The autistic community has been waiting a long time for books, movies, and TV shows that show us as people, rather than plot devices, and while it’s slow-going, we’re gradually moving in that direction. The change in how autism and dating are portrayed onscreen is a great start. The first example I ever encountered was a 2009 movie called Adam, which tries to show the inner life of a guy with Asperger syndrome, but ultimately just uses him to further the self-awareness of his love interest, the annoying protagonist Beth, who breaks up with him and uses their relationship to write a book about Asperger’s. We’ve come a long way since then: Though a show like The Big Bang Theory has never had the guts to actually use the word autism, it does show Sheldon Cooper, who has many of the traits associated with Asperger’s, with a job, friends, and a nice, steady girlfriend who’s almost as awkward as he is. But one thing it hasn’t done is taken much time to show how Sheldon feels about his own struggles.
Enter Atypical, Netflix’s comedy about an autistic high schooler and his family, which—despite not involving any autistic writers, producers, or consultants—does a pretty good job of showing us who its protagonist is, what he wants, and how he goes about trying to get it. Sam (Keir Gilchrist) is a senior in high school, who takes regular classes and has an after-school job at an electronics store, where he is friends with his nerdy coworker Zahid (Nik Dodani). Sam is obsessed with penguins and Antarctica—we know this immediately from his voice-over at the beginning of the first episode. He is insular and more or less happy with it, but he wants a girlfriend, especially after his therapist, Julia (Amy Okuda), encourages him to start dating, to his mother’s chagrin.
Whereas a lesser show might just pick one perspective and run with it, Atypical shows how autism affects Sam, his family, and the people around him as he enters the world of dating. Sam’s track-star sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) gently pokes fun at him in a way that teaches him how to do better. I’ve only had a few friends in my life who could do that, and let me tell you, it feels a million times better to have someone laugh with you about your weird moments instead of tiptoeing around them. I know a lot of people in the autism community don’t like Sam’s mom, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). There is plenty of criticism in the #ActuallyAtypical tag on Twitter, where autistic viewers voice their thoughts about the show, criticizing Elsa and autism moms in general for making their kid’s autism all about themselves. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve started to empathize with my own parents.
Elsa doesn’t want to be the dreaded “autism mom,” but the rest of the family hasn’t given her much choice, and she’ll do anything to protect her son. While she’d love to see Sam date, she can also see all the terrifying pitfalls that she’s going to have to clean up after—like when Sam’s father, Doug (Michael Rapaport), drives Sam to a girl’s house so he can break in to give her chocolate-covered strawberries. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to Doug, that girl happens to be Sam’s therapist Julia, on whom he develops an inappropriate crush.
I don’t like the falling-in-love-with-the-therapist plotline—it’s trite—but in this context it’s also realistic. As Sam’s dad points out, Julia is one of the few people in Sam’s life who makes him feel competent. Of course he’d do anything for her. Sam’s consuming infatuation with Julia also touches on another, rarely mentioned aspect of autism: It’s definitely possible for our obsessions to be centered around another person. Instead of trains or outer space or bleach bottles, Sam thinks about Julia all the time.
When I was Sam’s age, I was always obsessed with some guy, usually a guy with great social skills who I thought was going to save me from myself. I remember the time I wrote a letter to a guy I hooked up with in my dorm three months later, folded it into a paper airplane, and slipped it under his door. I also expressed my undying devotion, “anonymously,” to another guy at least twice over a now-defunct Facebook app called Honesty Box—but of course he knew exactly who I was. Those weren’t inappropriate crushes like Sam’s on Julia, but I did come on way too strong. The thing about autism is that many of us can “pass” for a long time, long enough that when we slip up like that, it creeps people out—as it eventually does with Julia.
Which brings me to Paige (Jenna Boyd), Sam’s classmate and first girlfriend. Though Sam sees Paige as a “practice girlfriend,” he likes spending time with her, enough to not kick her out of his room when she goes through his stuff, despite his obvious discomfort. (Sam’s protectiveness of his environment is the single most relatable part of this show so far to me.) He breaks up with her because he isn’t 100 percent certain that he loves her—also something I think a real person with autism would do—but soon after that he asks his parents how he knows if he’s in love. They tell him that if you love someone, you feel like they’re the first person you want to confide in. Lucky for Sam, he turns out to be this person for Paige, so she’s willing to take him back when he figures out what he wants.
Paige is an excellent partner. When Sam doesn’t want to go to prom because he knows the music would be too loud and he’d experience sensory overload, Paige persuades the PTA to throw an autism-friendly prom with a silent disco theme. That was probably my favorite part of the show. But the biggest problem is that Paige isn’t fleshed out at all. As far as we can tell, she’s just some manic pixie dream girl who saw Sam’s Antarctica-and-penguins-themed sketches and fell madly in love. I’m not saying autistic people can’t date hot neurotypicals, but her character is so undeveloped that she comes off as mere fan service. Note to producer Robia Rashid: Giving Sam an autistic love interest could have elevated Atypical from decent to actually groundbreaking.
I like Sam, because he’s such a regular guy and feels so refreshingly human. He’s smart, but not Sheldon Cooper-smart. He tries to have a little sense of humor. He’s not totally unaware or uninterested in what people are doing around him. He doesn’t dislike the idea of prom. He tries to have a one-night stand with a college girl. Whereas other autistic characters on television seem to be almost entirely absorbed in one specific focus—whether that’s physics or detective work—and don’t even try to look for love, Sam has been proactive about having at least a little bit of a love life in his teens and early twenties. I’d tune in next season, if there is one, to see if he’s successful.