialogue didn’t even flow naturally because it was full of DSM jargon at random times. The therapist was super annoying, unprofessional and useless. And hello, did we need yet another shot of his mom’s boobs. Oh, my.

    Random observation: he needs ear protection in the hall but is fine at work? Also, if he’s as totally socially inept as they make him, how the hell is he holding down a job?

    Honestly, it kind of ticks me off because stuff like this makes life harder on autistic people because it’s one more inaccurate depiction NT people are basing their idea of autism on. It’s one more character that you have to go, no, he’s NOT like that, either. It honestly felt like a bunch of writers googled Aspergers and then went, oh, we can use that for comedy.

    1. The turtle was named Tesla in this first episode?

      Or was it a former turtle that Sam had kept and looked after before?

      The turtle I know is called Edison. And of course later on he says “Paige is not as good as Edison”. Like a maths equation.

      At least he does not fulfil this part of the Dark Triad – cruelty to sentient beings which are non-human.

      Even if we are still doubtful on the other two at this point in ATYPICAL.

      And turtles can sometimes take a lot of … neglect … and roughness.

      Lexiloo – the Aspergers Are Us are going on another big comedy tour. So good Noah Britton and the others are.

      No, we didn’t need another image of Elsa’s boobs.

      I think social ability and vocational ability are dissociated. Francesca Happe writes a lot about this. “IQ and social skills/abilities are dissociated in the group with high intelligence” – and we know that Sam is highly intelligent even if it’s “only” 65-80 as in the studies for that lower level.

      I do appreciate that there are soft skills involved. However, the USA have relatively strong anti-discrimination laws which are observed in the breach.

      I think also that there were high expectations for Sam to do what Casey is doing and because he is a man and the first child he has to do this. And I am glad he found a job he wanted and likes and where he is valued. Fifteen percent!

      And Kanner’s Alfred – if you’ve not “met” him, he is very very smart. Like 140-IQ smart. And four out of Kanner’s First Eleven held jobs. Donald Triplett, for instance, worked in a bank and someone else worked in an insurance firm. One of Donald’s previous jobs was on a farm. He was based in Missouri.

  3. It’s funny, I was also inspired to write up a point-by-point, episode-by-episode critique of this show about 2 minutes into the first episode. And then I discovered this series, and it’s like you’re in my head. I just love that it seems like all of us auties are on the same page about this. I’m gonna share this with everyone I know, because I’m so sick of being misrepresented, ignored, and dehumanized.

    1. Kiotsukare:

      I wrote an “impressionistic account” of episodes 4 5 and 6 of ATYPICAL.

      Using the subtitles to quote what characters say and think.

      Hope you are able to hop through other heads on NOS Magazine and elsewhere.

      I know I would not have done this without lots of other people like Mike Rowe who plays Christopher in the stage version of CURIOUS INCIDENT.

      I discovered this series – I had probably known about it at the start of the Netflix year if I tell the truth – through the Green Guide which is the TV/radio/technology guide of a broadsheet newspaper in my city.

      “I’m gonna share this with everyone I know, because I’m so sick of being misrepresented, ignored, and dehumanized.”

      This is really the key.

  4. I watched Atypical: Season One, Episode One Antarctica. The entire TV episode melts my intelligence. So, I am going to guess this is very dumb down show. Sam. It is obvious that his goal is to mate. He starts the episode to self-proclaim that he is a weirdo. I am going to assume that the social tag “weirdo” would have to given from other not his true identity. If someone call Sam a “weirdo” and feel shame, he is going to call himself a weirdo. The scene take place in the therapist office and Sam was talking to the therapist. And, mentioned that her bra. This have me to think. Is he an details orientated person where you call out that something not right? And, how the TV episode portray seems like the aren’t enough interaction between Sam and parents. He get most of this “information” from internet, co-worker, and therapist. What bothers me the most that the parents and therapist weren’t helpful enough. This would bother female genders. This is not to be unexpected obviously. When Sam burst out that he wanted to have sex during Dinner time, I find it hard that the mother isn’t like reaching out to him and sit him down. Maybe, talk it over, think it through, this might be too early to do something? Co-worker was unhelpful as the internet. The internet have loads of marketing where it tells a faux or fairy tale stories to get guy to purchase their services. So, Sam would no doubt study that and wrote down in later in the episode, a objectifying equation. He wrote “=”. It means it was a learned information and to able to simplify the “too long to explains” information, “insults = chick …..”. This is so easy to storm to one of the writers, one which wrote scripts for “Devious Maid” and “Desperate Housewives” TV shows asking “what the heck man?!”. While I can’t spoil the near ending, my brain hurts when there aren’t a thing like checking ID to make sure the person who you are dating and attempting to do with are legally consenting adult. Argh! Bad! The story like Sam realistically isn’t false but narration have to pick the lowest fruit when telling stories in show and movie. This isn’t always a bad thing when normally they tell the “mainstream” approach. However, the episode was bold to point out the seriousness of the social dysfunction of some people with Autism. In the workplace of where Sam work, I couldn’t help noticing the inappropriateness display. It kinds of resemble some stupid fictional “guy” movies. The reviews are heavily weigh on the 8 level. This doesn’t means it is so. I believe most people don’t understand Autism in awareness. But, the TV show series start off from the rough start about Sam having Autism in my opinion as if though they are trying to appease to a specific group of audience, guy maybe? Overall, he isn’t naturally a misogynist. And, even if he was “misogynist”, he is no misogynist than the robot in the movie Short Circuit or the Microsoft’s real life experiment Ai chat bot Tay. I just hope that the parents and therapist step up to the plate to help him.

    1. Humble Opinionator:

      Yes. The villain is the story.

      Thank you for fleshing out the writers and their background.

      I did enjoy DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES back in the day [2004-05].

      Good point about who and what makes artificial intelligence – even if it is a bad metaphor. Neural networks do make things transparent, don’t they?

      Very true about the low-hanging fruit.

      And if you call someone a weirdo and you do it out of your shame and embarrassment – do not be surprised if they call themselves a weirdo in their self-talk. Yes: “I’m weird. That’s what everyone says” must have been there right at the beginning when we meet Sam.

      PS: Loved Short Circuit when I was younger and looking for computer geek/nerd stories on VHS.

      Good to think of the audience pitching.

      “Melts my intelligence” …

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