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Arts in Review

Atypical: a sore subject

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Atypical follows the story of Sam, a typical teenage boy in a typical family in a typical suburban town. Sam decides that he wants to start dating. There is just one problem: Sam has autism.

I wanted to take a look at Atypical because I am on the spectrum myself, and I wanted to see how a show where the central premise is autism portrays my condition. The results were complicated, but if I had to pick one word to describe Atypical, it would be “cringeworthy.”

To give credit where credit is due, it is obvious that the show’s producers did their due diligence in researching autism, and took pains to portray it both realistically and sympathetically. Autism is a complicated condition, and no two cases are alike. Some (like me) are high-functioning enough that you might not know they were autistic unless you were told, while others are so severely handicapped that they can’t even speak. It goes without saying that when it comes to autism, it is hard to generalize. The core aspect of it though, is that autism impairs one’s ability to pick up on social cues, to moderate one’s behaviour to society’s expectations, and to effectively express one’s emotions. This forms the central conflict of the story, wherein Sam struggles with his own handicap in the hope of finding a romantic companion.

“Atypical’s” portrayal of autism gets many details spot-on, or nearly so. For example, narrow and intense interests (Sam’s is the polar regions, and penguins in particular), irritation by bright lights and loud noises, and literal-mindedness, to name a few. I also like the underlying message that autism is not a disease or disorder, but is the mind working in a different way, hence the title “Atypical.” Not all the characters see it this way deep down, of course, and I can understand why it would be hard to have such a positive outlook if you know someone living with autism of the low-functioning variety. Luckily for Sam, he is high-functioning enough that he has a chance of overcoming his handicaps. On that note, the show’s producers have Sam in late high school, which is about the same time that I really started to get a handle on my own behaviour, so they chose an excellent age for an autistic coming-of-age story.

That being said, the show makes a few minor missteps in its portrayal of autism. For example, yes, it is true that a particular word or phrase can become stuck in our heads on repeat, but never have I stormed out of my front door, and blurted it out to the stranger that happened to be there. However, as I said before, autism is a highly variable condition, so my own experience may not be the best measure.

Unfortunately, I think the writers of Atypical lost sight of the neurotypical forest for the autistic trees. There is a lot of potential in the side plots of the other characters, such as Sam’s mother, who doesn’t think Sam has what it takes to live independently, and tries to sabotage him, or his father, who has never really been able to come to terms with his son’s condition. Unfortunately, it all goes out the window by having characters who display highly shocking and antisocial behaviour. Many of the characters display a lack of common sense and self-restraint that I find baffling and horrifying. Perhaps my own neurosis makes me unable to comprehend garden-variety human foibles. Alternatively, it could be deliberate on the writer’s part. “We’re all weird” is a message that comes up more than once, but that message is usually delivered with all the subtlety of a train wreck.

The moment I stopped watching was when Sam’s friend from work, Zaheed (who I am surprised isn’t fired or arrested for lewd conduct given some of the things he says and does) is about to enter a strip club with Sam (cue intense neon lights and loud music from within, and never mind that they’re both in high school, and likely underage), because Sam has gotten it into his head, based on another’s advice, that he needs to see a woman’s bare chest and genitals before he can have sex with his new girlfriend. I am not making this up. You know that feeling when you’re having a nightmare and say to yourself, “Forget this, I’m out,” and then wake yourself up? Well, this is the moment I “woke up,” because based on what I had seen before, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that this scene would end well.

Now, the above scene may be an extreme example, but honestly, pretty much the whole show feels like this. It’s like a breakneck journey from one social catastrophe to the next. Even when things do go smoothly in the end, the nerve-wracking anticipation that it could, and probably will, go haywire is just as bad. I don’t know if this is another autistic thing or not, but when people embarrass themselves in movies or on TV, I feel embarrassed too out of empathy, unless it is clearly intended to be comedic, which Atypical is not. A contributing factor is my discomfort in seeing my condition, of which I am very self-conscious, laid bare, warts and all, on the small screen. Top that off with my mortal fear of embarrassment and rejection born out of my lifetime of trying to cope with my condition, and you have a show that was torture for me to sit through; and this why I would call Atypical “cringeworthy.”

Atypical may have done a good job in spreading its message, but making all of us feel like an autistic person being suddenly thrust on stage and given the mic at a live rock concert in a foreign country during a fire drill is not the best way to go about it. When it comes to positively and accurately representing autism, Atypical succeeds; but as enjoyable entertainment, it falls short.

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