Representation is important. Accurate representation, whether in fiction or nonfiction, can make a huge positive difference in how members of minority groups are viewed and treated by members of the majority group and can also be an empowering experience for those people who rarely see ourselves in the media.
That all said, yesterday I made the decision to watch Atypical, the new Netflix show with an Autistic main character.
The first episode was rather upsetting to watch and I hear that the series doesn’t get any better from here. Most of the things that were upsetting to me have already been covered extremely well in others’ reviews as well as on the twitter hashtag #ActuallyAtypical so I’m not going to write much about those issues in mine. It’s already been done and I don’t want to think about those things any longer than is absolutely necessary.
I am not recommending this show for many reasons.
However, many people, mainly allistic parents and a few Autistic people, have liked the show. So I’m watching it with an eye towards how it could possibly be salvaged to be more accurate and helpful to our community in the 2nd season. I’d love it if they made this season to hook all the “autism parents” and then made a sharp turn towards pro-neurodiversity, Autistic adult mentor, and ASAN Roadmap to Transition next season.
Full disclosure: I read pretty much every Autistic-written recap and review I could get my hands on before watching the show. So I’m watching the show with two of my family members (one of my Autistic children plus my allistic husband) who have only heard very little about the show and haven’t read any reviews yet. I’m curious to hear their perspectives as we move forward.
We’re only one episode in and we definitely have some thoughts to share. I do not plan to write anything else about it until we’ve finished watching all of them and I’m not sure when that’ll be, but these are my initial thoughts.
I can mostly distill my own thoughts down to one simple phrase: “We deserve better than this.”
More about that after a review:
The Autistic main character, Sam, is somewhat relatable. I agree with most other reviewers that it would’ve been better if he’d been played by an Autistic actor (not only for representation reasons either), but even so, some situations were quite familiar.
Sam stimming in the therapist’s office was relatable. Him not stimming anywhere else that I noticed wasn’t realistic to me. Why is he only shown to obviously stim in one location? I’d like an explanation for that.
Sam researching about dating and info-dumping about his Antarctica interest were very familiar. I do those things (with my interests) and I can turn any conversation around to be about something I find interesting if given half a chance. I try not to do that very much because it’s good to let others talk, but it’s something I used to do all the time as a teenager and still do with Autistic friends and in groups that are based on my interests.
Sam taking notes in the therapist’s office was great. Yes. If I don’t take notes in meetings like that, I will not remember anything. Him carrying a notebook around is also great. Normalize people taking notes and carrying around the materials to do so! Those materials can even double as communication aids during times when we can’t talk.
Sam’s honest oversharing during his parking lot date was also very relatable. I tend to go off on oversharing tangents when nervous. I don’t do it so much any longer, but it happened all the time when I was a teenager and young adult.
So, four instances of Sam acting in ways that came across to me as relatable.
There were several scenes that were painful to watch. I was very glad to have read recaps so that I wasn’t surprised by them.
My family’s unanimous opinion on Julia, the therapist, is that she was terrible in pretty much every way. Which, unfortunately is often realistic, but nobody in the show has been called on any of the horrible things that they’ve done so far.
Husband was pretty appalled by how Elsa (Sam’s mom) and Julia (therapist) were talking about him and making plans for his life without including him. This, again, is accurate, but is not okay. It should not be portrayed as okay. I really hope they directly address this later on because the scene pretty much normalized that sort of behavior.
I understand that this is supposed to be a comedy, but Speechless managed to be funny, light, and still tackle difficult issues like inspiration porn in really incredible ways. So it can (and, I think, should) be done. Preferably these things would be addressed in the same episode where they’re shown since not everyone is going to watch the entire series.
At one point Elsa says, “Sam’s not like us….” which, coupled with Elsa seeming to be Autistic herself at times, makes me wonder if maybe they will go for the plot twist of, “Mom discovers she’s Autistic too!”
Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part because that’s a plot twist I could potentially relate to.
Elsa isn’t a very likable character, even in the first episode, but she wears long-sleeves to a Zumba class where everyone else is wearing sleeveless shirts, apparently only talks about “autism-this, autism-that” according to her husband, and stims more than Sam does, albeit in socially acceptable ways.
I also can see how other reviewers have come up with the sister possibly being Autistic. More Autistic characters would definitely help, but only if the writers and creators actually listen to us (even better – they could hire some of us to consult and/or write!) so that maybe they could tell our actual stories instead of the stories they think we have.
Really, they should have listened to us in the first place.
Some of the wording bothered me. Sam’s dad says that Sam needs to find someone who “appreciates you for what you are” instead of “for who you are” which seems quite dehumanizing and Sam repeats that wording later too. The sentiment isn’t bad, but people aren’t “what”s, we’re “who”s. I’m glad that his family at least uses “Autistic” to describe Sam. So there’s some alternating of terminology so far, which is decent and realistic since therapists seem to be more likely to use euphemisms like “on the spectrum” in real life too.
None of the three of us thought that Sam had much of a personality. While a few of his reactions and behaviors were relatable, as a character he really wasn’t. He comes across as very flat and two-dimensional. He’s Autistic, wants to have sex, and likes penguins. That’s it.
Husband says that it’s bizarre to watch a show where the main character is so passive. Sam doesn’t have much agency and is often just floating along doing what other people tell him to do. There could be some amazing ABA criticism fodder in there, but I’m not holding my breath for the show to actually address that issue.
Husband also said that it’s not a positive Autistic portrayal and is concerning if this is the only openly Autistic character in a show because allistics who watch will use it to inform their opinion of us. It’s also just not a well-told story.
“I think there are structural problems with the story and it’s a shame Sam’s so passive in what’s supposed to be his own story.”
Our child was unhappy with the fact that nobody treated Sam as though he was human, with the lack of diversity (mostly white cast), and also that the r-word was thrown randomly into the dorm room scene, which was generally a distressing scene to watch as an Autistic person. They also critiqued at length the fact that girls and women were very rarely treated like people in the episode.
I didn’t think that the show did a good job at all of explaining why Sam put up with the light touch until his breaking point and issues of consent were never addressed within this episode. I’m fairly upset about both of those things.
So, back to deserving better. This is what I wrote on twitter earlier:
The main thought I’ve had is that we deserve better. We deserve to be included in our own stories. We deserve to have well-formed narratives told about us. We deserve to be represented in ways that recognize our diversity not just a “fish out of water” tale. We should not have to settle for a few relatable moments in an otherwise cringeworthy episode with a very passive main character.