Netflix has sparked controversy with its new show about a boy with autism.
Atypical, which debuted on the streaming service today, tells the story of Sam, a teenage boy growing up on the spectrum.
The highly-anticipated show is the first of many upcoming programs with autism as a central theme, with another soon to hit HBO – something disability advocates have celebrated.
However, the series has received intense backlash, with many accusing its writers of using autism ‘for laughs’ and perpetuating stereotypes.
Others have defended the show as ‘better than 13 Reasons Why’, the controversial Netflix’s series about teenage suicide and mental health, which screened in March.
And a leading autism researcher told Daily Mail Online she is sympathetic to the show for being ‘brave enough’ to start a dialogue, given that it is ‘essentially impossible’ to portray autism without criticism.
The series has received intense backlash, with many accusing its writers of using autism ‘for laughs’ and perpetuating stereotypes
One of the first critics of the show was Mickey Rowe, star of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime.
In a lengthy op-ed for Teen Vogue, Rowe, who is one of the first ever autistic actors to play an autistic character, said the show is ‘flawed’.
He celebrated that unconfirmed reports say the writers sought advice from one of the country’s top autism research centers.
Nonetheless, Rowe says the script ‘seems to play into stereotypes that I’ve experienced firsthand that could have easily avoided’.
He highlights some examples, such as a scene where Sam repeatedly says ‘twat’ or tells his therapist he can see her purple bra.
‘As he does each of these things, it feels like the audience is supposed to laugh at how weird and different Sam is. This is the crux of Atypical’s comedy, but there’s nothing that funny about turning someone’s disability into a punchline,’ Rowe writes.
Dr Shafali Jeste, one of the lead investigators at the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment, sympathized with Rowe’s concerns.
She agreed that this stereotype is disheartening.
‘I do think that the media portrayal is focused on high-functioning autism where it’s kids who have language and are gifted in other areas. That doesn’t represent the large majority of kids who do have cognitive or other issues.’
However, she said that it is a Catch-22 situation: how can you spotlight autism while perfectly portraying the entire spectrum?
‘It’s a spectrum and there’s a lot of variability,’ Dr Jeste told Daily Mail Online.
‘What I would say is that I think in general it’s hard to please everyone when you’re trying to represent one person. You’re not going to.
‘It’s essentially impossible to portray everyone on the spectrum. There’s a famous quote, “if you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism”. So it’s tough.
‘And it’s way harder to depict a child that has no language or has severe anxiety without being over-exaggerated or extreme.
The highly-anticipated show is the first of many upcoming programs with autism as a central theme, with another soon to hit HBO – something disability advocates have celebrated
‘But we have a choice – either we tackle the issue and someone is brave enough to do it to create dialogue, or we don’t have shows about autism at all.’
Dr Jeste uses the example of Rain Man, the 1988 Dustin Hoffman movie about a man with autism.
That, she says, was an extreme character, which perpetuated inaccurate stereotypes.
While she has yet to see Atypical, and therefore cannot compare Rain Man directly to the new show, she said her overwhelming feeling is that she is glad to start a dialogue, and she believes people are more understanding today of the nuances of the disorder.
‘When Rain Man came out, most people didn’t know very much about autism.
‘The problem with such an extreme character is that people who don’t know about autism, for them that’s their entire knowledge base.
‘But I do think now, given the prevalence rate and more information, most people know somewhat; it’s hard not to. So I feel optimistic that by portraying one character, we can start a dialogue to talk more in-depth about autism.’