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My Autistic Opinion of Netflix's 'Atypical'

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There has been a lot of buzz lately about Netflix’s new show “Atypical,” which revolves around how one fictional family experiences autism. Being “atypical” myself, I was waiting patiently to watch and review “Atypical.” Before the show even aired, there was controversy in the autism community about how Keir Gilchrist, the actor who plays an autistic high school senior named Sam, is not autistic himself. Autistic actors such as Mickey Rowe, who plays an autistic character on Broadway, commented on the controversy when he reviewed the first episode. Further, no autistic people were consulted for the show. How could I not want to watch it?

Naturally, I binge-watched “Atypical.” I couldn’t wait to see how mainstream television was going to talk about autism. I’m sure I’ll be thinking similarly when ABC premiers its new show, “The Good Doctor.” The last time I saw autism talked about on television was with NBC’s “Parenthood,” where we saw Max Braverman grow up from his initial diagnosis of Asperger syndrome at age 7 up until his high school years. Since “Parenthood” ended after a critically appraised run, it was about time for a refreshing take from an autistic perspective, and there is where “Atypical” swoops in.

“Atypical” focuses on Sam Gardner, an autistic high school senior who is extremely passionate about penguins and really wants a relationship with a girl; and the rest the Gardner family: his autism warrior mom Elsa, ashamed paramedic father Doug, and his track star younger sister Casey. All of them have varying storylines of their own: Elsa’s infidelity, Doug’s acceptance of his son’s autism, and Casey’s promising athletic future and her first boyfriend (who also is a little bit of a troublemaker).

Here are the the things I absolutely loved about “Atypical:”

Sam is successfully employed at a computer electronics store. Oftentimes, autistic people are discriminated against in the workplace or do not have the opportunity to work any job. This detail of Sam’s character eases my fears about integrating autistic adults into the community. To the contrary, Sam is a high school senior and has an after-school/weekend job. His boss seems understanding of his autism. Sam is even best friends with one of his co-workers and fellow high school students, Zahid. Sam’s relationship with Zahid is positive – Zahid is concerned with Sam’s sex life and tries to help however he can, from unsuccessfully taking Sam to a strip club, to interrupting customer interactions to assure Sam, to using his own girlfriend’s employee discount at Claire’s to help Sam give a girl a gift.

Sam’s mother Elsa, sister Casey, and classmate-turned-girlfriend Paige, are all fierce advocates for Sam. I consider this a double-edged sword since Sam is not an advocate for himself, except when he stands up to Elsa when he says he is capable of picking out his own clothes and going to the mall without his noise-canceling headphones even though the lights, sounds, and the waterfall at the mall are enough to make him overwhelmed and have a meltdown. Sam is willing to better himself, even if it’s only with the goal of finding a girlfriend of getting to lose his virginity, or to please his therapist (who he has a crush on). But before even going to the mall, his mom calls the manager and demands accommodations for her son. I respect and admire Elsa’s determination, but she also really just needs to believe in Sam and give him a chance to try before having to attempt to save the day. Casey stands up to other kids at their high school, makes sure he has
lunch money, and tries to protect him from getting hurt by Paige. I also respected when Paige went to the PTA meeting to make the winter formal more accessible overall by successfully proposing a silent disco instead of the flashing strobe lights, loud music experience most of us are familiar with at school dances – and at said PTA meeting, we see a lot of parents lash out at Sam’s mom, thinking she put Paige up to this (she didn’t). I did empathize when Elsa talked about how there are bigger concerns than hairdos for Sam and that there are different concerns for children with disabilities.

I also have to give a nod to Sam’s father, Doug. There were a lot of touching interactions between father and son, as Doug aims to better understand his 18-year-old son. Doug is frustrated with his son’s diagnosis. He initially left the family shortly after Sam’s diagnosis, came back, and after hiding Sam’s diagnosis from a work colleague for years, Doug realizes his internalized shame about Sam. He aims to become the expert – he attends Elsa’s autism parent support group (where he immediately corrected about everything), talks to Sam’s therapist, apologizes to Elsa, and works on building a better relationship with Sam. So many parents are in denial that something is different about their children, and it was touching to see Doug come around and accept that autism is a large part of who Sam is.

My favorite performance of the show was Casey’s. Casey is a complex character with varying emotions and a lot of teenage angst. She is frustrated by feeling empty or invisible in comparison to Sam. Her relationship with both of her parents is strained. She realizes her father left when Sam was diagnosed and resents that her mother doesn’t seem to give her the attention and affection she desperately needs. Casey’s boyfriend has to stand up for her and shout at the dinner table for her parents to even acknowledge that Casey is being recruited by a top private school to run track because it paled in comparison to Sam making a pro-con list to determine whether or not he liked Paige and Paige sharing with everybody that she found Sam’s list. Her experiences are valid, complicated, and give “Atypical” a heart. I was really looking forward to all of Casey’s scenes, and again, admired her for standing up for Sam when she has enough to grapple with on her own besides feeling protective of her older brother.

Here are the things I absolutely disliked about “Atypical:”

Other than giving into television stereotypes of Sam initially wanting an intimate relationship with his therapist, coming of age stories, Elsa’s steamy affair with the bartender, and good-girl athlete Casey falling for a bad boy, I had genuine concerns about the show and its portrayal of autism.

Sam is totally the stereotypical “higher functioning” autistic character, except he isn’t obsessed with trains.  Otherwise, he’s a perfect stereotype. Nobody is a perfect stereotype in real life. Sam simply misses every social cue, finds every excuse possible to talk about penguins and Antarctica, and appears inherently selfish and inconsiderate. He becomes the joke. He knows he’s weird, and he doesn’t really care, except when it comes to his quest to have a girlfriend and have sex. He ignores people’s feelings, and every line of dialogue he has somehow involves a social misstep. With autism, it isn’t always this obvious, and at least for me, the awkward moments and miscues are more nuanced. These stereotypes are damaging to autistic people, their families, and their friends. Instead of helping us, the show hurts us by falsely portraying us as creepy, insensitive, and just really awkward.

I was particularly disturbed by Sam’s relationship with Paige. There was a scene where he locked her in a closet because he was upset that she was touching all of the stuff in his room and ultimately touched his pet turtle. Obviously, his parents tell him to stop and know this isn’t OK. But Sam’s behavior absolutely is not typical of autistic people. It is consistent with abusive relationships, and people with disabilities and autistic people are far more likely to be the abused than the abusers. “Atypical” flips that fact straight on its head when Sam locks Paige in a closet, and not only is Paige OK with it, she takes one of Sam’s sweatshirts as a souvenir.

Paige also tries to defend her winter formal silent disco success to the student body after the PTA meeting. She explains how silent discos were ways to have raves and then makes some off-color joke about something that meth addicts and autistic people have in common. I know Paige’s heart is in the right place, but something about Paige makes me think she sees Sam as a zoo exhibit (after all, they did bond over biology class) or a case study. I don’t see how Sam makes her happy, nor did I see how she made Sam happy until he realized he was focusing too much on her being annoying, like when she touched all his stuff. I do agree with Sam on one thing though: Paige is kind of annoying, in a do-gooder “I totally understand autism and am now the autism expert” way, but Sam likely is the only autistic person she’s ever known. Sam is the expert, not Paige, and not his family, and “Atypical” fails to capitalize on Sam’s potential to be the audience’s voice of reason about autism and the autistic experience.

Building on Doug attending the autism parent support group, I cringed a little bit when the parents immediately corrected and shamed Doug for saying the word “autistic” and absolutely insisted he used person-first language and show disgust when he uses autism “cure” rhetoric. Saying “autistic” is not a bad thing. Some people do want a cure for autism, and others do not. The support group rules are naturally a confusing dichotomy – autistic communities are against a cure and prefer identity-first language. Doug redeems himself from this patronizing support group when he declares he frankly doesn’t care about whatever the proper language is; his son is still on the autism spectrum regardless of the words used.

In the words of Sam’s mom Elsa, “It’s OK to be a little selfish.” Elsa says this to Casey after her friends turned on her when she applied to the private school for track, but Casey feared leaving Sam to his own devices and putting a strain on the family financially. Elsa encouraged her with the line, “It’s OK to be a little selfish.” It’s OK to be a little selfish for my autistic friends and supportive autism allies to skip “Atypical,” fearing that the show further stigmatizes autism.

And my message to the autistic community: like Sam’s penguins, we need to just keep swimming because we have a lot of work to do to be accurately represented on television and to be heard by everybody else.

This review originally appeared on HuffPost.

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I Don't Have a Child on the Autism Spectrum, But You Don't Struggle Alone

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At first, you appeared to be just another mother letting her child release energy on a hot, humid morning. We engaged in brief conversation while sipping coffee as the children climbed through tunnels and giggled down the slides. When another child informed you that your daughter had removed her pants in the tunnels above, you hid your face and apologized to me. As you explained that she was on the autism spectrum, you asked for forgiveness for something that was out of your control. It seemed to me that you had met unaccepting minds during your journey thus far; but I was not going to be one those people. There was no need to apologize.

Our paths crossed at a difficult time in my life. You wouldn’t know by my appearance, but I’ve been dealing with a debilitating condition for 12 years that has recently become much worse. My body has been plagued with an illness that has had no name, despite over a decade of extensive medical testing. You may think this has nothing to do with your daughter, but let me explain why it does.

 

We all deal with something in this life. Some of us struggle more than others, making life seem unfair and daunting. I saw you there, patiently providing the support your daughter needed in a moment of unpredictability. I wanted to give you a hug. I wanted to tell you that it was alright; no one was judging you or your family. In that moment, I felt I could relate to you; not because I had been in your shoes, but because I had struggled in my life to depths that can feel isolating. My life struggles allowed me to empathize with yours; an ability unique to human beings.

You reminded me that I don’t struggle alone. You reminded me that our world is a place of heterogeneity, and while we may feel we stand out from our surroundings, there’s always someone who can see past the facade to empathize with our individual situations. I know my letter won’t make your parenting, or your daughter’s journey any easier, but I hope you remember me the next time you find yourself in an unpredictable situation. Your calm and loving parenting is admired, and does not go unnoticed. And, lastly, thank you for reminding me that in the middle of a world that demands perfection, we are all just perfectly imperfect human beings.

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The Politics of My Children's Health: 3 Things Politicians Should Keep In Mind

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I was lying in bed the other night, watching some show on a news channel. The hot topic of the night was — you guessed it — healthcare. News reporters were debating, senators were giving speeches and guest speakers were chiming in whenever they could.

One person would argue millions of people would lose healthcare under the new plan. The next person would respond by saying that number doesn’t factor in the economy’s growth. The debates continued for what seemed like an eternity.

Then they played a clip of the president saying how he’s going let the present healthcare system implode — then people will come to their senses.

Wait, what did I just hear? I think we need to take a timeout.

I didn’t hear one politician mention my well-being or that of my children.

I’m a mom raising four boys, and all of them have issues. One of my 12-year-olds has asthma and a severe nut allergy. He requires quarterly doctor appointments and several medications, even when he’s not sick. He also carries an Epipen everywhere he goes, just in case (I’m not going into how much that costs). My other 12-year-old has GI issues, nothing too serious, but he also requires medication.

My youngest two, the twins, were born prematurely. They’ve spent a collective 17 weeks in various ICU’s since their untimely arrival. Now one has an autism diagnosis and the other one is developmentally delayed. Together, they see three different doctors and a handful of therapists. They keep me very busy.

As you can imagine, healthcare is very important for my family. Personally, I don’t think either bill is good enough, so I’m not taking sides. Instead, I want to remind our politicians of a few things as they continue their discussions:

1. You aren’t debating a healthcare bill about numbers and statistics; you’re debating the health of real people. Frame your arguments accordingly. I don’t want to hear about tax breaks or special interests. I want to hear about supporting, researching and improving our care.

2. No matter how healthy you are now, you’re only one diagnosis or accident away from being “unhealthy.” We all have family members with age-related illnesses. Many of us have spotty medical histories ourselves. And then there are the children, the ones who can’t speak for themselves. We need to protect them. Even if your own child is “healthy as a horse,” you most certainly know a child who is nt. So before you begin talking about “pre-existing conditions” and “high-risk pools,” I urge you to keep these people in mind.

3. If healthcare fails, you all fail. I don’t care what bill you voted for. You’re not doing enough, as a whole, to improve our care. One side is having closed-door sessions while the other is making speeches to a room full of people in their own party. My 12-year-olds work together better than you do!

So as you continue debating about the health and well-being of my children, please set your egos aside. Focus on the task at hand. Our children are counting on you.

Follow this Journey at Not an Autism Mom

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To My Son With Autism Upon Starting Kindergarten

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Dear Son,

I guess I must have blinked, because here you are, a vibrant 5-year-old with big ideas and bigger dreams. In just a month, we will walk down the street with your backpack to enter the bustling hallways and classrooms of your new elementary school for your first day as a Kindergartner. You have thrived in your loving and intimate pre-school class, growing and learning with the same dozen children over the past three years. You say you are “so ready” for school, and I know you are. I also know you are likely to learn much more this year than you can imagine about yourself, about other kids, and about navigating an environment designed for neuro-typical children.

You might learn most other children don’t need to cover their ears to protect against the rebounding cacophony of sounds off the cinder block walls, or scoot over to the very edge of the cafeteria bench to avoid the wafting, pungent scent of a friend’s hot lunch.

You might learn most other children don’t routinely count by 13s or quote hilarious lines from favorite books and movies at the mere mention of a key word or phrase.

 

You might learn most children don’t jump up and down with exuberance at the sight of a rainbow, or stomp over and over in tight circles when they lose a competitive game.

You might learn these general truths as you acclimate to your new school. But how will you learn them? And what will you deduce about this wider, louder world in which you stand out for your differences? These are not lessons I can teach you. These are lessons to encounter in your own time. Some lessons will yield new opportunities. Some will hurt keenly.

My promise to you is I will greet you with firm hugs at the end of each day, and listen expansively to what you do and say about your experiences. I will advocate with empathy and vigor when you need me, and trust your growing capacity when you don’t.

Close-up of boy smiling

For the biggest truth of all is this: You are mighty, and worthy and loved for exactly who you are. For every lesson you learn, there is another one only you can teach. I know you are “so ready” for school. I hope school is just as ready for you.

Love,
Mama

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What We Know So Far About 'The Good Doctor's' Portrayal of Autism

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This September, ABC is getting a new show centered around an autistic doctor. “The Good Doctor,” based on a South Korean show of the same name, stars Freddie Highmore as Dr. Shaun Murphy, a pediatric surgeon on the autism spectrum who is described as having “savant syndrome.”

Speaking on a panel, the show’s executive producer, David Shore explained the steps the show took to portray autism. “We saw a lot of doctors, we consulted with people, we’ve got people on the spectrum who we’re working with,” Shore said, according to Deadline. “But he is a specific character, he’s not there to represent autism, he’s there to represent Dr. Shaun Murphy.”

Shore also said the show works hard to avoid stereotyping, despite focusing on “savant syndrome,” which is not specific to autism and is considered incredibly rare both within and outside of the autism community.

Highmore, the show’s star, also commented on portraying Dr. Murphy, saying:

What we are trying to do is moving away from perhaps the stereotypical versions of people with autism that have been shown on television and in certain movies in the past, the number one thing being that they are somehow devoid of emotion, that they don’t experience as broad a range of emotions as neurotypical people do, and of course that’s complete nonsense.

So far it does not appear as though any of the cast members are on the autism spectrum.

This is not ABC’s first disability-oriented series. In May, the network announced its show “Speechless,” a 30-minute comedy about a family with a teenage son who has cerebral palsy (CP), would return for a second season. Its main character, JJ, is played by Micah Fowler, who has CP.

Netflix is also releasing a new show centered around a character on the spectrum. “Atypical,” which premieres on August 11, is an eight-episode series following a high school senior named Sam (played by Keir Gilchrist, who is not on the spectrum). Sam’s friend Christopher, however, is played by Anthony Jacques, an actor on the autism spectrum.

“The Good Doctor” premieres Monday, September 25, at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.

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4 Things I Want My Sons' Special Education Teacher to Know

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A new school year is upon us! My twins, who turn 4 next month, are starting their third year of special education preschool. It’s a half-day program at the local public school. They absolutely love it! They get to ride the big yellow school bus, eat a snack and even do yoga with the physical therapist.

One of my boys, Julian, is completely nonverbal with an autism diagnosis. He is the sweetest, cutest kid ever. The other one, Dominic, is undiagnosed, with a severe language delay. He is also the sweetest, cutest kid ever.

I know most parents worry when they send their kids off to school. When my oldest son started kindergarten seven years ago, I mostly worried about his behavior. He is “all boy.” I worried about what color he would get in his folder every day. Could he adjust to sitting still for a longer period of time? How would he do making new friends?

Now that I have children with disabilities, my concerns have drastically changed. I no longer worry about my own children’s behaviors. I now find myself worrying about the teachers’ behaviors. I know that might sound negative, but let me explain — imagine sending your child to school with duct tape on his mouth. Seriously, take a second to imagine that. My children can’t voice their questions, worries, frustrations or fears. And to top it off, they can’t tell me about their day when they get home. It’s scary.

Their teachers and therapists are in complete control. I worry how they will handle their own frustrations throughout the day. It’s not that I don’t trust them, because I do. My boys have an amazing team working with them. I just know how hard their jobs are… and I know how irritated I can get on a daily basis.

Even though my boys are at different levels and have their own specific needs, my message to their teachers is the same.

 

Here are a few things I want them to know:

1. I appreciate you.

In the midst of meetings, conferences and classroom parties, there will be times when I forget to say this. But it’s true. If I could buy you a drink every day (alcoholic or caffeinated), I would. You have one of the most important jobs in the world. Thank you!

I also know you don’t live at school. I know teaching is your profession and you have a life outside of work. I realize you get sick, your family gets sick and life happens. You have a demanding job. I couldn’t care less about your lesson plans being typed up and your newsletter coming home on time. So relax… I’m in your corner.

2. I’m counting on you.

I’m entrusting you with two of my children. Neither one of them can tell me what happened at school that day. Imagine how scary that is for me. You’re not only their teacher, you’re their “mother” when I’m not around. I want you to treat them as if they were your own.

3. I’m not Super Mom.

I try my best. But I’m stretched thin. During the first week of school, my boys will have on fresh clothes and shoes. They’ll have cute little snacks and their hair will be brushed.But there will also be mornings when we miss the bus because their insomnia kept them (and me) awake at night. I may even forget to put a snack in their bags one morning because my other two kids wouldn’t get out of the bed (because teenagers).

Please be patient with me and don’t take it out on my boys. It’s not their fault when I can’t handle life. Remember, I’m counting on you.

4. Their emotional health is more important than their IEP goals.

My family has worked very hard to make sure my boys feel safe and loved in a world they often don’t understand. That sense of security can be ripped away in an instant if they’re pushed too far. Of course I want my children to master new skills and make developmental gains. But that won’t happen if they don’t feel safe… if they no longer like school.

There will be days when they just can’t “get it together.” But remember, they’re not being bad. They’re simply frustrated. So when that happens — and it will —  call me! I may have ideas that could help get them back on track. Or I may even decide to pick them up. We are in this together — we’re a team.

My children are my world and I’m doing everything I can to help them progress. Sending them to school is a huge part of those efforts. As a parent, I’m counting on you to protect, encourage and guide them. I’m looking forward to the year just as much as you are. So, thanks in advance!

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