8 things to learn about autism from "Atypical"

SmartParents breaks down the Netflix show that shines the spotlight on this development disorder and discusses its key issues

Though many of us have a love-hate relationship with the small screen, especially when your kiddos are glued to it, we have to admit that television shows have come a long way. When shows used to be made for their sheer entertainment value, many TV series today tackle serious topics. In fact, they give viewers a front-row seat to issues we might otherwise not be aware of.

One such show is Atypical, which debuted on Netflix on August 11 to much fanfare. The story revolves around 18-year-old Sam Gardner who has high-functioning autism (played by Keir Gilchrist, who is not autistic in real life). When Sam decides he’s ready for a girlfriend, he goes on journey of self-discovery that includes failed dates, leading to hilarious and heart-wrenching consequences.  

The eight-episode series also explores subplots involving Sam’s family, mum Elsa (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), dad Doug (played by Michael Rapaport) and sister Casey (played by Brigette Lundy-Paine). 

To better portray the disorder, the writers and producers of the show worked closely with a professor from an autism research and treatment centre. Plus, they spoke with families who have members with autism.

According to 2016 figures collated by KK Women's and Children's Hospital and the National University Hospital, 1 in 150 children in Singapore has autism ― a rate that’s higher than the World Health Organization‘s global figure of one in 160 children.

So, thanks to programmes like Atypical, we get more information on and are more aware of this disorder.  Here are eight lessons we’ve learnt from binge-watching this sidesplitting, sweet and soul-stirring show.


Lesson #1: There are proper and improper ways to refer to someone with autism   

First up, don’t ever ever refer to someone as autistic, abnormal or retarded. The politically correct way to refer to this group of people is “people with autism”. This is one of the first things a counsellor points out to Doug at his only appearance at an autism parent support group Elsa attends. Also, did you know those on the autism spectrum like to refer to people who don’t have this condition as neurotypicals? This means a person who has a “typical” brain, or someone who is intellectually, cognitively, and developmentally on track.


Not everyone who’s on the Autistic Spectrum Disorder (also known as ASD) will face the same challenges or have the same quality of life.


Lesson #2: People with autism can be high functioning

Not everyone who’s on the Autistic Spectrum Disorder (also known as ASD) will face the same challenges or have the same quality of life. Although 70 per cent of those with ASD are mentally slow, according to Singhealth, they can still enjoy a pretty good quality of life. The other 30 per cent include individuals like Sam, who have high-functioning autism. Although Sam is unlike most teenagers you come across ― he despises loud noises and bus rides, but loves penguins ― the teen is still able to cope in mainstream schools, get a part-time job at a gadget store, and even has a girlfriend!

Lesson #3: People with autism have the same desire as neurotypicals to connect and bond with others

People with autism often come across as cold and disconnected individuals with zero filters ― not the best choice for a boyfriend or girlfriend. These socio-emotional difficulties come with the territory as ASD impairs one’s ability to understand non-verbal cues. They take everything at face value and every word spoken literally. However, it doesn’t stop them from wanting to connect emotionally with others. Sam, for instance, at age 18, is ready for a significant other in his life. This journey puts him on the path to self-discovery ― at one point, he even realises exactly what it is to just know when you’re in love with somebody. Yes, we’re talking about that sweet, albeit sad, carpark slow-dancing scene between Sam and his therapist Julia (played by Amy Okuda), whom he’s hopelessly in love with.