I binge watched Netflix’s new original show Atypical this weekend. I am in a local moms of autistics group on facebook as well as a group of adult autistics and neurodiversity allies. The reactions to the preview and posts coming out about it have been varied and contrasting. I went into watching Atypical thinking I’d be focusing on how accurately they would portray an autistic person, and came out of it distracted by just how much I hated the mother. And that had nothing to do with her infidelity.
For those of you who don’t already know, Atypical is about an autistic 18 year old high school senior, Sam, and his quest for sex. And also about his family. In the very first episode I liked the mom for a brief time as she related her joy at the discovery of a whole box of Sam’s preferred shirts that were discontinued. Then she lost points a minute later when she told her 18 year old son that he would not be donating his brain to science when he died. She continuously infantilizes him, attempts to interfere with his therapy, and defends a bully because she’s pretty even though the bully was being truly awful to a classmate. She is dead set against the personal growth that her adult son is showing and his move towards independence. And that’s just the first episode.
The mom talks like she’s got this horrible, difficult life and how it’s so restrictive, yet she goes on a date, takes a dance class, and then goes out for drinks and stays out for hours without a second thought. She complains about jumping every time the phone rings, worried it’s something gone wrong with Sam. She acts like she’s this complete martyr when the reality of what they show us of how Sam interacts with a neurotypical based world makes her reactions completely unwarranted. Sam holds down a steady job and is even friends with an obnoxious co-worker. He attends high school with no 1:1 aide or any 501/IEP or official scholastic accommodations (at least, none are mentioned or shown in the entire first season.) He uses public transportation independently for crying out loud. Her whole identity is wrapped up in being an Autism Mom with a side of Martyr Complex and it’s just disgusting to watch. Yes, I’m being judgy. At the end of the first episode I guessed that character development/growth requires a poor start and that’s why they made her like this. They would show her growing and getting better and all would end up okay. It was the only thing that made sense to me. I was wrong.
I could keep listing way the mother makes things worse instead of better in the show, but I’ve probably ranted too much already. The question I was left with at the end of the 8 episode season was, “Why?” Why did the writers of the show create such an awful character? We know that Netflix asked exactly 0 autistics to consult on the show. We also know that several of the contributors have relatives on the spectrum. Is this how they view the mothers of their autistic relatives? Is this how they think all parents of autistics are? Or was this intentional? I had the thought that maybe the creators of Atypical wanted their audience to sympathize/empathize with the main character, Sam. And knowing the main character is autistic, could they have thought that neurotypical audiences would chose to “side” with the mother instead of the son unless she is clearly the antagonist of the story?
Incredibly frustrated with what is about to become the standard stereotype of “Autism Moms,” I reached out on facebook, asking if I was reading too much into this. If I am, I am not the only one. Most people who responded who had watched some or all of it agreed that the mother was miserable and a problem. One person pointed out that is was a refreshing switch to see the father being the one who was connecting well with the kids instead of the more often seen saint mom paired with incompetent dad stereotype. I think that was a very valid point. Another person suggested that perhaps the mother is on the spectrum herself. There were some indications that could support that if that’s where the writers choose to go with it, though I personally doubt they will.
I guess I wrote all of that out to say: 1) please don’t think all mothers of autistics are like this. Mothers like this probably do exist, but they are not the majority of the ones I know. Maybe that’s just because I hang out with the neurodiverse ones the most, but I don’t think so. And 2) If you haven’t started watching yet and you have a horse in this race, so to speak, watch our for feelings of frustration and disgust. And maybe avoid watching it all at once.
I am planning on writing another post addressing the portrayal of autism in this show. But before that happens I want to watch it through again, more slowly. I’m hoping the first time will act like a vaccine and inoculate me against continued distraction by the character of the mother.
(I do not own Atypical or the picture used in this critique of the show. All that belongs to Netflix.)