‘Atypical’ Updates Our Stereotypes about Neurodiversity. You Should Too!

In Episode 2 of Netflix’s original show “Atypical,” centered on the hormonal/romantic coming-of-age of Sam, a high-functioning 18 year old boy with Autism, the protagonist experiences a humiliation worthy of the Seventeen magazine’s “embarrassing moments” section. Determined to start dating and specifically to win the heart of his charming 26-year old therapist Julia, who, as he finds out, has a boyfriend, Sam sets out to conduct some research. In the hallway of his high school, he approaches a group of attractive, apparently sexually active peers, and asks them for advice on “How to steal a woman.”

The male leader of the group of neurotypicals seizes the rare opportunity presented to him to draw out more of Sam’s unusual declarations:

“So you’re doing research on how to steal a woman? Awesome! You tryin’ to get laid? You gonna tap some ass?”

The following response is characteristic of Sam’s earnestness throughout the show:

”I don’t think so. What does that do? No.”

Laughter. Another member of the group offers some help:

“He means pussy, bro.”

Nope, that doesn’t help. Sam:

“I’m not a fan of cats. I mean, I guess cats are okay. I’m more into birds than felines and, especially, I’ll say flightless birds are cool.”

Sam is a big fan of penguins, and his narration throughout the show is smattered with many charming and fascinating facts about these unique birds and their home, Antarctica.

As the taunting continues, a girl in the group, growing uncomfortable, pleads in Sam’s defense… sort of:

Guys, leave him alone! He’s not all there!

While Sam understands that his classmates are bullying him and is emotionally and physically affected by their cruelty, he resists their definition of who he is. Later, as he paces around his bed and chants the the names of the four different species of penguins (“Adelie, Chinstrap, Emperor, Gentoo”)– two of his “replacement behaviors” — he yells out to the air, I AM ALL THERE. I AM.

Although the show often represents Sam’s difference as his failure to understand figurative language– which admittedly never ceases to be funny, because idioms and euphemisms are often ridiculous– it never laughs at him. This is different than many shows that include characters who are awkward, weird, or implicitly neurodivergent, such as the venture capitalist Laurie Bream in Silicon Valley or Dean Craig Pelton in Community. These other sitcoms never name or center the difference, encouraging viewers and even the other stars in these shows to position these characters as comic reliefs — weird, whacky, awkward Others. But quasi-representation or silent representation or token representation does not feel like real representation. People know when they’re being picked on.

Instead, Atypical acknowledges and embraces Sam’s diagnosis, and sets out to portray him as a genuine, passionate and relatable teen. It does so by setting him off on a classic narrative arc: the pursuit of the princess. Sam, 18 and hormonally ready, wants a girlfriend. But his socio-emotional uniqueness makes it… challenging… to say the least, to navigate the murky waters of teen dating. Especially since its obscured in all that figurative language!

Confession: When I was 12, I had almost the same interaction as Sam in that bullying scene. As in, I also talked about cats and birds, when that was definitely not what the (bad, very bad) person I was talking to on the internet meant. I had just moved to the States and didn’t know much English, much less the idioms and rules of talking about sex. So as an immigrant I actually find Sam’s constant confusion around neurotypicals pretty relatable.

Speaking of confusion, I’ve been using some terms here, but I should know better than to use concepts that might be unfamiliar in Mixed Company. I discovered the term “neurodiversity” only a few years ago, but when I did, I felt like a great light was shown on some area of the world I always used to blindly stub my toe around, kind of like when I really understood that gender is not binary, or that nations are imagined communities, or read The Cyborg Manifesto for the first time. In other words: TFW you learn something. Neurodiversity is that kind of paradigm shift, that liberates us all from having to see people in terms of “normal” and “crazy/strange/weird/awkward/anxious/depressed/NOT ALL THERE.” You know how are are all special snowflakes? Well, our brains are too. Due to “normal” variation in the human genome–reflective of general diversity in all things, our brains are all a little bit different. We may be born with certain predispositions (such as autism or bipolarism), and our neurocognitive expression may also change depending on our environment (like if we experience trauma or meditate a bunch). Neurotypicals are people whose neurocognitive functionings fall within the dominant societal standards of “normal.” Neurodivergent on the other hand describes everyone who falls outside that norm, including artists, geniuses, radical innovators, and also less remarkable people who just happen to have a lot of anxiety. I recommend you go to neurocosmopolitanism.com to learn more, which is where I’m stealing most of my language from.

Discovering the concept neurodiversity made me feel like Zahid, Sam’s friend, co-worker, and main advisor on all things women, when he retorted his girlfriend’s accusation of Sam’s weirdness: “Everyone is weird! It’s awesome!”

Of course, having Autism or loving someone with Autism is not always awesome; in fact it is often quite difficult. Which is why I love that in every episode of Atypical there is a real crisis that reverberates through Sam’s entire family. As they help each other through each new situation, and Sam learns new social rules (e.g. no locking girls in the closet when they annoy you), the viewers learn too. Like when Sam’s father offends the Autism Parent Group he rarely attends by failing to use “Person-first” language, or when Sam’s “practice-girlfriend” learns that he doesn’t like when she touches his things. By following along with Sam’s journey and joining the ranks of people who care about him, we learn that while he may not know all the rules and is honest to a fault, eventually his worldview starts to feel predictable and even kind of make sense. Because everybody makes sense to themselves. It’s the world that’s weird. (We also learn a lot about penguins.)

Of course, Atypical is a sitcom, not a documentary about autism or neurodiversity (Neurotribes is a good book if you want a more comprehensive history and exploration of those issues), so it’s not going to be perfect. Autism advocates have critiqued its representational limitations, and an autistic actor has problematized the show’s lack of writers and stars who are on the spectrum. I support the spirit of critique, and think we should always hold our media to higher standards of representation– both on and off screen. Originally, I was going to write about how frustrated I was that every story of someone “different” (e.g. MTV’s Awkward, HBO’s Insecure, and now Netflix’s Atypical) has to revolve around a love story. But maybe I should take that up with Vladimir Propp. Instead, I want to celebrate the show a little bit for updating our stereotypes. And surprisingly, not just of autism, but of race too.

For example, when Casey, Sam’s sister, visits a wealthy private school she’s being recruited by, she is welcomed by a peer interviewer, Jayson. “You look familiar,” Casey notices.“Well, I’m black,” he replies cheerfully. “So they put me on all the brochures.” And with that Jayson deftly calls out Predominantly White Institution’s (PWI’s) representational tokenism and hypocrisy.

Or when at dinner Sam’s mom notes that Zahid, Sam’s ambiguously brown-skinned co-worker/friend/ladies’ man, has an “interesting name” and asks where his family is from, he just as cheerfully responds: “Vermont. We moved here when I was in the sixth grade but we still head back every year to peep them leaves.” Then sends that micro-aggression back at her with a wink.

By casually exploiting these typical moments of everyday racism, Atypical brilliantly demonstrates how weird the things we consider “normal” actually are. Kind of like figurative language?

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