Please Don't Hate Me for Loving 'Atypical'
So, I watched all eight episodes of the new Netflix series, “Atypical” in a day. And yes, I’m upset they didn’t include an autistic actor. Yes, I think it’s wrong autistics weren’t consulted in the creation of a character. Yes, it was another show about a more “high functioning” autistic teen. Yes, it was another male instead of a female. Yes, there were stereotypes — again. I still loved it.
Perhaps I should have prefaced that first paragraph with the fact that I am not a person with autism. I am a neurotypical mother who has three children, one of whom has autism. That being said, “Atypical” is not a perfect show, but, is there perfect show besides “Breaking Bad?” As a mother of a child with autism, an autism blogger and an autism advocate, for me, “Atypical” did what it was created to do: it entertained me. I laughed, I cried, I sobbed big, ugly tears and I even shouted, “Hell yeah!” more than once.
It also brought back dark, lonely times. It reminded me of where I once was and where I am now. I felt the loneliness, the uncertainty and the guilt. Oh dear heavens, I felt the guilt after learning of my son’s diagnosis, all over again. I sent a text to my 19-year-old neurotypical son who is away at college, “I’m sobbing through episode four of Atypical. I’m sorry if I ever made you feel less by trying to make Ryan feel more. I love you so much.” Then I went to my neurotypical 11-year-old daughter and held her in my arms and said the same. Then I went to my 15-year-old autistic son and said, “Sorry about all the times I didn’t get it and screwed up.” Yep, guilt.
“Atypical” also made me laugh out loud — remember thing I had long since forgotten. But mostly it reminded me of the progress my son, Ryan, has made, as well as the rest of our family as we traveled this unfamiliar road. And although some of that progress, for all of us, was difficult, it was good to watch this series and be reminded: we did it.
I think some of us parents would like to see our child represented in a television show or movie, so people would understand autism and our family. But we can’t talk about wanting our child to be seen as unique yet expect Hollywood to create a character who fits every individual on the spectrum. We can’t yell, “no more stereotypes” then be discouraged when our kid doesn’t fit the next character with autism on our television or movie screens.
Many of us loved “Friends,” but did they hit every demographic of every 20 something in the ’90s? No. “The Cosby Show” was a huge hit, but did the Cosby family represent all black families in America anymore than “Full House” was a good representation of white families? I don’t think so. And as much as we love the day-to-day happenings at “Seattle Grace Hospital,” do you think every hospital in Seattle has a McDreamy or a McSteamy? Sadly, no. And for every 20 and 30 something woman who gathered around their televisions with girlfriends to watch “Sex and the City” while deciding which friend in their inner circle represented Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda, many weren’t having sex or living in the city. That’s Hollywood folks.
As a mother, of course I don’t want negative stereotypes about autism perpetuating mainstream media, and I know there are many individuals with autism who are unable to work at a technology store fixing computers who are not represented anywhere in the media. But I love that our autistic adults and children are represented at all. When my son was young, there was no Julia muppet, no Max, no Sheldon Cooper and no Sam. At that time, for me, it felt like Ryan was the only child with autism I knew, and for a while he was. And although “Atypical” may continue some of those negative stereotypes, I hope those stereotypes are at least conversation starters: “Oh, your son Ryan has autism? I watched Atypical, is Ryan just like Sam?” For decades, there was no one on our televisions to even start that conversation.
Here’s the thing, of course I made comparisons to my son, of course I made comparisons to myself, but, just like Sam is not Ryan, I am not Elsa. Did I love seeing a family traveling a journey similar to mine on television? Of course I did, but, part of my binge watching had everything to do with hoping that Sam got his happy ending and transposing that hope for my son. Isn’t that what we all want in life and in a television series, a happy ending?
As for my son, Ryan, he had no interest in watching “Atypical” because, “it’s not a Japanese show that includes anime which is much more interesting than what you are describing.” “Atypical” may not be for you, or my son, but for this mother, the creators of the series did what I believe they set out to do: entertain me and give me a glimpse into another family who also has a child with autism. And teach me a lot more than I ever knew about penguins and Antarctica.
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