By Colleen Dabrowski
Netflix’s new comedy series, “Atypical”, is a coming-of-age story about an 18-year-old boy named Sam. Sam is on the autism spectrum and has come to the conclusion that he wants to start navigating the intricacies of dating and romance. The show’s intent was to answer the question: “What does it mean to be normal?” When it was first announced, the show seemed like it would be an incredibly positive force. It is so rare that Autism Spectrum Disorder gets more than fifteen minutes in most forms of media, and Netflix was proposing an entire series following its impact on a young adult’s life. Unfortunately, the project went south fast, starting with the casting of Keir Gilchrist –– who does not have autism –– in the lead role.
It is common for media depicting folks with disabilities to cast actors who do not have disabilities. This is a problematic practice. Actors with disabilities exist, possess just as much skill as any able-bodied actor, are severely under-hired, and can lend their real-life experience to an authentic and accurate character portrayal. And accuracy is important. Poor representations of disabilities in media can lead to the creation or perpetuation of stereotypes that negatively affect the lives of folks with disabilities. “Atypical”, for instance, has Sam fulfill the most common, cookie cutter image of a person on the autism spectrum: he’s white, straight, high-functioning, and male. Because characters like Sam are the only ones commonly recognized, it is not unusual for females on the autism spectrum to go unrecognized and thus denied the resources readily provided to the Sams of the world. Further, people have raised questions about the utilization of first-hand experience from people on the spectrum in the writing of the show. The creator and producer Robia Rashid based a lot of the writing on her own experience with a family member who’s on the spectrum, books and blogs she’d read, the ASD consultant she’d hired and experiences the cast and crew had with folks on the spectrum. However, no person on the spectrum was involved directly in the production; a huge disappointment to people with ASD. “Atypical” attempts to show that folks with autism are good, reasonable people worthy of respect. However, it displays behaviors that indicate a lack of trust towards people on the spectrum.
While some may say that shows such as “Atypical” do a lot of good and should be cut some slack, I can’t help but disagree. “Atypical” presented itself as an inside look into life with Autism but instead offered a narrow and inconsistent set of characters. It was clear while watching that the writers intended to make Sam understandable and sympathetic, but instead often made him the butt of the jokes and, at times, downright unsettling. Many in the ASD community are not pleased with the show’s presentation of people on the spectrum and are describing it as having good intentions gone wrong.
Colleen is a junior Biology major with a double minor in Public Health and Comparative Religion.