First thing is first, “Atypical” is a show about a boy, not a show about autism. In no way does the show focus on that. Autism is a part of the main character, Sam Gardner’s (Keir Gilchrist), identity, but he does not define himself by it. This is something affirmed by the show’s use of the “people first” phrasing, in which you say “person with autism” rather than “autistic person”.
Rather than being a show about disability, Netflix’s new series is a heartwarming and comedic coming-of-age story. The Gardner family is trying to handle having two teenage children, a very familiar situation in many households. Eighteen-year-old Sam, with the help of his therapist, Julia (Amy Okuda), decides he wants to embark on a journey to find a girlfriend. When he develops feelings for Julia, things become complicated, but with advice from his family and friends, he learns how to navigate the romantic world.
The show also follows the storyline of Sam’s younger sister, Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), as she tries to balance protecting her brother, her athletic career and her boyfriend. In addition, Sam’s parents Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Doug (Michael Rapaport) give the show drama with their marital issues.
Gilchrist provides the most captivating performance of the series. Although he’s not on the autism spectrum himself, Gilchrist sites the inspirations he drew from.
“My neighbors when I was a little kid had two kids on the spectrum and I had a lot of friends with siblings on the spectrum so, for whatever reason, I have been around that more than most people,” he said on TODAY.
That, along with the series’ advisor with a clinical background in the behavior of children with autism, allowed Gilchrist to appropriately portray the nuances of his character, though sometimes to a slightly exaggerated extent.
Sam is a brutally honest, monotone kid with sensory sensitivity and has a difficult time understanding social cues, but he also has an amazing memory and an affinity for learning about Antarctica and animal behavior. He applies his appreciation for lists and rules to learning how to get a girlfriend.
The show’s dialogue is well-written and flows nicely. The audience can easily laugh along in the right places. While “Atypical” can at times toe the line of believable day-to-day family life, the added drama and extreme scenarios are understandable. The cast does a great job portraying their characters, they often seem much older than teenagers.
While a show that portrays a character on the autism spectrum is refreshing, it seems to be of growing popularity. Recently, a new puppet with autism on “Sesame Street” was added, and the release of shows such as ABC’s “Speechless” and “The Good Doctor” deal with characters on the autism spectrum as well.
While Sam’s character seems well-researched, it would have been a much more honest and accurate portrayal if producers had cast an actor actually on the spectrum. Sam’s very high-functioning character comes off as just a little socially awkward in most situations, even though it seems like writers tried to give the character every tick associated with autism, which does not always occur in people on the spectrum.
Aside from those few minor issues, the show was entertaining and had just enough episodes to keep audiences interested. “Atypical” is must-watch on Netflix this fall.
Julia Mancini is the associate life editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at Julia.firstname.lastname@example.org.