Is Atypical an Accurate Representation of Autism?

Netflix recently released the fourth and final season of Atypical. The show highlights one character’s transition into adulthood and how autism spectrum disorder (ASD) impacts that journey. The question is: Does Atypical accurately represent autism?

Here’s a detailed analysis from the autism specialists at CNLD Testing & Therapy. We provide autism testing, executive functions coaching, educational advocacy and autism therapy in Southeast Michigan.

What Is Atypical about?

Atypical focuses on a high school senior named Sam who is on the autism spectrum. The show’s first season depicts the struggles Sam faces on a day-to-day basis at school, as well as adjustments his family makes to accommodate autism. The seasons that follow look toward college enrollment, relationship development, career prospects, and other hurdles that most teens encounter shifting to adulthood.

Does Atypical Accurately Portray Autism?

Because autism encompasses a range of symptoms and severities, there is no one “right way” to portray autism. As a whole, the show does a good job of representing the challenges a teen or young adult with autism may endure. The main character interprets most information literally and feels overwhelmed in loud, chaotic environments.

With that in mind, Sam has what some may label “high-functioning autism.” Thus his struggles may not be as extreme as someone with minimal executive functions and social skills. Some people on the spectrum may relate heavily to the protagonist, while others may have completely different experience.

What Netflix Got Right with Atypical

Here are some ways Netflix accurately represented autism in Atypical:

  • Sam’s fixation on specific information. People on the spectrum often find themselves in a thought loop, unable to focus on anything beyond the specific thought in their mind. For example, Sam spends an entire episode focused on the fact that “4 out of 5 autistic students don’t graduate college.”
  • Autism therapy for teens and young adults. Throughout the show, Sam receives support from a counselor to find personalized coping mechanisms and alternative perspectives for situations he is in. The way Netflix portrays this treatment is similar to what some may experience with executive functions coaching and autism counseling.
  • Family adjustments after an autism diagnosis. ASD doesn’t just impact the person with the condition. It affects the entire household. Atypical does a decent job representing struggles for the parents and the siblings of someone with autism.
  • Self-abusive behaviors when stressed (hair pulling). When someone with autism feels overwhelmed, they may bang their head or pull their hair out, much like Sam does during stressful situations.
  • The appearance of being self-centered. In many scenes, Sam appears to be ignoring other people within the conversation because he is focused on something else, which is common for someone with ASD.
  • Sam’s obsession over something he is passionate about. For Sam, the passion is penguins. For someone else, it may be dinosaurs, old movies, the universe, their favorite singer, or any number of other fixations.
  • Literal interpretations. One of the key indicators of ASD is a difficulty interpreting social cues, body language and implications. While this may seem humorous on the show, it is a serious obstacle that people with autism must overcome.

Continue to Part 2 to see What Atypical Got Wrong about Autism Representation