You might have heard that Netflix released an original series called Atypical, especially if you are a subscriber or have any social media accounts. The show is about an autistic 18-year-old in his senior year of high school on a quest to find a relationship and all the physical “benefits” our society equates with it.
Serving in ministry you’ve likely met and know at least one autistic individual. So, you might be wondering if Atypical is worth watching, especially as a tool for better understanding autism.
I’m going to provide a breakdown of Atypical’s reception within the autism community and share my own thoughts, particularly for individual’s serving the Church.
First, it’s important to know that not everyone within the autism community agrees about the accuracy of autism’s portrayal in Atypical nor in it’s quality of entertainment. Many parents in autism parent support groups find the show entertaining and fairly accurate, even if the show’s representation of autism does not exactly align with their own experience. Several autism self-advocates have expressed concern, disappointment, and even disdain for Atypical. Common critiques include the stereotypical representation of autism to the detriment of autistic individuals and autistic advocacy as well as a lack of authentic representation in mainstream media.
The response to Atypical overall within the broader autism community that I’ve witnessed online can be summarized as: a significant number of parents of autistic children love the show, some autistics are okay or ambivalent about the show (The linked review is a very good, balanced review from an autistic individual), and autistic individuals active in disability movement circles hate the show (Note: clicking on the link will take you to a youtube video of a very insightful audio interview, which is worth a listen). Leslie Felperin at The Guardian provides one of the most balanced reviews of Atypical that I’ve read from a parent of an autistic person.
I’ve watched the entire series and I agree with many of the concerns expressed by autistic advocates and allies, but my perspective is nuanced and I don’t want to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Given that there are three great reviews above you can read or listen to, here are some of my thoughts for anyone working with autistic individuals, thinking about using Atypical as a resource for personal or volunteer development:
Atypical is like Sesame Street, but for adults and about autism specifically – though, an argument could be made for Sesame Street’s superior education on the subject of autism through their new Muppet, Julia.
Let me explain this analogy. Do you remember the 1990’s PBS show for kids called Wishbone? The Jack Russell Terrier whom the show is named after imagines and acts out various classic or famous stories. One episode of Wishbone portrayed The Odyssey. The episode offered a representation of a simplified form of Homer’s classic literary work. However, if a college student or adult tried to carry on an educated conversation about The Odyssey from watching the Wishbone episode, he or she would be inadequately prepared and likely come across quite foolish.
Atypical seems to be a show for just entertainment, but it feels stereotypical and uncomfortable at times because it is also trying to sneak in lessons and education about autism, the autism community, and family dynamics like the PBS shows of our youth. Sometimes the storyline is compromised by the attempts at educating and sometimes the education is compromised by attempts at maintaining an engaging and compelling storyline. Atypical presents a caricature of autism wrapped into a somewhat entertaining, at times cringe-worthy, and sometimes-creepy storyline to teach the general population about autism through stereotypes.
What ministry leaders and volunteers can take away from Atypical is the sense of autistic culture, the pervasive nature of autism upon all aspects of life, including family, spouse, and sibling dynamics, and the turmoil within the autism community over identity and representation (see the conversation about identity-first versus person-first language). Atypical will probably resonate more with parents than with actually autistic individuals, though, because we are still seeing mostly the family and parent perspective, despite significant access into Sam’s mind.
In summary, much as our hypothetical college student or adult shouldn’t rely on an episode of Wishbone to hold an educated conversation about The Odyssey, the general population shouldn’t rely on Atypical for a grown-up-level understanding of autism. In fact, Sesame Street’s webisodes and regular episodes on autism are probably more helpful (and less creepy) than Atypical.
If you’re looking for excellent resources about autism, first and foremost, spend time with autistic individuals. For some excellent reading, I highly recommend the following:
Please note, the following contains affiliate links to help us keep Uniquely Catholic running. Whether you use the affiliate links or not, these are the top three books everyone should read.
Neurotribes by Steve Silberman – provides a great overview of the history of autism and autistic culture.
Uniquely Human by Dr. Barry M. Prizant – provides a great overview of working with individuals on the autism spectrum.
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida – offers an autistic teen’s perspective on life with autism; excellent insight into an autistic mind.