Representation for autism is lacking in the media

April is National Autism Awareness Month.  When it comes to representation in the media of people on the autism spectrum, unfortunately, there is little to none.  When someone googles what shows or movies exist with autistic characters, the number one show that pops up is a newer Netflix show called ‘Atypical,” along with others that not as many people may be familiar with.

Coming up on its third season, the Netflix series titled ‘Atypical’ is a show that focuses on its main character Sam, a teenager on the autism spectrum. The show graphically highlights the mistreatment of people on the spectrum and does a great job at helping viewers get a better understanding of how to communicate with someone on the spectrum.

In season one, the main character Sam decides he is ready to date and find love. This decision and his desire for independence as a high school senior inadvertently pushes his parents and younger sister on a journey of their own self-discovery.  Throughout season one we see the changes that Sam is actively making in his life to find love, but we are also able to see the challenges that his family members are facing in their own lives.     

It could be questioned why Sam’s character ended up being male and not female.  In an article from Autism Speaks, it is noted that boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls.  This could have been a large factor in the writer’s creative choices for the storyline of the show.

Even with a normal storyline, the introduction of Sams autism establishes a bigger theme that is ever present throughout each season.  The storyline of Sam’s autism definitely makes the show different from just another family comedy show.  Nonetheless, we are still not seeing enough representation of people on the autism spectrum in mainstream media.  A Teen Vogue article about autism representation states there simply aren’t enough portrayals of autistic women in the mainstream media. As a result, the few characters that are autistic represent all autistic women. 

‘Atypical’ presents the topic of Autism in a very simple way that makes Sam’s character almost relatable, and someone the viewer can easily empathize with, but not necessarily in a sad way.  After watching the first few episodes the show, it’s almost impossible not to binge watch the show in its entirety.  

The writers have done a great job of showcasing some of the issues that people with autism experience in our society.  In an episode from season 2, Sam goes out of his comfort zone and decides to have a sleepover at his friend’s house.  After becoming overwhelmed with the experience he decides to leave his friend’s house in the middle of the night without letting him know.  According to a list of facts and figures from Autism Speaks, “nearly half of those with autism wander or bolt from safety,” so this decision to leave the safety of his friends home in the middle of the night makes sense.  Soon after leaving the house, Sam gets stopped by a police officer who tries to get his attention. This causes the officer to get impatient yell at Sam, which can be sensory overload for a person with autism. Sam’s friend catches up to him and tries to explain that Sam has autism, but the officer doesn’t listen and arrests both of them.

The writers did a great job at turning this scene into a learning opportunity for the officer in question, as well as the audience.  Their solution was to put Sam’s picture in the police station so a similar situation could be avoided in the future. According to Spectrum News, “Encounters between law enforcement and people with autism often go wrong, but some police departments are beginning to train their officers.” This can give hope to individuals with autism that they will be treated correctly regardless of their diagnosis. 

The show does a great job at portraying what a person with autism will experience in their life. It is important to embrace those who might be struggling and understand what they go through.