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

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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.

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Lesson #4: Those with high-functioning autism also have their own challenges

Just because they’re more self-sufficient than others on the spectrum, it doesn’t mean that people with high-functioning autism don’t have to deal with their own set of challenges. Throughout the series, Sam seems to be navigating the confusing boy-girl relationship labyrinth pretty well. That is, up until the object of his affection, his therapist Julia, rejects his feelings ― rather vocally. This sends Sam on a downward spiral, the result is that the teen has a nervous breakdown, such that his parents have to literally peel him off the floor of a public bus.

Lesson #5: Raising a child who has autism can strain your marriage

Even the strongest of marriages take a hit when dealing with the trials and tribulations of being a parent, what more when you are raising a child with autism? Take extra care of your spouse and the marriage when the going gets tough because if you don’t, you might end up like Elsa and Sam. Though they love each other, the high-school sweethearts have drifted apart, probably because they’ve been putting their son’s needs before their own for so long. So much so that Elsa scoffs when Sam suggests a date night, something which they haven’t done in years. Couple time does happen eventually, but it ends in disaster.

Lesson #6: Raising a child with autism changes you

Once a carefree dancer, Elsa turns into an overbearing helicopter parent after having Sam. Indeed, raising a child with autism is a million times more challenging than raising a neurotypical kid ― and it can alter who you are permanently. Worrying about your child’s safety and future or constantly anticipating the next meltdown can take a toll on any parent. Elsa has built her entire identity around Sam’s dependence on her, so when her son starts fighting for independence, she feels unwanted and unappreciated. Desperate for some attention and feeling disconnected from her husband, Elsa finds comfort in the arms of another man.

Worrying about your child’s safety and future or constantly anticipating the next meltdown can take a toll on any parent.

Lesson #7: Don’t underestimate how supportive neurotypical kids can be of ASD kids

Nothing restores your faith in humanity more than the kids in this programme. Sam has a typical love-hate relationship with his younger sister Casey. They call each other names one minute and love each other fiercely the next. Casey, who goes to the same school as her brother in order to keep an eye on him (she’s gives Sam his lunch money daily), also feels responsible for his overall well-being. She bears so much responsibility on her shoulders that she is even willing to put her dreams on the backburner, so that she can remain in the same school as her big bro. Casey hopes to attend a prestigious school on a full scholarship and become a professional athlete.

Then, there’s Sam’s girlfriend Paige, who so wants Sam to be her date to the winter formal dance that it prompts her to lobby for a silent disco ― music is streamed into individual headphones rather than being blasted out loud. Thanks to Elsa’s and several parents’ support, the silent disco gets the green light and Sam attends his first-ever dance! Oh, and who can forget Sam’s colleague-cum-buddy-cum-co-worker Zahid. He coaches him through all the complexities of human interaction and is even up for giving Sam a tight man hug whenever it’s needed.

Lesson #8: As parents, it’s okay to admit that you sometimes can’t handle the challenges of raising a child who has autism.

A random family picture from years ago in which Doug is noticeably absent opens up a Pandora box of family secrets. It doesn’t take Casey long to figure out that her beloved dad had walked out on the family for a few months when the kids were still young when handling a child with autism got tough. Although it happened a long time ago, it isn’t something Doug is proud of. Nor is Doug proud that he can’t publicly admit to people that his son has autism. This also explains why he has only joined Elsa once at the autism parent support group and has never told his colleagues ― whom he sees daily ― about his son’s condition.

The biggest lesson anyone learns from this series is that nobody ― not even a person with autism ― will ever be ready for the challenges life throws at them. Very often, it can be overwhelming for everyone involved. But don’t be afraid to admit it as this is the first step you’ll take to dealing better with the condition and being more inclusive as a community.

Photos: www.atypicalfamilia.com and Teen Vogue

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