There are a number of great things about Netflix’s Atypical. For starters, the show never hesitates to tackle difficult topics like disability, sexuality, and infidelity. But the best part about this refreshingly original twist on a coming-of-age narrative is that it is able to navigate these topics with tasteful, undeniable humor.
The series follows Sam as he struggles in his transition from adolescence to adulthood, all of these experiences made even more difficult due to the fact that he is autistic. He falls on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum, but Sam is still a character who embodies a larger part of the autistic community than previously shown on most shows – like Parenthood and Antenna – which often depict characters with either Aspergers or as savants, both of which represent a very small part of the spectrum.
The show shines in its decision to normalize the stigma around autism with humor.
And with such characters often strictly used as supporting or background characters, Sam being the center of a quirky coming-of-age comedy unlocks a more realistic story that hasn’t been told, reaching audiences who could benefit by seeing more autism representation on-screen.
Even though the premise of the show is based on Sam’s disability, the show shines in its decision to normalize the stigma around autism with humor, specifically through Sam’s relationships with the people closest to him – his pack, as he calls them, featuring Casey, Zahid, and Paige.
Sam himself is already supposed to be a humorous character – a common characteristic for people on the spectrum is difficulty reading social cues, making for an extremely honest (and hilarious) Sam – and the fact that most of his jokes are unintentional could have easily crossed over to using his personality as a punchline. Instead, his commentary and conversations expose a natural charm, alleviating the heaviness and seriousness that surround people with disabilities.
The member of Sam’s cohort whose humor probably most resembles his is his younger sister, Casey. This makes sense considering how close they are in age, and like most siblings who are close in age, Sam and Casey fight. Casey’s dry humor and bluntness is used to terrorize Sam (and their mother), but in a loving way.
She isn’t television’s typical teenage girl from the way she wears her hair to the way she dresses to the way she interacts with her autistic brother. With their mom being overprotective of Sam and their dad being overwhelmed by Sam, their household can hold a lot of tension surrounding Sam’s autism. Casey’s sense of humor and the normalcy she attaches to Sam allows for an environment where he can flourish.
Sam’s personality exposes a natural charm, alleviating the heaviness and seriousness that surround people with disabilities.
With many disabilities, including autism, the simple uttering of the word can evoke a myriad of reactions – pity, confusion, even disgust. But for Zahid, Sam’s best friend, the word warrants none other than a standard Zahid joke. When Sam first meets Zahid and matter of factly tells him he has autism, Zahid jokingly says he’d misheard and thought Sam had said “Australian”. Sam doesn’t catch the joke, instead correcting Zahid, to which he responds, “Thank God. I hate Australians.”
Since their first encounter, Zahid and Sam develop an enviably tight friendship which includes a hilarious dynamic back and forth between Zahid’s charmingly over-confident stints of advice and Sam’s incessant questioning of Zahid’s moral decisions. They even have a fall-out over a girl (typical adolescent boy behavior) then find their way back to each other.
Sam’s autism never stands in the way of their friendship and Zahid never makes Sam feel weird about it, but he’s also never weird about the way Sam responds to his jokes like when he doesn’t laugh or doesn’t understand them. Even though the jokes don’t always land with Sam, Zahid’s comedic relief within his role as Sam’s best friend shows the audience that humor and fun can exist in Sam’s friendships.
When it comes to romance and relationships, the show doesn’t hesitate to give Sam more than enough action. His love and sex escapades are awkwardly amusing, but his relationship with his long-time girlfriend Paige is arguably the most fun to watch. To put it frankly, Paige is… odd. Even Sam recognizes this when he makes a pros/cons list of whether he should ask her to be his girlfriend or not.
As they grow in love and experience teenage milestones together, it is clear that Paige’s dramatic personality paired with Sam’s seeming nonchalance is a perfect match. Individually, to a lot of people they’d be looked at as two oddballs, but their union is indicative of the kind of “normal” experiences that nearly anyone can achieve, including love.
Elevating a character like Sam to the forefront of a hilarious, feel-good family show offers a normalization of autism and atypical people.
What all of these characters have in common is the lens with which they view Sam and consequently how they treat him. They work to dismantle the perceived gloom that comes attached to a life with ASD. It is through these comical, untraditional personalities that the show is able to transform what might ordinarily be considered weird to a completely normal teenage experience. Like in most coming-of age narratives there are ups and downs within the main character’s family, friendships, and romantic relationships and Sam’s story is no different.
Of course Sam doesn’t represent every autistic teenager out there. As emphasized in the show, autism is a spectrum and everyone who falls on that spectrum is perfectly unique. But by elevating a character like Sam to the forefront of a hilarious, feel-good family show, Atypical continues to highlight the humorous aspects of life with ASD, offering a normalization of autism and atypical people.