Warning: Spoilers ahead for Netflix’s new series, Atypical.
Netflix’s new show Atypical is, for the most part, heartwarming, funny, uplifting and sincere.
But it also kind of turns autism into a punchline.
It packages up the story of autism into digestible, bite-sized chunks that only just scrape the surface of what it’s like to live with autism, to parent a child with autism, to be the sibling of someone with autism, and to be friends with someone on the spectrum.
Atypical tells the story of Sam, an 18-year-old American high school senior, who has autism. Sam is whip-smart, genuinely funny in moments, and extremely lovable.
As someone who grew up with an older brother who’s on the spectrum, I saw so much of my brother, myself and my family in Atypical – but there was a lot I didn’t see.
Sam, like my brother, is quite high functioning, he attends a ‘normal’ school, has some friends, is able to move throughout the world largely unnoticed.
My brother left school over twenty years ago when there wasn’t a lot of information – or understanding – around autism. My mum was basically on her own, taking him from doctor to specialist to doctor, trying to find out how she could help him move through his life successfully.
Sam, on the other hand, is growing up in a world where everyone at least has a basic understanding of autism - they know someone who's on the spectrum, or they've at least watched enough of The Big Bang Theory to understand the cliff notes version of the disorder.
Sam has some of the typical traits of someone on the autism spectrum - he doesn't pick up on social cues, he takes everything literally, and he has his obsessions - specifically Antarctica and penguins.
But unlike most people with autism, Sam goes through a bit of a rapid transformation in the eight episode season.
He starts off fairly isolated, and with the help of his therapist, his family, and his lovable best mate, he finishes off the season by getting a hand job in an igloo at the school formal.
Of course, a lot happens in between these two plot points but his character arc is typical of an American sitcom, not of your average person on the spectrum. Someone on the spectrum might take years and years to make the steps that Sam does over just a few months.
Sam is the Hollywood version of someone with autism and he only represents a small percentage of people on the spectrum. He's a character we've seen before in Big Bang's Sheldon Cooper and Dr Temperance Brennan on Bones. They're the character we can relate to and laugh with (and at), but they don't necessarily represent what it's really like to live with autism.
That's the real problem with trying to tell the complicated, fraught, intense story of autism on the small screen - in reality there's often not a huge character arc, or a big happy ending for someone on the spectrum.
There's no 'getting better' - people with autism see the world differently and move through the world differently, and that's never going to change.
Is Atypical Netflix's most important show this year? Post continues...
One thing Atypical absolutely nails is the relationship between people with autism and their siblings. Sam's sister, Casey, is fiercely protective of her older brother and also his biggest tormentor.
“My sister doesn’t let anyone beat me up,” Sam explains in the first episode. “Except herself.”
Growing up I was always the first person to laugh at (and with) my brother, but I still remember every hurtful thing my school mates ever said about him. I still remember the feeling of frustration of never really understanding my brother and not being able to articulate everything he is - the good and the bad - to the people around me. I still feel that some days.
It also so cleverly portrays the silent anguish of parents who have a child with autism, how hard it is to bring up a child in world that isn't made to fit them.
Although Atypical has its limitations, it tells an important story and it's one we need to see more of in mainstream media.