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How Season 2 of ‘Atypical’ Improves the Show’s Depictions of Life as an Autistic Person

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

The first season of the Netflix series “Atypical” introduced audiences to the Gardners, a suburban Connecticut family with an autistic teenage son, Sam (Keir Gilchrist), at its center. As an autistic viewer, the coming-of-age story inspired familiar frustrations for me with how the disability is usually represented in popular culture: white, cisgender, straight, intellectually gifted and totally lacking in human empathy.

It doesn’t take someone particularly adept at social niceties to realize that you shouldn’t dump your girlfriend and immediately declare your undying love for your therapist in front of her entire family, but Sam did just that. He also yanked a girl’s ponytail (instead of just moving away) because it was bothering him, and asked another peer to be his “practice girlfriend” in order to learn the ropes of dating. By the end of the season, it felt to me that regardless of the intentions of the creator Robia Rashid, “Atypical” was a step backward in onscreen autistic depictions.

And so I was pleasantly surprised to find that in its second season, “Atypical” improves on the first in significant ways. Sam is now in his senior year and his decision to go to art school breaks the mold a little — usually, autistic adults in films and TV shows get pigeonholed as programmers, scientists or math whizzes, as seen in “Adam,” “The Good Doctor” and of course, “Rain Man.” In his peer group of autistic teens, we get an even wider variety of aspirations. One wants to be a dentist. Another loves ambulances and would, perhaps, be a wonderful EMT or ambulance driver someday. I have an MFA in creative writing — most of us aren’t Bill Gates or Sheldon Cooper of “The Big Bang Theory,” and it was nice to see that acknowledged here.

Season 2 corrects another major problem from Season 1: The framing of Sam, and, by extension, his autism, as the forces tearing his family apart. Instead, it is his mother’s infidelity and his sister’s self-sabotaging streak that take center stage; Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) desperately seeks forgiveness from her husband, Doug (Michael Rapaport). Casey (Bridgette Lundy-Paine) struggles to adjust to private school life and her evolving sexuality. Each member of the family has his or her own engrossing story, and this time, refreshingly, Sam and his autism aren’t portrayed as the source of their misery.

These refinements seem at least partly informed by some of the creative tweaks Ms. Rashid made behind the scenes. The first time around, the only professional consultant was Michelle Dean, an assistant professor of special education at California State University Channel Islands who is not herself on the spectrum; for Season 2, the show added the autistic author David Finch as an “expert in the personal experience of autism,” as he described to me via email. More actual autistic people were cast in new roles, including all of the characters in Sam’s peer group. (Last season there was one, played by Anthony Jacques, in a supporting part.)

Yet some of the issues I had with “Atypical” in Season 1 persist. Sam is still portrayed as more of a checklist than a person. In the first season, he frequently breaks into monologues rattling off autism symptoms, bringing to mind the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in human form. This season, it happens only once: When he runs out of school during a particularly stressful moment, there is a short monologue about “elopement,” or wandering, which can be a safety concern for people with certain kinds of disabilities. The choice to explain it in this instance, however, feels clumsy and does not reveal anything educational about Sam or his life as an autistic person.

And the other characters remain bizarrely tolerant of Sam’s often misogynist behavior. His former therapist Julia, for example, gets calls from him every day. This is after Sam broke into Julia’s house and declared his love for her in Season 1. Even stranger, she feels guilty and apologizes for shouting at him after this profound violation.

If a teenage boy breaks into his therapist’s house and then calls her every day after she stops seeing him as a client, it’s time to get a restraining order, not to apologize. No one in Sam’s life seems willing to explain to him that his behavior is inappropriate — except in one refreshing instance where his guidance counselor informs him that he cannot, in fact, write in his college application essay that his greatest achievement is seeing an exotic dancer’s breasts.

When I asked Ms. Rashid via email about how the Season 1 criticisms from the adult autistic community (including my own) might have affected her approach to the new season, she responded, in part, that she “definitely heard the criticism and it was a guiding principle for me in Season 2.” She added that she was “thrilled with the results,” a reaction I don’t quite share. Season 2 is better, but it had an extremely low bar to clear.

Still, I’m no longer filled with dread at the thought of more episodes, as I was after watching the first season. Unexpectedly, I find myself looking forward to learning what happens to Sam as he transitions to a university environment. Will he blossom like I did, or struggle like some of my friends? Will he finally have a healthy romantic relationship?

If “Atypical” gets a third season, I hope Ms. Rashid will continue to take input from an even wider range of autistic adults, and perhaps even add a few to the writers room. I know plenty of autistic writers who would love a chance to share our personal experiences, if only we were asked.


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