A Neurodivergent View of Netflix’s Atypical

I did it! On a long car ride across Texas, David at the wheel, I managed to sit through the entire first, 38-minute episode, of Atypical, titled Antartica.

Let me start by saying that Atypical is a show about autism. It is not made to be a show for autistic people, despite autism being the main theme of the TV show.

Netflix’s new show Atypical has been creating quite a stir in the online autism community. The story is supposed to be told from an autistic person’s perspective, but many people are upset with the show’s apparent lack of neurodiverse representation both on and off screen.

Autistic advocates were most frustrated over the autistic main character, Sam. Many expressed wishes for autistic characters to be portrayed by autistic actors. As expected, Sam’s character is basically just a DSM checklist of every possible autistic stereotype imaginable.

In the first episode, I am already put off by the complaining from the mother character. Hopefully, she’ll take responsibility for her own actions, stop holding her son back, and quit complaining about how much of a burden autistic people are in future episodes.

We’ll skip past all of the completely unrealistic, WTF moments, such as the “brain donation question”, the “sex with a random older female stranger”, and the illogical “bedroom assault”. (Nothing about that first “sex scene” is even believable.)

Atypical is a painfully typical coming of age comedy. It has a very basic family teenage drama dynamic, complete with predictable plot lines focused on teen sex and surviving high school.

Every show needs comic relief and the writers of Atypical have managed to do a great job placing autism front and center as the butt in most of its jokes, because it’s fun to laugh at other people’s difficulties.

Between the poor representation and the bad acting, the first episode of Atypical was one of the most cringeworthy things I’ve come across in a very long time. One was enough. I’ve got no plans to watch another episode any time soon.

Sorry Netflix, that is a big “NO!” from me.

What do you think? Did you like Atypical? Should autistic characters in film and TV be played by autistic actors?

Check out the tag #actuallyAtypical on Twitter for more autistic opinions on the show.

55 thoughts on “A Neurodivergent View of Netflix’s Atypical

  1. I haven’t seen it! But at your question at the end….

    “Should autistic characters in film and TV be played by autistic actors?”

    If you ask me, I’d say both yes and no. The right actor for a role is the one who plays it the best! If an autistic actor kills the audition and does it the best, he/she should get it. But if a non-autistic actor does it best,the role should go to him/her. My reasoning is two-fold: First, I don’t believe in so called positive discrimination. Second, a series or movie is best served by having actors that do as good a job as possible – and your prowess as an actor is not dependent on whether or not you are autistic. So just as autistic actors should be cast as non-autistic characters if they nail the performance, the opposite also has to be true. Equal rights from all sides ftw!

    1. I agree. I don’t think an actor needs to be neurodivergent to play an autistic character well. Conversely, I think an autistic actor could potentially play an NT very effectively. The question should be ‘Does this actor portray this character in a believable manner?’ Being autistic could give an advantage when portraying an autistic character, but I don’t think it is essential.

        1. Of course it isn’t funny for Sam, it’s hard. It’s hard every day for me also. And I think it’s quite sweet that you cried and thought about your husband’s pain. But Atypical does manage to get across some of the daily difficulties of having a hyper sensitive brain, and the discomfort of finding social connections with the non autistic population hard to understand. Many, many, many non autistics will never read an article or leaflet, never mind a whole book about autism. They have around 98.5 % of the population to interact with with, they can choose to avoid us if they want (unlike autistics, we have no choice but to interact with the non autistic population). So my view is that putting the information into a drama is one of the best ways to help them understand. It might be the one and only way they get to learn about autism, via drama and comedy. I’ll accept whatever it takes to open up minds and hearts.
          As for laughing about autism. It’s a myth that none of us have a sense of humour. Most of us do, it’s just different. And I now use humour, laughing at myself, to get the message across when I can. Certainly at work, within my own small team of work colleagues, I laugh about things and encourage them to laugh WITH me, that way I’ve pre-empted any laughing AT me. There are lots of funny moments, especially regarding my hypersensitivity to sudden sounds or movements, I’m extremely easy to startle. I find laughing about it better than crying, and keeping everyone laughing helps also to keep them on my side for the times I need a little help if I’m getting overwhelmed or something. Atypical isn’t funny as such, but there are moments that made me smile, like the penguin tee shirt, and the blunt statement he made to his Mum in the car about getting a girlfriend. It’s Ok to see the funny side of it, laughter is good for us.

  2. I’m on episode 7. I actually like it. I think they do one thing reasonably well which is to show the main character’s perception isn’t defective, just different.
    As for the identity of actors it’s an absurd issue. Acting is not about being a character, it’s about being able to portray a character well.

  3. It’s my intent to use their marketing — attach many versions of #atypical to it – and encourage others to do the same. I identify as #atypical and pretty sure I have something creative I can do to express that.

    Piggyback on their ad $ to get heard. Incorporate their hashtags into your #actuallyautistic work. That’s my approach. They have the eyes and interest of general population — I can stand in my soapbox all day shouting and never find that kind of interested attention — so go where there at and start seeking allies and others who do want to know the real stories. Start sharing what it’s like for the rest of us to be #atypical too. some thoughts.

    And some of the humor I just lmao. Hollywood spin and extreme — yeah, comedy does that.

    Some of the parenting stereotypes were so accurate if felt — NT parents with Autistic kids and the huge disconnect because we’re expected to be like them? Anyone get that feeling? I mean, Autistics who got these kinds of parents. Others, we’re not living large like that with family that tries to support.

    Realities of homelessness in adulthood are extreme for our population. Abuse, employment supports, housing supports, mental health services, exclusion and otherness. I wonder how they are going to address this later on.

    1. Sam’s mom is the problem. She is every mother who creates a helpless mentality in their children. She holds her son back, so he cannot learn from his word around him for himself. It is extremely disturbing how accurate her character is – the autism Mom. This show is about autistics but it’s definitely not FOR us.

      1. Ugh. I am an Autistic mom to autistic kids so some of this to me is like, NT parent’s care about that? Or why is that a big deal? Trying to figure them out — meeting youth and transitional-age Autistics coming out of NT homes right now — the stories are horrifying. I’m going to have to watch the show to figure out stereotypical patterns of these types of parents. I find the isolation of the boy character in the show to be sad. It doesnt have to be that way.

      2. That woman (the mother) is a nightmare. I did watch the whole season, and I think that there is enough merit in other aspects of the show but that character was one hard pill to swallow.

  4. I don’t think anyone should pass judgement unless they’ve seen the whole series. That’s like judging all autistics based on knowing just a few.
    The series does get better. We’re all very different, but I recognised myself in much of what he says, although as a female much of it was kept inside my head.
    If you keep going, there’s a meltdown sequence that I found realistic and touching. I’ve never been as severe as that in public, but I have at home. I wish someone would treat me the way the mother does at that point.
    I also think the series does a reasonable job of educating NTs about autism. Come on, I bet it took most of us some pretty intense research, at the special interest level, to learn fully about autism in all its wonderful colours and hues across the spectrum, but we had a very strong motivation to do that research. The average NT has no such motivation, so let’s at least get the message across anyway we can. Although the main character is autistic, and male, the whole series addresses the reactions of the other family members and while every family is different, I didn’t think they did all that bad a job. It’s fiction after all and they have to make the most of the few characters they have. It’s going to be slightly melodramatic, it wouldn’t hold anyone’s attention if it was totally and boringly realistic, because let’s face it, we like our lives fairly unpredictable. Same breakfast, at the same time, walk the dog every day along same route, same time, and I like having work uniform, as it’s the same every day. Most of us will also go out of our way to avoid sensory overload, so not much exciting is likely to happen anytime soon.
    As for an NT actor playing an autistic character, that’s more than fine by me. Are you saying that autistic actors can only play autistic parts? Hmm, that means they can’t even apply for 67 out of every parts available, and does that also apply to gay and straight actors? No, I’m sorry, the point of the job of an actor is to become someone else and do it convincingly. And I thought he did a pretty good job.

    1. I’ve watched the whole thing 2 times through and I still am really unhappy with it. I hate the mom, I hate how everyone treats Sam as incapable of learning, and I hate how Sam is portrayed as nothing more than the list of autism symptoms/indicators.

  5. outrageous… my son is an out of work autistic actor – but he’s have refused to have anything to do with the show. He is a one woman man and that’s that. I hate the way people make fun of autism. It is not bloody funny, it is me, my life, and I like being me and don’t deserve to be laughed at, laughed with yes, laughed at – get lost… Without autism the world would be devoid of most of its genius and we’d still be living in caves and defecating in our drinking water…

    1. Have you watched the the show drricksbotanicalblog? It doesn’t laugh at him at all I thought. It’s gently humorous in places, but there are no laugh out loud moments, except, and I emphasise this strongly….. At moments of strong self recognition. I found it to be very honest about the autism actually and its definitely not making fun of autism. If you haven’t watched it, then I recommend you do, then base your opinion on what you see. As for the one woman thing, I think I know what you are referring to, but actually it’s a demonstration of the analytical mind of many autistics, breaking it down into practice and the real thing. There is no such thing as a perfect portrayal of an autistic character, because we are all so different, for example I hate Christmas and fairy lights, especially against a dark background. The contrast is too much for me, and too many people in one room is also a nightmare for me. But I can probably tolerate loudish music better than the character can. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know the scene I’m talking about. That doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s an accurate portrayal of an autistic person, because it is. It’s dramatised up a bit to make it more watchable, but it’s not inaccurate.

      1. Thank you for your considered response to my knee-jerk! I don’t have Netflix and don’t watch much TV so I should probably not have posted. My son would not play any role involving any kind of sex scenes as he would see that as betrayal of his lovely girlfriend so this role would be a no no for him. I have been laughed at too many times to enjoy even gentle humour about how the world views autistic people, so I guess that I am not really the target audience for such a show. From both the post and your responses I’m not sure it would be at all easy to find an autistic person to play the character. For me, such a show would only really work with an autistic actor, script writer and director, then I think you’d get a genuinely autistic spectrum view of the situation. This, the show appears not to have. It sounds like other shows and films where non-autistic people have tried to peer into ‘what it is like to be autistic’. I have seen Rain man and some episodes of The Big Bang theory, which I found painful, (though my kids love the latter) so it may be that my strong reaction comes from being raised at a time when being ‘different’ was seen as a bad thing and so I was both laughed at and beaten to try and make me ‘normal’… Once I had gained a PhD I was finally free to do what I liked doing and did it very successfully without so often being laughed at…

        1. Thank you for your response. I was worried you might be upset by my reply, so thank you for the way you have responded. As for sex scenes, that’s why it’s advisable to watch before passing judgement. There are no sex scenes involving the autistic lad. He only talks about it. Honestly, it’s a lot more respectful than some people are saying. And so far, almost every negative comment I’ve read is from someone who hasn’t watched the entire series. I wasn’t so keen on the first few episodes, but I felt it improved. I think the problem with all dramas is that there is a rush to introduce as many characters as possible in as short a time as possible, so the story arc often doesn’t get going until episode 3 or 4.
          Don’t get me wrong, it’s far from perfect, but it’s no where near as bad as you fear. And I’m sorry to hear about your experiences growing up. Been there with the bullying. It was awful. I think schools are places of torture quite frankly. However, my sister is a head teacher of a primary school and she has listened to me, with her senco (special educational needs coordinator) and they have made adjustments that anyone in the school can take advantage of, diagnosed or not. The main one that I approve of is opening up the library area at all free play times, with adult supervision, so that any child can go to a quiet area, without having to have a diagnosis to access such “special” accommodations. It costs money, in staff time, but that alone would have made my time in school a little less intolerable. It’s what we need everywhere.
          I’m glad you have found your niche in life though, well done you!

  6. My therapist recommended this to me and my husband today as a form of “cinema therapy” the idea of seeing things happen from the outside so you can understand them better when they happen to you….haven’t watched it yet.

  7. I haven’t watched it, and probably won’t, but you expressed all the thoughts/fears I had when I first saw the trailer :/ It’s unfortunately something very…typical.

  8. Weird, I did really like it and I’m waiting for a Season 2, I have a lot of symptoms of Aspergers syndrome, but I haven’t been diagnosed yet, and I really like this Netflix Show, I know a lot of friends do too, every one has their opinions though. What I’ve been realising sometimes is that people praise Netflix shows and then the critics come up and some of the praisers then agree with that statement, changing their own statement and it becomes a full negative reaction, even if the show is actually good in others’ eyes, but that doesn’t seem to get noticed by Netflix. I haven’t seen a show like this in a long time, I really hope it sticks around. Sorry if this came off as me sounding like a bitch to you, I’m not.

    1. I loved this show too. I couldn’t wait, I ended up watching it all in less than a week, and I’d be there for season 2 in a heartbeat.

  9. This is a really thoughtful review. The show seems a bit divisive. I can see people disliking the mother for lots of reasons, but I actually love how flawed she is, and I think the actress does an amazing job. In my opinion the show is worth sticking with to the end.

  10. I don’t understand why people think it is strange to want to see an ASD actor in an ASD role. Personally, it annoys me to see able bodied people playing characters in wheelchairs. It’s not that they are not capable of doing it ; it’s about the fact that it would be better for someone who has actually experienced it to portray it in a respectful manner. It is too close to blackface if you ask me. It also takes away roles from disabled people. Sure, an AB person could play a wheelchair user, but for obvious reasons a paraplegic can’t play an able bodied character. It evens things up a bit.

      1. I think it’s hard for “normal” people to accept being excluded from anything. It is so foreign to them that it feels wrong and I understand feeling that way.

  11. This was a great article. I was wondering if I could republish it on my website, neurodiverge.com? It’s a new website, and is currently devoid of autistic voices. This piece would be a fantastic addition to the site if you are interested in sharing it (with attribution and a link back to your blog of course).

    Yours sincerely,


  12. I finished it up today…I think there are both good and bad pieces to the show. The family struggle seems to be fairly realistic to me, since often times neurotypical children do experience some of the stress and issues that the sister does.

    However the mother is just awful. I really think maybe she is meant to portray the bad overprotective parent of an autistic child, the type that uses autism as an excuse to not expose their children to the outside world. The dad on the other hand portrays the parent that maybe at times goes too far, but does challenge Sam to do things that he might not be comfortable with at first.

    One of the bigger drawbacks is actually Sam, who plays more of a stereotype than an actual autistic person. It seems that Sam is used far too often as comic relief. Still at times I found myself relating to Sam at many times. It was both good and bad. The best part was the shows portrayal of sensory overload, when Sam has his meltdown on the bus, I actually cried during this part because it was incredibly realistic to me.

    All in All, I think the show is decent. It’s not great but it’s ok and can be entertaining. However, like I said in my own article on the show, I think the worst thing is the way neurotypical people will view the show. They might think they understand autism and what it is like to be autistic but the show does very little to that end. So it could be very harmful in the long run.

    Maybe the best positive, is it might highlight to some parents, through the portrayal of the mother, just how limiting and incredibly overprotective parent can be. In that it might actually do some good.

    1. “One of the bigger drawbacks is actually Sam, who plays more of a stereotype than an actual autistic person. It seems that Sam is used far too often as comic relief.” – This is what disturbed me.

  13. I just watched the trailer. I raised two children with special needs of different sorts, autism was part of it all I believe The thing that bothered me about the trailer was the same thing that bothers me when any teens are represented in media, that they have no depth, no interest beyond sex. They do. They have so much in their souls is that noble and good and wise. I wish Sam would represent that, because it is true of young people with autism just as it is true of all young people, because they are made in the image of God. They are not cheap, they are not shallow. That’s what I didn’t like.

  14. Neurodivergent characters should ALWAYS be played by neurodivergent actors if at all possible. Switch think of it in terms of race – who would ever dream of portraying a black character by ac white person in blackface? I saw episode 1 and was bored.

  15. Reblogged this on Fantasy Books 411 and commented:

    Personally, I found Netflix’s show ‘Atypical’ to be okay, but I agree 100 % about the stereotyping to the extremes. I don’t know- for me, it’s one of those ‘grey area’ shows, where I’m not completely sure how I felt about it.

  16. I did watch the whole series … if this is what people are going to watch to learn about ASD (because it’s more accessible than all the more accurate information out there, or easier than actually interacting with us, idk) then I’m more than a bit upset.

    It wasn’t just the relationship with the inappropriate psychologist, or the uptight ‘autism mum’; how about the creepy girl who goes from ‘That’s okay – he was totally okay to lock me in his closet. It was just his autism!’ to ‘I control how many times you get to talk about your special interests and when!’ If people don’t see our behaviour as something horrible that can somehow be excused because we’re lesser, we’re seen as boring, annoying people who need to do less of what we like to do so that we make other people’s lives easier.

    I also would see some benefit in having neurodiverse actors play ND roles – while I feel like some shows do try and do it right (I personally like the Danish/Swedish show The Bridge, and the Swedish police officer who has Aspergers – there was research done, and the portrayal is not hackneyed) it would be good to see roles depicted by actual people with ASD.

    And now The Good Doctor has come out – I can’t bring myself to watch it after looking at the ads: ‘ARE YOU A TERRORIST???’ (From the main character). In another ad a competiting colleague say someone next to TGD ‘You must be the one with autism’ (or something similar; I’m paraphrasing) and TGD ends up saying ‘No; that would be me.’ There was also a FB page for the show that had some app that could demonstrate how TGD and other autistic people saw things. It was a picture of a body that changed to x-Ray vision (guess which one we see).

    I try and be open about my ND status all the time and if people have questions I’m happy to answer. Usually because I’ve been subject to harassment and abuse in public and work situations at worst, confusion and ignorance at best. Shows like this just make me nervous.

  17. I enjoyed it, though I meet a lot of the stereotypes that they were portraying. I even have a part-time job, which is odd to portray when our community has a 80% unemployment rate. I didn’t date at the same age, but I did have my first encounter. I would say that I am around 90% similar to the character.

  18. What did people think of the way the prom was modified to be more inclusive? His girlfriend got several things wrong, but her proposal for prom struck me as thoughtful and creative.

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