The Humour and Humanity of ‘Atypical’

The third season of the Netflix original Atypical released a couple of weeks ago. The series tells the story of the Gardner family, particularly of 18-year-old Sam, who is on the autism spectrum.

Before I dive in, I must confess that I haven’t seen the third season yet as I have yet to sort out my feelings for the show. I’m the kind of person that likes to classify things and people into neat, well-defined boxes for clarity, till those that I have categorised demand a revision.

It’s not a neat process, or even a desirable one.

I’ve tried to be comfortable in chaos, around entities that are at once many things and nothing specific at all. I have tried and I have failed. To my mind, chaos is like the sea but without a beach from where they might cautiously wet their toes, get stung by the salt and bask in the sun.

It is like the sea as the sailor knows it: where the wetness is not measured, where the sun burns, and salt eats away at skin.

It is for this reason that I must carefully put everything in its right place, sort storylines of shows and characters of novels into pigeonholes to better understand the thoughts they bring up.

And Atypical is a show that makes me feel many things.

Given my need for rules and categories, I grew to like Sam very quickly. I am not on the spectrum and do not wish to trivialise his condition in any way – my little anxieties about chaos are hardly in the same ballpark as those that Sam experiences.

Sam’s journey over the two seasons has been awe inspiring to say the least. What makes the show even more special is that his romantic accidents, dealing with the casual cruelty of teenagers and his family’s many dysfunctions feel deeply normal. 

For the most part, Atypical does not even revolve around Sam entirely. All the characters – his sister Casey, his parents Elsa and Doug, and even his therapist Julia – are treated as independent entities. Their relationship with Sam, given his condition, plays a major factor but that’s not all there is to them. They have their own conflicts, their own stories, quite independent of him.

Casey’s search for her sexuality identity and athletic brilliance are as much a focus of the show as is rather hilarious mess that Julia calls her life, as are Elsa’s endless conflicts. It is often these stories that are central to the storyline.

What this does, in addition to providing the series with deeper and more substantial content for its ten episodes, is humanise Sam. This normalcy isn’t a broad stroke smoothing of the inherent differences his condition brings about, but one that makes no attempt to paint Sam’s entire character only through the lens of autism and by letting him be a mere curiosity.

At one point, Doug, Sam’s father, an amiable if bumbling man, calls Sam “autistic”, instead of saying “person with autism” at a support group. He also dramatises Sam’s meltdowns instead of properly labelling and defining them. Others in the support group correct him and are left shocked at his lack of knowledge of person first descriptors.

Also read: ‘Sex Education’: What Netflix Gets Right but India Doesn’t

This scene sticks with me because the show, in its two seasons, has shown how exactly to make those on the spectrum feel less discomfort and ostracised without engaging in mere language games. Doug, who has had much trouble with understanding Sam’s condition and dealing with it, grows to treat his son like he would have if he were neurotypical.

He is the one that ends up asking Sam to expand his horizon, bit by bit, while Elsa is unsure if Sam is capable of doing “normal” things, showing that he is capable of being a good father – even if the support group, in its righteous politically correct anger, may not believe it.  

Despite appearances, Atypical is quite light when it wants to be, thanks in large part to Sam’s best friend Zahid and his Bollywood boy overconfidence (without the toxicity). But his isn’t simply the usual stock comic relief character – season two delves into his life as well.

And indeed, it is Zahid who ends up influencing Sam the most, revealing to him the many deficiencies of our neurotypical needs that necessitate the manufacturing of lies in order to make sense of the world and the self. Zahid tells him of how atypicals see the world as it is and that is precisely why neurotypicals cannot stand them.

I study psychology in college and we studied clinical disorders last semester, among them ASD. I was taught about the condition, its causes and its characteristics at an undergraduate level.

What I did not understand – despite the DSM-5 criteria and regulations – was how it must feel to be on the spectrum, or to know and love someone who is.

Sadly, in psychology, if a therapist cannot empathise with a patient, criteria and causes and cures can only do so much. Atypical, if nothing else, is warm and empathetic in its message to its audience.

The series had been suggested to me by a friend, who described it as a show unlike any made before. I had laughed, presuming she was exaggerating – as people tend to do about the TV shows they’re into.

She was not. Atypical is indeed atypical. By setting out to tell the tale of those that are different from us, it tells us that despite our banal efforts at establishing normalcy, we are quite atypical.

And that that is truly normal.

Atish Padhy studies Journalism, Psychology and English at Christ University, Bangalore. When not reading and wondering if a master’s degree in philosophy will get him anywhere, he can found succumbing to this blight that is the Arsenal Football Club.