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“Atypical” Examines Autism Through a Teen’s Lens

(Wikimedia Commons)

“Adélie, Chinstrap, Emperor, Gentoo. Adélie, Chinstrap, Emperor, Gentoo.” Reciting the four main types of Antarctic penguins is Sam Gardner’s (played by Keir Gilchrist) coping mechanism when he has a “freak-out.” The Netflix series of “Atypical” shows the daily challenges of an autistic 18-year-old and follows Sam as he navigates the drama of high school, family, and friends, just as he starts to date for the first time.

Sam has high-functioning autism, which allows him to attend school, speak clearly, and have more opportunities than some kids on this spectrum.

“Autism Speaks,” the US’s largest autism advocacy organization defines  autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as a “broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.” The Centers for Disease Control notes that “Autism affects an estimated 1 in 59 children in the United States today.”

Sam’s challenges include not recognizing non-verbal cues, making small talk, and understanding various feelings of his family members, classmates, and co-workers. Sam can be too literal for his own good and sometimes has outbursts that make him the perfect target for bullies who don’t understand what he is going through. 

Sam’s younger sister, Casey, acts like an older sister because she tries to help him with routines. Sam’s best friend, Zahid, gives him advice yet  manages to do so using humor.

Our Upper School psychologist, Dr. Suzanne Ritter, enjoys this show and said, “I loved the series and especially appreciate the show’s efforts to create a character with autism who is not a stereotype. It is clear that they are trying to show that individuals with autism, while facing many struggles, also are intelligent, funny, creative, and loving. They may not always be able to express it in a neurotypical way.” 

Ritter added, “I am also encouraged that, especially in Season 2, they brought in consultants and actors with autism to make sure that the stories the writers created truly represents some aspects of an autistic teen’s life, and the struggles and successes the family has while they learn about how best to support Sam. While individuals with autism differ greatly from one another, it is really wonderful to see shows that demystify and shine a light on autism spectrum disorder.”

By hiring teens on the spectrum as actors for the show, “Atypical’s” stories provide people with autism more opportunities in the workforce and allows them to be part of something that is groundbreaking.

“Atypical” simply breaks the stereotype of “normal.” 

Three seasons of Atypical are on Netflix. Each season has 8-10 episodes.


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