Humanizing autism


Netflix hits all the right notes in its new series, Atypical, which takes a much needed and welcomed look at what it’s like to have autism. I know, because I live with autism. In a world where the autism spectrum remains a mystery to many, the show captures the real, and sometimes funny, moments of this learning disability, and in doing so, opens our eyes as to what people like me not only go through but, more importantly, what we are all about.

Atypical’s main character is Sam Gardner, an 18-year-old boy on the autism spectrum. To be honest, I expected the show to be filled with stereotypes, given the inherent difficulty in depicting autism due to the sheer variation of symptoms, severity, and individual quirks across multiple diagnoses. One person with autism may be quiet and reticent, another overbearing with few boundaries, while a third might seem catatonic, responding little if at all to external stimuli, and yet another may resemble Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond Babbitt from the 1988 film, “Rain Man.” It’s no wonder that the symbol for autism is a puzzle piece; no two diagnoses are quite the same. Fortunately, it seems the show’s creators are aware of this, and worked to circumvent this challenge while maintaining a fairly genuine representation of what a person with autism may be like.

For the most part, Sam displays what could be called the standard suite of behaviors common in those with high-functioning autism. He avoids eye contact, often wears a rather blank expression, fidgets and mutters to keep himself calm, is utterly literal, etc. The list goes on, as Sam at one point or another displays virtually every identifying behavior you’re likely to find in a book on high-functioning autism. In this, perhaps Atypical does come to lean on stereotypes a bit, as, in my experience, it’s not so often you find someone who manages to so perfectly check off every box on the “Does My Child Have Autism?” test. Regardless, if I were to come across Sam Gardner walking the campus of Landmark College, which specializes in teaching students with learning disabilities, ADHD, and autism, I’d have no trouble believing him to be a student like any other.

While the mildly stereotypical nature of the depiction may be seen as damaging to people’s understanding of real people with autism, it simultaneously lends Sam a certain broad relatability for those who are on the autism spectrum. As I watched the show with a friend, I couldn’t help but point at what Sam was doing at times and say, “I’m totally like that,” or “I kind of do that, except instead of doing that I do this.” Other times, though, the show broke from subtlety and instead exaggerated Sam’s behaviors as a means of making a joke. For example, the overly honest and unabashed Sam expresses his desire for a girlfriend by stating to his family that he wants to find someone to have sex with.

Where the show truly shines in its depiction of autism is in its depiction of the way Sam’s mind works. To the show’s credit, it serves to humanize all the behaviors that many would simply chalk up to being “not all there.” Most of the socially inappropriate things Sam does stem from his simply not knowing not to do them.

Atypical highlights what could be the crux of what makes it so difficult to deal with people on the spectrum: they must, via logic, learn most of the things which neurotypicals simply figure out during their development. Through moments of introspection during his therapy, Sam guides the viewer through his logic as he attempts to understand the world around him the only way he knows how: through evidence, logic, and comparisons to Antarctic wildlife, his personal obsession. At times, his reasoning may take unusual leaps, but for the most part, it’s easy to understand Sam’s perspective and mindset.

For those without autism, the most important thing Atypical does is make it clear that the autistic mind isn’t such an alien thing.

Meanwhile, Atypical serves those who are on the spectrum by setting an example for how they can deal with their own problems. Sam asks questions, takes notes, surrounds himself with understanding friends, and takes on more responsibility in his life. As he does this, one can see Sam grow, in a manner that poignantly reminded me of my own, similar growing-up experience at Landmark. What many people with autism need is a safe, accepting environment where they can try new things, and, in my humble opinion, Atypical succeeds in communicating this. Here’s hoping it has a long run on Netflix.


Jacob Zlody is a recent graduate of Landmark College, which specializes in teaching students who learn differently.



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