This is an image of Sam, a white teen boy wearing a hoodie, and Zahid, a South Asian teen boy wearing a jacket, standing outside a strip club.

Atypical: Season One, Episode Six

Episode 6 of Atypical is titled, “The D-Train to Bone Town.” I feel slightly uncomfortable just typing that phrase. It was an uncomfortable episode to watch overall. Atypical is threaded with racist subtext, but it really comes to a head in this episode. Somehow, all of the mean girls are black women. April the mean mom? she’s black. Sharice, Casey’s so-called best friend who betrays her? Black. Her track mates are people of color, too. The only empathetic black character in this episode is Harmony, a sex worker, and she is thoroughly objectified by both Sam and the show’s writers. I don’t think it’s intentional, but the image of autism as a white disease causes serious hurt and isolation for black autistic people and their families. The image of Sam’s white family being afflicted by intolerant, neurotypical black people is not a good look for the writers.

‘You asked what this makes me think of? Freezing to death under the night sky.’

Paige continues to pressure Sam, despite his clear discomfort. “I guess I could sit in the hallway outside of the gym with my headphones on until it’s over. I’ll bring a Ziploc full of crackers in case I get hungry.” “What, no, that’s boring!” Paige responds. “Not to me, I like crackers.” Paige then tries to use her sexuality to entice Sam into doing something he is clearly uncomfortable with. It’s manipulative.
Paige is subtle enough that Sam doesn’t actually pick up on what she’s offering. “Why would I want to go to your house? You have terrible snacks. Plus I’ll probably be tired and ready for bed,” Sam responds to an invitation to “come over” after the dance. I found that moment very relatable. I can think of several instances in which I have misinterpreted similar situations. “Why would I want to come up for coffee? It’s 9 PM. I don’t want to be up all night,” is something I have actually said before, embarrassingly.

‘It totally feels like a compliment.’

Casey is being frozen out by her friends and teammates from track. Since her mother told April that Casey might be going to Clayton Prep, now everyone knows and is angry, as they probably won’t make it to finals without her. Coach Briggs tries to reassure her, “Just try to take it as a compliment.”

Elsa is still angry at Doug for “being so ashamed of Sam’s autism that [he never mentions] it at work,” which is ridiculously petty considering she is cheating on him. But then, ridiculously petty seems to be Elsa’s MO. She is then confronted by Casey about blabbing about Clayton Prep. In a lot of ways, I feel like Elsa is the antagonist this season. She doesn’t want Sam to date and be more independent. She doesn’t want Casey to leave for Clayton Prep. She’s cheating on her husband while simultaneously berating him for not owning his “identity” as an autism parent, which isn’t really an identity at all.

‘Sex, dude.’

At Techtropolis, Zahid explains to Sam that by, “come over,” Paige actually means that she wants to have sex with Sam. I really appreciate him explaining the subtext of what Paige said, even if he uses really unpleasant language to do it. Explaining missed subtext and jokes to autistic people without shaming them is so important. For all of his flaws, Zahid at least tries to be a good friend to Sam. “She wants to take the D-train to Bone Town” Zahid tells Sam, who then looks at him quizzically. “Sex. Again. Just always assume I mean sex.”

Zahid takes Sam condom shopping, which is also very responsible of him. “Buying condoms is inherently embarrassing, but you have nothing to be afraid of.” What’s inherently embarrassing is the dialogue Sam proceeds to have with the pharmacist about condoms. This is yet another instance where Sam’s autism is supposed to be a punchline. I think it’s unrealistic that Sam would rather ask a stranger questions and make eye contact with said stranger than Google it. Is this show taking place in some parallel universe where the internet doesn’t exist? Or at minimum, where a teenage boy doesn’t know how to clear a browser search history? The pharmacist even says as much. One of his first responses to Sam’s questions is, “check the internet.”

Elsa reassures Casey that the other girls on the track team aren’t angry at her. Instead, they’re just sad she’s leaving. Elsa gets to feel like she didn’t do anything wrong and invalidate Casey’s experience at the same time! She is the worst. Elsa pressures Casey to go dress shopping with the other girls from the track team. As someone who experienced bullying, there is no way this is going to end well for Casey. Even as a former mean girl (because of course she was), Elsa should see what’s happening. The only explanation is that Elsa cares more about absolving her own guilt than anything else, once again.

Doug meets with Julia to return a book he borrowed. If anyone is curious, the title is “The Journal of Best Practices.” I haven’t read it, so I don’t have any opinions on whether it is a good book or not. If any readers have, please share your thoughts on it in the comments. Doug then proceeds to try to get therapy from Julia. Julia rightly suggests that he get his own therapist. He’s not going to do that, though. It would mean admitting he has problems. In a heavy handed metaphor, Julia hasn’t been to the doctor since she fell in her apartment. Doug convinces her to go to the emergency room to get it looked at. “I guess limping around on one foot in horrible pain is a solution?” he asks rhetorically.

‘Why don’t you try to find some common interests?’

After six episodes of a show ostensibly about autism with dozens of characters, an actually autistic  actor, Anthony Jacques, has a bit part as Christopher, another autistic teenage boy. Apparently he originally auditioned to play Sam but didn’t get the part. Robia Rashid, the creator of the show, claims that instead, they hired the “best” actor for the role. The scene Christopher and Sam have together make the artificiality of Keir Gilchrist’s autism act even more obvious than usual. Admittedly, I don’t think that an autistic actor always has to play an autistic character. But in this instance, it would have lent authenticity and subtlety that Atypical completely lacks.

Casey goes dress shopping with her “friends.” In a completely predictable series of events, her friends steal her clothes once she’s in the changing room. Then they ditch her. Teenagers are incredibly cruel. I’m really happy I’m not one anymore.

At school, Paige gives a speech to a parent committee about how poor, suffering Sam should get to go to a dance he doesn’t even want to go to. She uses him to get what she wants: For all the other teenagers to see her at a dance with her boyfriend. It’s about Paige’s own status, not Sam’s feelings. People seem to feel positively about the idea.

April stands up to address the other mothers. First she objects to how headphones will affect her daughter’s $80 up do. Then when Elsa offers to do everyone’s hair for free, April lays out what she’s really about. “Do we really need to change everything just to accommodate one kid? A silent dance is just so sad!” Elsa, not to be outdone, then delivers a monologue about Sam’s isolation and misery. In a competition between pity porn and exclusion of people who are different, apparently pity porn wins the day. It’s a dichotomy that shouldn’t exist at all, especially considering that the changes to the dance are really for Paige, not Sam.

Casey manages to contact her mother so she can get clothes and leave the store where her so-called friends ditched her. When Elsa comes to pick Casey up, the first thing she says is a cruel “joke”: “I got a fraud alert on my credit card. Did you have to pick the most expensive dress in the store.” Wow. Really? Elsa, this is basically all your fault. “I don’t want to leave you guys, or Evan, or my team. This whole Clayton Prep thing is starting to feel selfish,” Casey confesses. For once, Elsa does some great parenting. She validates Casey’s feelings and tells her, “it’s OK to be a little selfish.”

‘Biology is my favorite subject.’

Sam confides in Zahid that he isn’t ready to have sex because he hasn’t seen breasts before. Zahid takes Sam to a strip club. Once again, does Sam not have an internet connection? What teenage boy in 2017 with the ability to use a computer hasn’t seen breasts?

Unsurprisingly, the bright lights and loud noises of a strip club aren’t a good fit for Sam. Zahid goes back into the club to get a plate of his cousin’s goat curry tacos while Sam waits on a bench outside. While Zahid is gone, Sam meets Destiny, a woman who works at the club. “I get it kid. I work here and this place can be too much for me, too. I use earplugs.” Destiny then proceeds to give Sam some of the best advice he’s gotten so far in the series: “Just be kind to her. That’s all that really matters.” Sam tells Destiny how nervous he is about having sex for the first time, since he’s never seen breasts. Destiny flashes Sam before going back to work. In context it’s actually really sweet of her. On her way back in, she greets Zahid by name, indicating he is probably a regular. Where are Zahid’s parents? I understand he is over 18, but he still seems pretty young to be at a strip club on a regular basis. At least he’s respectful to her.

At the hospital, Julia delivers a monologue about how her greatest regret is that her brother didn’t get early intervention. Apparently her brother is minimally verbal, and this is a tragedy that has propelled her to work as a therapist with autistic kids. Presumably, Julia’s brother is still alive, so this seems like an astoundingly cruel thing for her to say. Your greatest regret is that your brother isn’t a different person? Really? And now he’s just wasted clay because he didn’t get early intervention? How kind.

Doug agrees to get his own therapist and calls Elsa to apologize for not telling his coworkers about Sam’s autism. “There’s this part of me that’s ashamed. It’s not who I am anymore and it’s not who I want to be anymore.” Doug is a good dude. Sharice apologizes to Casey for stealing her clothes. Casey ask Sharice to accompany her to the dance. “Are you only asking my ’cause Evan can’t go because he’s a thief?” she asks. “Yes.” “I’d love to!”

Sam is in the living room making a photorealistic sketch of Destiny’s breasts, from memory. Just her breasts. He shows the sketch to his sister and her friend. How has an adult not had a conversation with him about pornography and women’s breasts being private?

At the hospital, Julia finds out she won’t be getting an x-ray, as she’s pregnant.

What worked

  • I really appreciate the writers underlining the fact that having the same diagnosis doesn’t mean people are going to be friends or even get along particularly well.
  • A dance where everyone wears headphones is actually a really cool idea. Especially if headphones had individual volume control.
  • Zahid is a creep to women, but he’s actually a pretty good friend to Sam. I like that he explains jokes and euphemisms without making it weird or being mean about it.

What didn’t

  • I am skeptical that Jennifer Jason Leigh, the actress who plays Elsa, has ever actually been around someone who has smoked pot, let alone tried it herself. Or she’s just really bad at acting stoned. It’s not a subtle performance.
  • Earplugs don’t cause tinnitus unless you never clean them and get an infection as a result. I wear silicone musician’s earplugs all the time. They’re great. I can even run them through the dish washer.

Neurotypical Bullshit (NTBS)-O-Meter

  • My brother is autistic. Jesse. He’s not as high functioning as Sam. He’s minimally verbal. As a kid we couldn’t even walk through a parking lot because he’d have to stop behind every car and read the license plate. But my parents didn’t acknowledge he was on the spectrum until he was 16. They kept insisting it was a speech issue and that he’d grow out of it. The saddest thing in my life is wondering what he would have been like if he’d gotten interventions early. It’s why I do what I do.” Someone really needs to get Julia a copy of Don’t Mourn for Us. Here’s audio, for those who prefer it to text.

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

7 thoughts on “Atypical: Season One, Episode Six”

    1. I thought, this too. Plus, Christopher told Sam that he needed to cover the bases before having sex, which I think he interpreted to mean ‘I need to see boobs’. I do agree that the condom scene seemed unrealistic in the age of the internet, though.

  1. Destiny is the empathetic sex worker.

    I think I read her as multi-racial especially that scene in the parking lot.

    Paige, Paige, Paige!

    I did like the idea of the silent disco, which I had anticipated early in the episode. There are lots of No Lights No Lycra discos going on, and also silent discos have become very trendy in offices and even school proms.

    And in the last five years – Gigbuddies! Gigbuddies is where you do something that you love with someone who loves it too. It doesn’t have to be about music.

    Prevent drug use in the kids; prevent drug use in the soccer Mums too. Reminds me a lot of THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER by Tom Perrotta and the plot which went down there.

    I liked the Christopher scene. And how the “common interest” turns out to be … sex.

    This no-Internet parallel universe is evident in GINNY MOON by Benjamin Ludwig which was created by a parent of an adoptive autistic woman. Ginny’s Forever Mom and Forever Dad don’t let her use the Net even though in the first chapter she sneaks on it on her friend’s shoulder to try to find her birth mother Gloria in her special class/study hall with Benjamin.

    It might be about time for another GINNY MOON newsletter. Ginny is telling the story about her friend Kelly who she meets in the neighbourhood. It would be wonderful to have this nine-grape-eating Michael Jackson fan on our screens big or small.

    Pity porn wins the day. How sad. Not the silent dance.

    In 1999 there was a lot of breast-sighting [sight; cite; site].

    And, really, the most expensive *dress* in the store? I had my peeps pick up jewellery for me for a special occasion. Or a stole or something wintry. Also hair and make-up, and yes, it would have been ear defender friendly. I might even have made them a feature of the outfit. We do that with bunny ears after all.

    Zahid goes to this strip club? And I think the brother of Zahid runs a restaurant or works around the food with the liquids and the solids and the gasses.

    And if Americans follow the 21 rule with sex as they do drink and drugs, I think Zahid would be 22-23ish. Yes, young enough and old enough to do things like that without immediately compromising his reputation at Techtropolis or anywhere else.

    The Sharice scenes were very mixed.

    Definitely agree about Jesse. I think he might have been much better off without the interventional technology of the time and he had space to remain himself as Julia remained herself. And licence plates are cool to read – Stephen Wiltshire did it on his American journey and there is this scene Oliver Sacks wrote about. Yes, it’s objectifying and othering and the “good doctor” [will that be on NOS Magazine any time soon? And Neuroqueer Collective?] does it to make a point…

    Fortunately Wiltshire said “it’s what’s on that licence plate” and went no further. I sort of love the way he freezes out Sacks who is so clearly looking for a validation of his neediness in that regard. And it’s Sacks’ brother with whom Wiltshire has the therapeutic/medical relationship or did from the 1970s to the 1990s – 40 years now if it still goes on.

    Now I want to know if Sam has a paediatrician or general practitioner in his life like Casey does.

  2. “I am skeptical that Jennifer Jason Leigh, the actress who plays Elsa, has ever actually been around someone who has smoked pot, let alone tried it herself. Or she’s just really bad at acting stoned. It’s not a subtle performance.”

    I think Jennifer Jason Leigh might have done it when she was very young and first emancipated from her parents. I’d have to know about the older actors she hung around with. And wasn’t her friend Juliette Lewis and aren’t I terribly confused?

  3. I’ve read Journal of Best Practices, on the recommendation of a former therapist. It’s one of those books NTs seem to love because it’s a humorous look at autistic experience with all the humor being at the expense of the autistic person. Essentially, it’s a guy being like, “I was a shitty husband. Then My wife told me I have autism and I suddenly realized the reason I was such an asshole was actually autism! Yay!!” When actually the reason he was an asshole was because he was a sexist, selfish typical dude, who also happened to be autistic. UGH

  4. Thank you so much for these reviews! I have appreciated every single one so far. Still on the fence about watching it myself, but I’ve found your reviews to be extremely balanced and informative.

    The part about the mom getting high is absolutely hilarious to me because the actress who played her also played Jill in the show Weeds, which is all about Jill’s sister Nancy selling pot. So I can’t imagine that the actress has been completely isolated from decent performances of being stoned even if she’s never actually been around someone who’s stoned.

  5. If this takes place in the early 2000s, might that account for the Internet not being referred to as much? I remember not everyone even had a home computer at the time. And not everyone thought to Google or use whichever search engine was popular at the time to look up stuff.

    And we didn’t have little computers on our person at all times, like we do now with our smartphones!

    I may be way off base though, and I haven’t watched the show yet (and I’m not sure if I want too–the characters sound awful).

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