Atypical is a coming-of-age tale that puts the focus on a criminally underrepresented group of people. The new Netflix series revolves around Sam, a teenager with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), on his quest to make it through high school and find his first girlfriend. The show's main character has a very real disorder, but Atypical is not based on a true story. Instead, Atypical tells an original story that attempts to provide an accurate look at what growing up with autism spectrum disorder, is like.
According to the National Institute Of Mental Health, the term "autism spectrum disorder" is an umbrella for a variety of conditions that usually include having difficulty with social interaction and showcasing repetitive behaviors, the severity of which varies. Show creator Robia Rashid explained to USA Today that she's not attempting to create the catch-all depiction of ASD in media. "We're telling the story of this one kid on the spectrum, and that's his life," she said. "It's a very specific story of this family."
While the show isn't attempting to capture the experience of every teenager with ASD, it's shining a light on the experience by focusing on one specific lead character who is. But the creative team behind the show have also taken care to caution that Atypical is not just about Sam's differences. As director Seth Gordon explained in a Netflix featurette, "There's something beautiful about making a show that is about a character with special needs but isn't a show about the special needs. He's just a kid in a family."
Atypical isn't based on one specific true story, but Rashid has taken great care to present a true-to-life portrayal of ASD. USA Today reported that the showrunner worked with a professor from UCLA's Center for Autism Research And Treatment to ensure accuracy.
The show's creators seem interested in honoring the reality of having ASD, while showing viewers that life for someone who is affected does not simply revolve around the disorder. Sam still dates, works, interacts with his friends, it's just that Sam does all these things with ASD. Sam's ASD does not define who he is, it is simply one of many parts of him.
Atypical's main character may not interact in the world the way that most of his classmates would, but Rashid is using Sam's story to deconstruct the idea of how people should interact with the world in the first place. "The theme of Atypical is: No one's normal," she says in the above featurette. It's not an unusual theme for a coming-of-age tale to tackle, but the added layer of Sam's disorder gives a new weight to the argument. Teenagers with special needs are often labeled by the normal/abnormal dichotomy, but by normalizing ASD, Atypical may show audiences that there's no such thing as "normal." Or, if there is such a thing as normal, then Sam is as normal as everyone else in his world.
Atypical could be a major step forward towards ending the idea that someone with ASD is "abnormal" or "wrong." By normalizing ASD and showing it as a part of everyday life, Atypical could go a long way towards de-stigmatizing the disorder in the real world.
Sam's story may not be true, but if the writers succeed in their goal, it will be relatable to any viewers who grew up with ASD or knew someone that grew up with ASD. Hopefully, Atypical will also inspire people with no experience to reconsider what they think they know about the disorder, and be more accepting of those that have been diagnosed with it.