People in Autism Community Review 'Atypical,' Netflix's Original Series About Autism
This summer, Netflix is launching a new original series about a teenager on the autism spectrum. “Atypical” follows Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), a high school senior on the autism spectrum, and his family as he navigates dating, school and being a teenager.
Ahead of the show’s launch, we asked three people from the autism community — Lamar Hardwick and Erin Clemens, who are on the autism spectrum, and Jodi Murphy, a mother of a child on the spectrum — to review the first episode of “Atypical.” Here are their thoughts.
The Mighty: What does ‘Atypical’ get right about autism?
Jodi Murphy: You can tell that the writer, Robia Rashid, did her research or has a close relationship with someone on the autism spectrum. She writes from a neurodiverse perspective even though most everyone is Sam’s world doesn’t seem to accept that neurodiversity is a good thing. For me, that’s what’s most interesting about the plot as opposed to Sam’s autistic characteristics. I think it realistically shows the tension that comes from living in a world that doesn’t understand or fully accept you.
Erin Clemens: In my opinion, what “Atypical” got right is the fact that, for many on the spectrum, there are sensory issues with touch and sounds, and change is difficult. It also got right the feelings of being at school and the issues I’ve had with the crowds, noises and smells. I think the stimming was right on point as well.
Lamar Hardwick: Overall, I think “Atypical” did a fairly decent job. Of course, my assessment is based on the first episode, but the concept of the show being driven by a first-person account pushes the show in the direction of being more authentic.
Let’s talk a bit about Sam. What did you think of Sam as an autistic character?
Hardwick: I like that the show gave Sam space to self-reflect and demonstrate his self-awareness. He gets to work through his understanding of self, and the audience has the opportunity to understand how an autistic person views themselves and the world around them.
So often the stories told about autistic people are focused on the world’s view of them. It was nice to see the show focused on how Sam interprets the world around him.
Clemens: I liked how, even though Sam is on the autism spectrum, “Atypical’ shows him as a person with thoughts and feelings like everyone else. He still goes through things that typical teens go through, just in a different way. This is so important for people to remember!
However, I didn’t like how completely blunt Sam tends to be. While I know some people on the autism spectrum can be blunt (I have been myself at times), I also feel that at Sam’s age I was learning to stay quiet. I did this because I knew I shouldn’t say certain things, I just didn’t know what those things were.
I also feel that his character was too openly factual — a major stereotype of autism. He knows facts about things and shares them with everyone he meets. At Sam’s age, I feel like he would have been more aware of this, too.
Murphy: I like Sam and his passion… I won’t give away what that is, but it’s endearing. He’s a really good guy trying to figure life out like the rest of us! He’s going to make mistakes, but I appreciate that he keeps moving forward.
What about the actor who plays Sam, Kier Gilchrist. Any thoughts there?
Hardwick: There were parts of the episode where I felt some autistic traits Gilchrist displayed were a bit too overstated. While the actor did a pretty good job overall, issues such as lack of eye contact and taking things literally started to feel like a caricature of autism. I’m not sure that an autistic person would always see themselves in that light.
Clemens: I thought Gilchrist was great, but… some of the stereotypes portrayed were frustrating. He got the stimming part down well, though. I loved how he fit that in, and it seemed to be at the correct times. I would be very interested to see how the actor would portray a meltdown or a more overwhelming situation that is too difficult to handle.
Murphy: Gilchrist does a great job at portraying Sam, one person with autism. But we need audiences to know that everyone with autism isn’t a carbon copy of Sam.
I am a bit disappointed that Sam isn’t played by an actor on the autism spectrum. There are many autistic individuals who are great actors and should be given the opportunity to audition and play such a role.
What about Sam’s family? What did you think of the Gardner family dynamic?
Clemens: The family dynamic was very interesting! I thought Sam’s sister was very nice and protective. The mom’s concern for Sam was completely accurate in my eyes, and I appreciate that the dad is like the rock in the family. I really liked the scene where Sam and his father were together. I think this [was one of] my favorite parts. The only aspect that might be missing is that some families tend to be in denial that there are any issues at all.
Murphy: I wasn’t fond of the family dynamic. I thought it was a bit cliché and it could have been so much more interesting if they were quirkier and happier.
I had major issues with the mother, perhaps because she’s so different from me. I think she comes from a place of fear and I don’t think she fully accepts her son. She seems sad, somber and tired. Rather than worry he’s going to fail or not fit in, I’d be busy finding activities and groups where he feels comfortable and included. I really hope my first impression of her is wrong and I grow to like her after watching more episodes.
Hardwick: My one major concern about the episode and the series, in general, is that Sam and his family fit a stereotypical understanding that autism only impacts young white males and their families. With diagnostic disparities between white children and minority children still being a significant issue, this may unintentional reinforce an image of autism that is inaccurate.
Based on what you’ve seen so far, would you watch the rest of the series?
Hardwick: Despite a few concerns, I did like the episode and would want to watch the entire series to see how, and if, the show works through some of those issues.
Murphy: I’m not emotionally hooked to these characters yet, and I can’t quite figure out why. I’m not drawn into their lives and don’t feel compelled to binge watch all the episodes. That said, I am excited that Netflix and the writer cared enough to look at life from Sam, the autistic protagonist’s point of view. That alone makes me want to continue to watch and see what happens.
Clemens: I would want to watch more episodes to see what else they might touch on that relates to the autism spectrum. While I don’t quite agree with every aspect of the autism spectrum that they portrayed, I really appreciate Netflix for trying to create more autism awareness. Plus, I’m definitely interested in seeing if things change for Sam or his family, or maybe see how they portray a meltdown.
You can watch all eight episodes of “Atypical” starting August 11 on Netflix.
Erin Clemens is a 28-year-old woman on the autism spectrum. She is also the author of the book “I Have Asperger’s.”
Jodi Murphy is a mom to a son on the autism spectrum and the founder of Geek Club Books, 501c3 focused on innovative, entertaining autism education.