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Is Netflix’s “Atypical” A Good Resource? My Review

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.

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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.

A marketing image from Sesame Street of Julia, a new muppet on the autism spectrum. She is wearing a pink shirt and jumper, waving gesture with a smile. Above her are the words "There's a new friend on Sesame Street!" in white lettering. Bottom right, the words # see amazing in turquoise.

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.

Scene from the new Sesame Street episode introducing Julia. Abby, Elmo, and a human friend look at Julia with concern, while she covers her ears with her hands.

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.

2 Comments

  1. I also have to jump in and say, given the saying, “If you have met one child with autism… then, you have met ONE child with autism,” I can understand why some families relate to this series (I haven’t heard of it before, so I will consider looking it up… if I remember), while others don’t.

    Perhaps my favorite television portrayal was the character of Max Braverman off “Parenthood.” But, again, depending on the severity of symptoms, some parents could relate to Max’s “higher functioning,” while others were unable to relate.

    Provided the producers are using their platform to attempt to educate on the insight into life with a child on the spectrum, rather than making light – or, making fun – then I definitely would err on the side of caution.

    And, I have not met Julia off Sesame Street! Neither of my kids really enjoyed that show, although maybe my youngest will enjoy it here in another 6 months or so. Julia, if I remember correctly, was introduced after my son really aged out of Sesame Street!

    • It’s very true that everyone has a different experience of autism, but I think it’s very striking that the general consensus is that parents like the show and autistic individuals have reservations or disdain. I think it’s a result of the show being written by neurotypical individuals and only consulting “professionals” instead of consulting #actuallyautistic people. So, even with an educated writing team and even if they consulted parents of autistic individuals, they’re still telling an autistic person’s story through a neurotypical lens; that’s where I think they delve into jokes that seem more at the expense of Sam, the autistic teenager, and often portray him as unrealistically creepy at times. The best analogy I can think of is, would you rather have a native speaker teach you a foreign language or would you rather have an english speaker that knows the foreign language teach it to you, given the choice? Sometimes the english speaker can get it nearly identical to a native speaker, but the native speaker can teach you the cultural significance and proper usage in a way that the majority of english speakers wouldn’t be able. I still think it’s worth the watch, but it’s also important for individuals to understand the significant limitations of “Atypical” as both art and education. Also, I loved “Parenthood”, but I started watching after Max’s diagnosis and before my son’s, so I’ll have to go back and see if my perspective has changed at all. I will say, that what I saw of Parenthood was art trying to tell one autistic boy’s story and we learn through his experiences, but I didn’t feel like there was this attempt at educating viewers globally on what autism in general is and how it affects individuals. If we learned those things (in the episodes I saw), it seemed to be told through a story rather than awkward vignettes, like at times in “Atypical”.

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