Yes, Atypical is flawed. But it is also amazing. Comments such as the one above, expressing disdain for Sam's mom, Elsa (played frenetically by Jennifer Jason Leigh), are really, as I see it, unintended compliments. The discomfort brought on by the mother on Atypical is likely due to the fact that she reminds many of us of the classic, overextended, overbearing, hovering Autism Mom.
I've also seen comments such as, “Watching the show gives me hope for my autistic grandson”. That alone is huge. It is clear that these portrayals will help to shape the public perception of autistic people going forward. Discussions about portrayals of autism are incredibly important and long overdue. Keep them going!
And this isn't an easy problem to solve. You've got to create a character that will bear the weight of trying to be the “right” representation of the whole of this thing called autism. How would you “place” such a character? If you make the character a very specific individual, you'll get complaints about the character not being representative enough; if you give the character a very broad representation, it will come across as just a stereotype. Atypical has been criticized for both faults. Frankly, I applaud the show for doing as well as it did. Sam Gardner is among the very first openly autistic protagonists on the small screen. Could his depiction be more nuanced? Of course. But think back to the 70s, when Black roles started to become more prominent on TV. Where the characters subtly nuanced? Goodness no! Did that change with time? Yes.
if there's judgment behind it
In Atypical there are numerous clunky scenes that awkwardly inject mini-lectures about autism into the dialog. Is it great script writing? No. Is it inevitable? Probably. Again, this will improve with time. Right now, the general public still needs to be brought up to speed about autism. I have no doubt that public awareness and understanding of autism will improve as a result of these clunky, ungainly lectures. Better writing will come.
Atypical has been called out for not involving autistics more in the creative process. And it's true, they really missed the boat here. The creators spoke with spectrumites pre-production, but there were no (self-declared) autistic writers, producers, consultants, etc. Knowing this makes it difficult, at times, to assess what the show is trying to communicate. In the fourth episode, Sam's father uses the phrase, “my autistic kid” in a support group. He is told, by the “professional” in the group, that he should use person-first language (“kid who is autistic”) rather than identity-first language (“autistic kid”). This is a huge point of contention within the autistic community, with most self-advocates falling firmly in the identity-first camp. The fact that the scene blows off the debate with, “it doesn't matter”, does not bode well. Fortunately, however, the public outcry, especially from within the autistic community, has been loud enough that, going forward, any show would be foolish not to be far more inclusive.
To it's credit, Atypical does have an autistic cast member, Anthony Jacques, who appears in two episodes of the first season. Interestingly, Jacques originally auditioned for Sam's part, and although he didn't get that role, they wrote the Christopher character in response to his audition! While I've not seen it publicly declared, it looks very much to me as if Jacques' character, Christopher, is going to turn out also to be autistic.
Early representations of autism on television is breaking ground, and that doesn't always happen very smoothly. But the ground has been broken. Discussions are still lively. There will be more shows, there will be more characters. As presence grows, as inclusion grows, as awareness grows — as autism is seen as more of a difference than an oddity — the nuance in our representation will also grow.
Destination HealthEU will post more pieces from Robert on the representation of autism in media, including in the new show, The Good Doctor, so stay tuned!