The new Netflix show Atypical is not only really bad and harmful autism representation, it’s also misogynistic, racist, and fatmisic. It gets so many things about autism wrong while also getting sex and relationships wrong in pursuit of a toxic coming of age plot. It conflates autism with toxic masculinity and wastes an opportunity for a healthy discussion of masculinity and autistic sexuality. One of my biggest complaints with Atypical is that with a little social model awareness and non-misogynistic sex and relationship education, most of the plot goes away.
Collected below is feedback from actually autistic folks on the many problematic aspects of Atypical.
- Recaps by NOS Magazine
- Crippled Scholar on Representation
- Misogyny, Toxic Masculinity, and Disabled Sexuality
- Meltdowns and Violent Portrayal of Autism
- Portrayal of Women of Color
- DSM Stereotypes, Behavior Modification, the Medical Model, and Ableist Assumptions
- Identity First Language and Person First Language
- Autism Warrior Mom
- #ActuallyAutistic and #ActuallyAtypical
- Good Journalism that Talks to Actually Autistic People
- My Tweets
Recaps by NOS Magazine
Many autistic people were concerned about poor representation, since the actor playing the main character, Sam, is not autistic. Netflix assured people that the “social production team,” whatever that is, included autistic people. The social production team doesn’t seem important enough to merit a credit. Their full time consultant appears to be a researcher from UCLA — Not exactly someone who would be able to provide input on a humanizing portrayal of an autistic person. And it shows. Sam reads like a DSM diagnostic checklist, not a person.
After watching one episode, I feel confident saying that it is exactly as bad as you thought it was. Possibly worse. I committed to writing recaps/reviews of each episode, and this is definitely shaping up to be an “I’ll watch it so you don’t have to” sort of situation. So let’s dive in.
The second episode of Atypical is titled “A Human Female.” After watching it, I feel like I need a shower. Is this supposed to be funny? Humanizing? Because after watching this episode, instead of merely socially inept, Sam seems dangerous. Has he never read a book or watched a movie with a human relationship in it? Has he never watched his parents? Why won’t anybody in his life have a talk with him about what’s appropriate and inappropriate in relationships or about appropriate boundaries in general? I am usually pretty skeptical of social skills training programs, but damn.
The overall theme of the third episode of Atypical, “Julia Says,” is change. An often discussed “core symptom” of autism is what diagnosticians call “inflexibility.” Ironically, the most inflexible person in this episode is Elsa. She has built her entire identity around Sam being dependent on her. As her family grows and changes around her, Elsa acts out. By the end of the episode she has assaulted a store clerk and is sleeping with Nick the bartender. Somehow, this is autism’s fault or something. I still can’t tell if she’s supposed to be relatable or likeable.
In Atypical’s fourth episode, “A Nice, Neutral Smell,” Sam’s Odyssey to date continues. A girl, Paige (Jenna Boyd), shows interest in him! Why exactly is mysterious, since he treats her and other women terribly. She’s a little quirky and probably has low self-esteem, so apparently that means they’re perfect for each other? Of course, the writers continue to portray Sam’s awfulness towards women and girls as some kind of natural extension of his autism. Last time I checked, misogyny isn’t part of the diagnostic criteria for autism, although I suppose I should give them props for giving Sam a personality trait beyond an autism symptom checklist, however unintentionally.
In the fifth episode of Atypical, “That’s My Sweatshirt,” Paige overtakes Claire for the most unlikeable character in the show. She seemed quirky and sweet last episode, but as she systematically violates Sam’s space and controls him to an abusive degree, she’s completely lost me and has taken the crown for the Worst Person on this show. And that’s saying something, since the episode caps off with Elsa cheating on her husband, again. Which is still, somehow, autism’s fault and not hers.
A core part of the family dynamic on Atypical is that somehow, Sam’s autism makes everyone around him’s life worse. How, exactly, is unclear. It seems that the mere fact of Sam’s autism negatively impacts everyone around him to a degree where any and all terrible behavior is excused and justified. It’s a completely toxic dynamic. It’s not funny. It’s not even sympathetic. It’s horrifying. I feel sorry for Sam. He’s not the only one who is poorly written and hollow. The people around him are too.
Episode 6 of Atypical is titled, “The D-Train to Bone Town.” I feel slightly uncomfortable just typing that phrase. It was an uncomfortable episode to watch overall. Atypical is threaded with racist subtext, but it really comes to a head in this episode. Somehow, all of the mean girls are black women. April the mean mom? she’s black. Sharice, Casey’s so-called best friend who betrays her? Black. Her track mates are people of color, too. The only empathetic black character in this episode is Harmony, a sex worker, and she is thoroughly objectified by both Sam and the show’s writers. I don’t think it’s intentional, but the image of autism as a white disease causes serious hurt and isolation for black autistic people and their families. The image of Sam’s white family being afflicted by intolerant, neurotypical black people is not a good look for the writers.
The end is near! The seventh and penultimate episode of Atypical is titled, “I Lost My Poor Meatball.” My first reaction was to desperately hope that it wasn’t yet another disgusting sexual euphemism.
This is it. The final episode of the first season of Atypical. Unless Netflix addresses some of the significant problems with Atypical and includes some actual autistic voices, I hope it is the last episode ever. Despite a few positive moments, Atypical laughs at autistic people, not with us. Rather than inform people about what our lives are like, it provides a cartoonish and heavy-handed caricature that plays into almost every negative stereotype about autism.
Treating women like sex objects is not a natural extension of autism. Limiting how often someone is allowed to talk about what they love is abuse, not a real relationship. Autistic women, autistic people of color, queer autistic people and transgender autistic people exist. Autism doesn’t cause families to fall apart. It isn’t even true that families with autistic children have higher divorce rates than the general population. The fact that Netflix could release something like Atypical and run a campaign like #FirstTimeISawMe at the same time shows that Netflix completely fails to understand what disability even is to the people who live it.
Crippled Scholar on Representation
The show is in a word terrible. The autistic character Sam has no perceivable personality and is largely just a collection of autism diagnostic criteria and stereotypes. His only driving factor is to get a girlfriend.
For some reason, Netflix has classes all of this as a dramedy. The thing is it actually has the basic structure of what could have been a pretty good gritty drama. The show presents Sam and his actions as inherent and unavoidable because he is autistic.And sure there are autistic men who display the same degree of entitlement and sexism. The thing is that this is learned behaviour. So I have tried to reimagine Atypical as if it actually dealt accurately and honestly with what is going on.
The show would need more autistic characters to act as counterpoints to Sam. This could be achieved by having autistic activists who engage with Elsa at one of her autism walks. They would challenge her and of course, she would inevitably utter the all to common phrase “you can’t speak for my child”. Elsa would double down on her awful behaviour which would be reinforced by the uncritical support of her autism mom’s support group.
The inclusion of other autistic characters would help clear up the issue around the group’s use of language. Showing autistic people unapologetically identifying as autistic and owning their identities would throw Sam’s harsh reality into sharp relief.
The problem with Atypical isn’t that it’s merely imperfect. It’s loaded with stereotypes and misinformation. This tweet positions autistic people’s concerns about Atypical as merely whining and an unreasonable demand for perfection rather than the actual protest that it is against the genuinely harmful messages of the show.
I am however going to focus on the last assertion of her tweet, that the show and shows like it create genuine curiosity to discover the truth about the marginalized peoples being misrepresented.
This is patently false. The actions of this person actually exemplify that. This tweet only came about because autistic people had pushed back against their uncritical demand for a second season. It also came after their original rebuttal of “If you don’t like it you don’t have to watch it”.
This latter argument entirely ignores the harm that can occur if people watch harmful portrayals of disability and believe and internalize those messages. Disabled people don’t have the luxury of just ignoring harmful representation. We need to know what happened so we can challenge it.
Misogyny, Toxic Masculinity, and Disabled Sexuality
Atypical’s plot centers on a teenage boy trying to get laid–complete with misogyny, abuse, and a pervasive rape culture vibe. It conflates autism with toxic masculinity and wastes an opportunity for a healthy discussion of masculinity and disabled sexuality.
But instead, Atypical portrays autism through a series of tired male nerd stereotypes. The result is a show that mires everyone—autistic and neurotypical—in the same dreary gender roles as ever.
It becomes women’s job to initiate lovably clueless men into social norms. Thus, in Atypical, a black woman stripper gives Sam some sage words of advice and expose her breasts to him for free while she’s on break because she finds his honest ignorance so adorable. Her only purpose in the story is to use her sexuality to help Sam self-actualize.
Sam’s autism is presented in gendered terms as an inability to read women. So any time he treats women badly, the show presents his actions as a symptom of his autism. Sam goes to one girl’s room to have sex, then panics and hits her. He tells his girlfriend that he doesn’t love her and breaks up with her in front of her entire family, right before prom. He sneaks into his therapist’s apartment—but when she is upset and confronts him, the show portrays her as unprofessional and cruel. When Sam treats women badly, it’s never his fault.
“Stories about autistic men reinforce gendered stereotypes in that they can portray misogynistic tendencies as inherent traits,” Kim Sauder a PhD student in Critical Disability Studies and disability rights blogger, told me. “I’ve seen more of this on social media than in film or television—stories of people excusing creepy or inappropriate behavior from men because they are or more commonly perceived to potentially be autistic.” Since sexism is seen as a trait of autism, and men are seen as naturally autistic, the result, Sauder says, is that expressions of sexism by all men are chalked up to autism.
Meltdowns and Violent Portrayal of Autism
Atypical misrepresents meltdowns and portrays autistic people as violent. This is perhaps the most harmful misrepresentation present in Atypical.
Portrayal of Women of Color
Atypical objectifies women of color and portrays them as antagonists.
Atypical includes casual, thoughtless fat shaming.
DSM Stereotypes, Behavior Modification, the Medical Model, and Ableist Assumptions
Atypical is a fount of ableist tropes and assumptions. It is steeped in the deficit model and medical model and demonstrates almost no social model awareness.
Identity-First Language and Person-First Language
Atypical advocates person-first language. Most autistic and disabled folks prefer identity-first language. PFL erases us.
Autism Warrior Mom
The mother in Atypical fits the Autism Warrior Mom archetype: self-centered, overprotective, controlling, prizes neurotypicality and behavior modification, refuses to accept their kid’s agency and reality. Autistic people are very familiar with this mindset. Don’t be a warrior parent.
#ActuallyAutistic and #ActuallyAtypical
Good Journalism that Talks to Actually Autistic People
Journalists rarely interview autistic and disabled people. They interview doctors, therapists, and parents but ignore the perspective of actually autistic and disabled folks. Some journalists take the time to do it right, and it shows.
Here are some of my tweets as I was working my way through the episodes.