A Streaming Autism Comedy

Netflix’s "Atypical" ​​​​​​​makes light of autism and people’s reactions to it.

Posted Nov 15, 2019

Atypical is Netflix’s 2017 series about Sam, a teenager seeking acceptance and normalcy given his atypical personality (which I won’t dare to label here) amidst his “abnormal” but loving family and other people trying to help him and them.

Sam functions well: he is in regular school classes and successfully fulfills an afterschool consumer tech equipment sales job. His condition is marked by over-literalness and rigidity (he needs rules to function), hypersensitivity to tactile stimuli (he pushes a girl who is trying to seduce him), insensitivity towards (to the point of total unawareness of) ordinary social cues and norms, and a preoccupation with various species (e.g. penguins) and their habitats.

But Sam is endearing and as open to life as a baby. The series is filled with a host of professionals and typical people trying to help him and his family, including:

1. Sam’s attractive young Asian-American therapist, whom Sam wants to be his girlfriend,

2. Sam’s actual hyper girlfriend who gives him cards that she removes after he reaches his quota of comments about penguins and Antarctica,

3. His father, who is portrayed as well-meaning but bumbling,

4. His mother (the star Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is out of touch herself and overinvolved in Sam’s life, 

5. His sister, who insults but caretakes her brother,

6. His sister’s boyfriend—who is the one character too good to be true, 

7. Various professionals in Sam and his family’s life (e.g., Sam’s boss and his almost equally out-of-touch co-worker, his sister’s track coach, his father’s EMS coworker) who are all kind and as helpful as normies can be.

The point of Sam’s family’s and everyone else they meet’s peculiarities is: “What’s so normal about normal?” The show’s underlying message is that there is no “atypical.” Jennifer Jason Leigh, in particular, is a piece of work—compulsively caring for Sam and interfering in his life. 

Characters try to help Sam by normalizing him—accepting his idiosyncrasies while trying to teach him the rules of the social road. Except for JJL, who won’t allow Sam to explore and to make mistakes on his own—even as she accepts that the endpoint is that Sam is going to lead an independent life.

Sam's girlfriend is an especially crucial character. But Sam’s parent’s own problems with intimacy between them, his sister’s lack of sexual experience, his supposedly sexually sophisticated coworker’s own extreme awkwardness—even his therapist’s anxieties around her boyfriend—just put Sam within the usual range of human experience (a point his supposedly uninformed father repeatedly makes), as opposed to placing him along the autism spectrum.

The series—produced by Robia Rashid and Seth Gordon—is actually a somewhat radical take on autism. Sam’s father is brought to task by the parents' support group leader for his use of inappropriate terminology (calling Sam “autistic”) and, more critically, for saying that Sam is getting “better.” 

The leader explains that with his neurological condition, there is no cure or “getting better.”

Yet, actually, that’s what everyone in Atypical is trying to help Sam do.