Robert Watkins discusses being autistic on TV. In part one, he shares his views of Atypical and The Good Doctor.
“I really hate the mom!” Comments similar to this are rife in social media groups for autistic people. They, like many others, are taking about Netflix’s recent series, Atypical. There have been many strong reactions to recent depictions of autistic characters on television — mostly concerning Sam Gardner on Atypical and Dr Shaun Murphy on ABC’s The Good Doctor — and a significant proportion of the reactions have been negative.
Both shows, Atypical and The Good Doctor are flawed. Both shows are also amazing. Comments such as the one above, expressing disdain for Sam’s mom, Elsa (played frenetically by Jennifer Jason Leigh), are really, as I see it, unintended compliments. While reading social media reactions from other autistics, it dawned on me that the discomfort brought on by the mother on Atypical is due to the fact that she reminds many of us of the classic, overextended, overbearing, hovering Autism Mom. Let’s face it, as much as they should be admired for their tireless dedication, parents like that can be annoying.
In autistic ally groups I’ve also seen comments such as, “Watching the show gives me hope for my autistic grandson”. That alone is huge. There is no question that the recent portrayals of autism on television have sparked numerous conversations. It is clear that these portrayals will help to shape the public perception of autistic people going forward. After only its first three episodes, The Good Doctor became the most-watched show on US television, beating out (interestingly) CBS’s The Big Bang Theory (in which the supposedly autistic best-known character is, in my opinion, more of an egotistical, controlling misogynist than anything typically representative of Asperger’s). Those discussions are incredibly important and long overdue. Keep them going!
This is the kind of scene that will bring a more realistic understanding of autism into the mainstream.
Have a look at this clip from the third episode of Atypical. The father, Doug (Michael Rapaport) and sister, Casey (marvelously played by Brigette Lundy-Paine) come in after their morning run, Mom is organizing the family calendar and Sam (played by Keir Gilchrist, a neurotypical actor) is pouring over his high-school yearbook. It’s a pretty normal morning in many households: the mom is trying to take on everything, the dad is supportive but preoccupied, the sister teases her brother. The fact that the calendar is bursting at the seams is a pretty good call in an autistic household. Casey teases Sam, but the scene plays such that it’s because he’s her brother, not because he’s autistic: the teases him, not his autism. This is the kind of scene that will bring a more realistic understanding of autism into the mainstream, showing autism to simply be a part of everyday life for many families:
But what of the complaints against these shows? Are they legitimate?
Both shows have been criticized for overusing stereotypes. Yep, pretty much on point. One social media commentator said, “After trying to watch Atypical, I gave up watching the same stereotypes over and over.” But think about it for a moment. You’ve likely heard the saying, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met … one person with autism.” We are each unique, autistic or not. With so few representations of autistics in the popular media, there is no chance that the writers/producers/directors would be able to concoct a character who would please everyone. What they’ve given us, in Sam and Shaun, are composite characters. Is that ideal? No. But they are truly marvelous representations, given their place in the history of autism on television. And Sam has a job! That’s certainly not a stereotype for a demographic that is about 80% unemployed!
A number of people are complaining on social media that neither Sam nor Shaun are like their son-sibling-grandchild, etc. It seems at times as if some people wouldn’t be satisfied unless Sam had the same special interest as their child! No other individual will be exactly like Sam Gardner or like Dr Shaun Murphy, but there are likely aspects of their characters that are familiar to many. I especially love the display of visual thinking when Dr Murphy is imagining the problem space. I can relate to both characters taking a bit longer to answer questions than would a neurotypical. There are many times when I’ve taken things too literally, when I’ve missed some subtlety of expression. I should imagine that there is something in each of the characters that will resonate with almost everyone in the autistic community.
And this isn’t an easy problem to solve. You’ve got to create a character that will bear the weight of trying to be the “right” representation of the whole of this thing called autism, to everyone who has ever been touched by autism. Easy, right? Not in the least. So, how would you “place” such a character? If you make the character a very specific individual, you’ll get complaints about the character not being representative enough; if you give the character a very broad representation, it will come across as just a stereotype. Both shows have been criticized for both faults. I applaud them for doing as well as they did. These are among the very first openly autistic protagonists on the small screen. Could they be more nuanced? Of course. But think back to the 70s, when Black roles started to become more prominent on TV. Were the characters subtly nuanced? Goodness no! Did that change with time? Yes.
Laughter only becomes a problem if there’s judgment behind it.
Atypical has been brought to task because of the perception that Sam is the brunt of most of the jokes. Again, let’s put this into context. The show is a half-hour sitcom. The main character is autistic. So, yeah: his autism is going to play in the jokes. Even in The Good Doctor, ableist misunderstanding drives much of the plot. It’s the nature of sitcoms to have the protagonist be the fall guy or girl. And sitcoms almost always use exaggeration to try to be funnier. If we want to be accepted into the mainstream we need to learn to laugh at ourselves, and we have to accept being laughed at. Being laughed at, by itself, is no big deal. If I stumble while walking down the street, I’ll laugh at myself and am not in the least offended if others also see the humor. Laughter only becomes a problem if there’s judgment behind it.
In both Atypical and The Good Doctor there are numerous clunky scenes that awkwardly inject mini-lectures about autism into the dialog. Is it great script writing? No. Is it inevitable? Probably. Again, this will improve with time. Right now, the general public still needs to be brought up to speed about autism. I have no doubt that public awareness and understanding of autism will improve as a result of these clunky, ungainly lectures. Fantastic! I’ll take it! Better writing will come.
Those unfamiliar with autism may cock an eyebrow at this scene.
But the shows also have moments of brilliant clarity, where autism is shown in its raw, unfiltered state. The following is a clip from episode four of The Good Doctor, in which Dr Shaun Murphy (played by Freddie Highmore, also a neurotypical actor) is having an anxiety attack because he can’t find his screwdriver. His boss and mentor, Dr Aaron Glassman (Richard Schiff), who comes over to help, shows true humanity and compassion when, after first losing his temper, he apologizes for having raised his voice. Those unfamiliar with autism may cock an eyebrow at this scene, but believe me: approximately half of us on the spectrum deal with anxiety daily, not always at this level, but far more than the casual observer would notice. This scene really hit home for me, and, I’ve no doubt, many others:
Atypical has an equally evocative scene in episode eight, in which Sam has a meltdown on a bus. Good ol’ autistic hyper-empathy has many of us really feeling those moments.
Both shows have been called out for not involving autistics more in the creative process. And it’s true, they really missed the boat here. While both shows spoke with spectrumites pre-production, there were no (self-declared) autistic writers, producers, consultants, etc. Knowing this makes it difficult, at times, to assess what the shows are communicating. In the fourth episode of Atypical, Sam’s father, Doug, uses the phrase, “my autistic kid” in a support group. He is told, by the “professional” in the group, that he should use person-first language (“kid who is autistic”) rather than identity-first language (“autistic kid”). This is a huge point of contention within the autistic community, with most self-advocates falling firmly in the identity-first camp. So, not knowing how well (or ill) informed the people are who put these shows together, it’s hard to know if they are supporting person-first language or trying (weakly) to disclose the debate. The fact that the scene blows off the debate with, “it doesn’t matter”, does not, I fear, bode in favor of well-informed. Fortunately, however, the public outcry, especially from within the autistic community, has been loud enough that, going forward, any show would be foolish not to be far more inclusive.
To it’s credit, Atypical does have an autistic cast member, Anthony Jacques, who appears in two episodes of the first season. Interestingly, Jacques originally auditioned for Sam’s part, and although he didn’t get that role, they wrote the Christopher character in response to his audition! While I’ve not seen it publicly declared, it looks very much to me as if Jacques’ character, Christopher, is going to turn out also to be autistic. We’ll have more of that, please!
My premise has been that these early representations of autism on television are breaking ground, and that doesn’t always happen very smoothly. But the ground has been broken. Discussions are still lively. There will be more shows, there will be more characters. It may turn out that, for a while, an autistic character is de rigueur for any “cool” ensemble cast (hmm, is that already happening? Think: Power Rangers, Sesame Street, …). As presence grows, as inclusion grows, as awareness grows — as autism is seen as more of a difference than an oddity — the nuance in our representation will also grow.
I now charge you with a responsibility. The attention these shows are getting — the fact that you’re reading this article! — demonstrates that there is momentum. We need to use this momentum to bolster the representation — and inclusion — of autistic women, autistic people of color, minimally and non-verbal autistics, older autistics. All autistics. The ground has been broken, but there’s lots more ground to cover. Let’s get moving!
Oh, but there is one exception to everything I’ve so far said about the representation of autistics on television. And it is tremendous. But that’s for next month’s article.
*On Autistic.ly, Robert is reinventing the workplace with and for autistic people.
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All images and videos of Atypical are courtesy of Netflix. All images and video of The Good Doctor are courtesy of ABC.