Representation of neurodiverse characters on screen matters-Atypical on Netflix - Harbor School

Representation of neurodiverse characters on screen matters-Atypical on Netflix

atypical on netflix

Representation of neurodiverse characters on screen matters because it shows all kids that they are an integral part of our culture and not separate from it. Everyone deserves to see affirming visions of themselves in the culture around them. Atypical (2017-2021) is one example of a show streaming on Netflix right now that attempts to recognise and celebrate the autistic experience through the main character Sam, a high-functioning teenager on the autism spectrum.

Atypical centers around Sam who is a high school senior living with his parents and neurotypical sister. The show depicts Sam’s sessions with his therapist, life at home with his loving family, his job, and his best friend who is a neurotypical co-worker at a computer repair store. Sam has difficulty interpreting social cues; he is literal and honest to a fault, and he is obsessed with arctic ecosystems. When Sam decides he wants a girlfriend, his overprotective mother is nervous about him getting hurt, but his network of support rallies around to help him.

Some of the criticism of Season 1 noted that the actors and writers were all neurotypical. Other criticism noted that the representation of autism is limited to high-functioning, white heterosexuals. As a neurotypical step parent to a low-functioning boy with autism and intellectual disabilities, I can’t speak to the representation of the autistic character, and yes, Sam is much more high functioning than my own step son. But I can speak to the ways that a child with special needs can affect the family as a whole, and this is something the show captures wonderfully.

Sam’s sister Casey often feels overlooked as if her concerns are not as important as Sam’s. She resents that Sam gets the bulk of her parents’ attention. While she is fiercely protective of Sam, at the same time, she feels burdened with the responsibility of having to protect him. When she is accepted into an exclusive private school, she desperately wants to go but considers sacrificing her own needs for Sam's. 

Sam’s mother has tirelessly worked to support and understand Sam, going to parent advocacy groups, and obsessively smoothing over every detail in his life to keep him from getting upset. Starting to feel burned out and unappreciated as both her children grow up, she starts an affair with a local bartender. While many people will not relate to her actions, her role as the family caretaker was clearly not sustainable - and any mother can relate that.

Sam does find a girlfriend, Paige, who is sweetly devoted to him, even though his lack of social skills makes him abrasive and sometimes cruel. When Sam revealed that his sensory issues would make it difficult for him to take her to the prom, Paige passionately advocates for and spearheads an inclusive “silent disco” prom. It is wonderful to see this kind of support for neurodiversity. Sam is sometimes ridiculed and misunderstood, but he is surrounded by people who accept him as he is and help him navigate a world where he deserves to be included but doesn’t always fit in.

This 4 season series explored many facets of not just the teenager growing with autism but also the challenges it presents to family, friends and society as a whole.

lee vodfsky

Harbor School a private special education school in Monmouth County, New Jersey

Our mission at Harbor School is to help all of our special needs students with learning, social, language, behavioral, and other disabilities. Our highly skilled staff are committed daily to helping each student reach their full potential.

We would be more than happy to discuss your child's specific needs and challenges, so please call us at 732.544.9394, or request a tour at Harbor School in Eatontown, NJ. We are located just minutes off of the Garden State Parkway at exit 105 and conveniently located off of Route 35 and Route 36 in Monmouth County, NJ.

Lee Vodofsky
Principal-Harbor School, Eatontown, NJ