Alternate Atypical: Reimagining Netflix’s Atypical if it were Written by Actually Autistic People

Atypical Poster

Image Description: Promotional poster for Netflix series Atypical. The Main cast is lined up on the bottom of the screen Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), then only the top of Sam’s (Keir Gilchrist), Doug (Michael Rapaport), and Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a cartoon thought bubble surrounded by penguins is coming out of Sam’s head featuring the show title and release date (Aug. 11)

I have now completed watching all eight episodes of the first season (it ended on a cliff hanger so they’re clearly angling for a second) of the Netflix series Atypical.

It goes without saying that this post will include spoilers and quite frankly you’re welcome. Now you don’t have to watch it.

The show is in a word terrible. The autistic character Sam has no perceivable personality and is largely just a collection of autism diagnostic criteria and stereotypes. His only driving factor is to get a girlfriend.

Pretty much all of the characters are irredeemably awful.

Elsa, the mother is the archetypal overbearing autism mom. She is controlling to the point of actually damaging Sam’s ability to function in the world. The show doesn’t actually really concretely address the extent of the harm. She is attention seeking and presents herself as a martyr on the altar of autism. Every horrible thing she does is blamed on Sam, from ignoring her other child to having an affair.

Doug, the father starts out promising but turns out to be awful. initially, he just seems to be cluelessly but genuinely trying to connect with his son. It is later revealed that after Sam was diagnosed he left the family for eight months because he couldn’t deal. He spends the series which takes place well over a decade later enabling Sam’s creepy misogynistic behaviour under the excuse of trying to make up for leaving. He does have some good lines challenging some autism moms person first rhetoric but in the context of everything else he’s still awful.

Casey, Sam’s younger sister is the only genuinely likeable person in the show. She treats him like a human being, though she uses him as a prop to further her own goals by referencing him in her interview to get into prep school. This is actually pretty realistic and in a better show might have been a genuine commentary on how even loving accepting family members can be ableist. Unfortunately, Atypical is not that show. Claire is the most well rounded and complex character in the show.

Evan, Casey’s boyfriend is a nice generic good looking boyfriend. Pretty much sums him up. They hint at a difficult home life but it’s basically a failed attempt at making him not a generic boyfriend character and as an excuse for why he’s a convenient human lie detector.

Julia Sasaki, Sam’s therapist, doesn’t know how to be a therapist. She’s ostensibly supposed to be helping him with life skills but can’t even set up clear boundaries. The first indication that Sam is creepy and doesn’t know how to talk to women is when he points out her bra strap is showing. She’s embarrassed but doesn’t use the opportunity to tell him that this might be an inappropriate behaviour. This foreshadows the rest of the show. Where Sam invariably gives someone a lot of warning that he might do something shitty and that person does nothing to stop it. No one explains anything to him in accessible terms.

Zahid, is Sam’s only friend and coworker. On the one hand, Zahid is truly accepting of Sam which is great. If only that wasn’t entirely undercut by his cartoonish level of misogyny and the fact that he eggs on an facilitates Sam’s being a creepy piece of shit.

Paige, Sam’s (ex)girlfriend, while Sam does treat her abysmally which is inexcusable, Paige also takes advantage of him and creates a controlling relationship where she defines all aspects of the relationship. She won’t let him talk about the things that interest him and in fact, implements a punitive system to limit his ability to steer the conversation.

For some reason, Netflix has classes all of this as a dramedy. The thing is it actually has the basic structure of what could have been a pretty good gritty drama. The show presents Sam and his actions as inherent and unavoidable because he is autistic.And sure there are autistic men who display the same degree of entitlement and sexism. The thing is that this is learned behaviour. So I have tried to reimagine Atypical as if it actually dealt accurately and honestly with what is going on.

The show would need more autistic characters to act as counterpoints to Sam. This could be achieved by having autistic activists who engage with Elsa at one of her autism walks. They would challenge her and of course, she would inevitably utter the all to common phrase “you can’t speak for my child”. Elsa would double down on her awful behaviour which would be reinforced by the uncritical support of her autism mom’s support group.

The inclusion of other autistic characters would help clear up the issue around the group’s use of language. Showing autistic people unapologetically identifying as autistic and owning their identities would throw Sam’s harsh reality into sharp relief.

Sam would spend more time second guessing everything he says because his mother’s constant control would have destroyed his self-esteem. The show would make it clear that he has no escape at home from the bullying he experiences at school because home is just a different kind of abuse.

It’s hard to figure out what to do with Zahid because in Netflix’s version he is the only person who genuinely accepts Sam. Realistically though his blatant sexism is likely what would trigger Sam to conclude that a girlfriend would fix all his problems. I hate getting rid of the accepting force but realistically the contradictions of the character don’t work well.

More realistically, after finding no acceptance at school or home Sam would be ripe for coercion and abuse from someone who presents a veneer of acceptance. Someone who thinks it’s funny to put Sam into uncomfortable situations with women. Not someone who genuinely thinks they’re helping.

Sam’s first attempt at a sexual encounter (which ends in him hitting the woman he’s with) might at least flirt with actual consequences. Maybe She calls the cops and they send an ambulance which is conveniently staffed by Sam’s EMT dad who talks her out of pressing charges.

This would at least more concretely deal with explaining why Sam has built up this idea that his words and actions have no meaningful consequences beyond how they make him feel.

Clear parallels would be drawn between Elsa and Paige and show that Sam is essentially exchanging one controlling relationship for another.

Julia Sasaki would be as ineffective and there would likely be more direct controntations between her and Elsa. the show might actually show how therapists and medical professionals buy into stereotypes of disability and how this invariably hurts their patients.

Paige would still plan the silent dance but she’d likely call the media and be publically celebrated for her altruism.

Casey wouldn’t change much but a better show would offer more context about her. Show how she learned that it was okay to use her brother as a prop. Interrogate why the prep school interviewer not only let her get away with it but bought into it completely.

That is what would make Atypical more real. Really, however, a better show would humanize autistic ppl and not turn us into victims. A better show would move away from the autistic white boy norm. An actually affirming autistic love story might include finding a partner who is able to communicate more clearly. This might allow for a more realistic portrayal of romantic and sexual exploration.

What about instead of a first failed sexual experience that ends in violence. Sam still gets overwhelmed but that’s okay. What if instead of ending the season with a hand job in an igloo. Sam has a partner who is willing to try different sexual activities so that they have a mutually enjoyable experience. What if a handjob is shown as a more comfortable introduction to sexual activity? What if that’s where he stays comfortable and that’s okay? What if he was in a relationship where he understood that women are people and so they used creativity to make sure that he is able to reciprocate for his partner?

What if his mother wasn’t sexually repressive?

What if he had autistic friends? If not in person then online.

What is an autistic love story was written by autistic people and a major company actually produced it?

What if…?

 

If you liked this post and want to support my continued writing please consider buying me a metaphorical coffee (or two or more). Donations help me keep this blog going and support my ongoing efforts to obtain a PhD.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Advertisements

Okay, So I Educated 1 Nondisabled Person, Only 6 Billion to go.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a nondisabled person in the company of a disabled stranger wants to know “What is wrong with you?”

Tell them anyway

Image description: Screenshot of a tweet with author redacted that reads “It’s not your job, no, but people are naturally curious. What’s with the hostility? when you could use the opportunity to educate instead? :/”

This tweet was shared in response to someone who had just explained not only that they did not want to answer people’s random questions about their disability but also that they found the practice to be emotionally harmful.

I have written about this phenomenon before but as it appears to not be diminishing, I’m going to talk about it some more.

I certainly hope the title of this piece has sufficiently set up the absurdity of the idea that expecting disabled people to act as surprise ambassadors to whoever feels the need to ask probing and personal questions.

As an education model, it is simply unsustainable. Even if you had the entirety of the world’s estimated 1.5 billion disabled people in on the scheme. A single disabled person simply cannot explain the entirety of the disabled experience.

It would require the world to engage in a bizarre version of speed dating where individuals cycled through disabled people to get anything but an individual and monolithic view of disability.

The thing is this “natural curiosity” isn’t actually genuine interest. It’s a voyeurism that comes with an inherent power imbalance.

If a person had a genuine interest in learning about disability, it is something that can be done without accosting random disabled people. Not only does Google exist but so do libraries. Either of those venues is infinitely better suited to genuinely learning about disability.

Libraries even have employees whose entire job it is to help you find information tailored to exactly what it is you want to know.

The thing is that most people who throw up wanting to learn as a defence against the suggestion that disabled people are entitled to privacy don’t really want an education.

Because if they did they would have learned the lesson that the disabled person just tried to teach them. No, is an appropriate and entirely valid response to probing questions.

Or the lesson that sometimes these questions aren’t mere inconvenient invasions of privacy but actually cause people emotional harm.

These are lessons. Expressing them is not hostile.

These people don’t want to learn. They want an emotional payoff. Sometimes this can come with as little information as naming a diagnosis.

Seriously, what can really be learned from what amounts to medical jargon?

It’s less an education and more of a way for a person to categorize how they think you are broken.

True learning takes time, engagement and a respect for the subject. None of which is present in unsolicited questions demanding medical information and prying into only the more graphic aspects of disability.

This tactic does not work as an education tool and it never has.

I challenge you to cite a single major advancement in disability rights that occurred because of it… I’ll wait…

No? hmm.

The education excuse, on the other hand, has been used to maintain the exploitation of disabled people.

In the late 19th Century when displaying disabled people in freak shows began to go out of fashion as a direct result of the fact that they were viewed as exploitative. The displaying of disabled people did not stop. They just changed the narrative.

consider Krao Farini

 

L0047972 Krao - The Missing Link

Image Description: A promotional poster for “Krao” The Missing Link. It shows an illustration of Krao a small girl with hypertrichosis standing in a jungle wearing only a loin cloth.

Krao was a supposedly Laotian child (her origins are difficult to ascertain as her background was heavily fictionalized) with hypertrichosis who was exhibited after many freak shows had closed down. She was exhibited not as a freak but as a scientific discovery. A distinction which allowed Guillermo Farini (who adopted her and exhibited her) to escape claims of exploitation. She was marketed as the missing link.

She was a disabled woman of colour whose exhibition reduced her to subhuman. Make no mistake Guillermo Farini was not actually under the impression that she really was the missing link. In spite of the veneer of educational value, Krao was advertized with a fantastical backstory which included heroic white men trudging through the jungle and outsmarting the primitive locals, including royalty. You can read it here *.

Education has been used as a veneer for the exploitation of disabled people for centuries. It wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now.

The expectation that disabled individuals answer any question that they don’t want to is absolutely not a path to greater understanding. It is an expression of dominance.

Hiding behind the idea of some mythical educational value only compounds the oppression.

Learn the lessons we are trying to teach you when we say no. They are much better lessons than getting someone to share a diagnosis or other private medical information.

Or better yet, don’t ask at all. If you are genuinely interested in learning do it in a way that doesn’t demand unpaid labour from disabled people. There are after all many alternatives.

 

*The images aren’t screenreader friendly so I’m adding a PDF that can be run through an OCR program

Krao Pamphlet Full

**This post is inspired by a twitter thread I did earlier today and can be read here.

If you liked this post and want to support my continued writing please consider buying me a metaphorical coffee (or two or more). Donations help me keep this blog going and support my ongoing efforts to obtain a PhD.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com