Autism Representation in TV Show “Atypical”

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In the first season of the TV show “Atypical”, the viewer meets the Gardner family, a seemingly normal family with an autistic teenage son, Sam, as the focus. This show failed initially to deviate from typical portrayals of autistic people on screens, as a white male, intellectually gifted, and seemingly unrelatable, although it seemed to try. Sam acts in ways that seem almost unbelievable for even someone with autism to, such as when he declares his love for someone else in front of his girlfriend’s entire family.

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This made the plot of the show more interesting, but sacrificed Sam’s reputation to some degree. This failure to protect the dignity of an autistic person on screen, in my opinion, was a failed representation of autism on screen. Sam was not made to be relatable or seem in any way “normal”, and although the show claims support of autism and the desire to spread awareness, it actually seems to ostracize Sam and his autism.

For the filming of the first season, the show did not utilize people with an understanding of autism or who personally have autism to help censor its on-screen representation. The only person to help the show was Michelle Dean, an assistant professor of special education at California State University Channel Islands. She herself does not have autism. Additionally, the actor playing Sam is not autistic and must pretend to be so for the show. For Season Two, the show used the help of an autistic author, David Finch. This improvement in knowledge of the spectrum is more apparent to me in Season Two.

Season two of Atypical broadened the overall focus of the show and worked to shift the blame for the brunt of the families’ struggles off of Sam and onto the rest of the family too. In the first season, it seemed as if Sam was the catalyst for all of the family’s misery. He seems to be the only thing the family focuses on, causing Elsa (the mother) to have an extramarital affair and letting Casey (the sister) struggle through high school in secret. In the second season, everyone else’s problems come to the forefront and are obviously not Sam’s fault. Elsa spends the second season tirelessly fighting for her marriage after her affair, and Casey struggles with anger towards her mother and the exploration of her sexuality. These situations are depicted in great detail and one finds themself following the individual stories of each family member. Sam is no longer a standout but is seen as a functional part of the family. This shows to the viewer that, although Sam has autism, there are other things in their family to focus on. This makes the family more believable. Moments are also shown of the sibling interaction that make their family seem more like a real family- where the siblings argue and play,

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