GUEST COLUMN: An aspie’s take on 'Atypical' and erasing stigma in society


"Atypical" is a Netflix Original series released in 2017.  Movie Stills Database

My name is Abe Shapiro, and I am a junior at IU who was diagnosed with high functioning Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD and fine motor skills challenges at the age of 2. For years, my goal has been not only to manage the fear of social situations and manage my symptoms, but to also manage the stigma associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). 

From my initial interpretation of the Netflix show “Atypical," I feared that the show was another lackluster attempt at diversity by the television industry, attempts that result in generalizations of certain identities be that sexuality, ethnicity, race, gender, etc.

In spite of some shortcomings, there were a number of details concerning autism that the show accurately represented. To start off, individuals with disorders within the Autism Spectrum tend to exhibit certain idiosyncrasies such as passions for certain subjects. The show’s hero, Sam Gardner, is a teen with high functioning autism, but exhibits a passion for memorizing facts about Antarctica and the myriad species of penguins that live on its frozen tundra. For me, that passion stems from a love of baseball history, world and American history and an overall love for life and those in it. 

Like Sam, I do not do well in loud situations, therefore leading me to wear headphones for protection from sensory overload. Furthermore, Sam deals with bullying, which someone on the autism spectrum may encounter throughout their life, but perseveres and ultimately discovers his true talents as the series progresses. For 12 years of my life, I encountered situations that were socially confusing since I would not know what to say or how to interpret body language, situations that often ended awkwardly. 

From first through sixth grades, I attended schools where I struggled often with social cues and was laughed at for being different. That was until seventh grade, when I arrived at a school for kids on the spectrum. 

I discovered talents that I never knew such as that I could play the piano by ear, could run cross-country and, most of all, show that those of us on the spectrum are just as good as anyone.

Like Sam, I was scared of new things such as going to college and trying new things, new classes, new faces, making friends, falling in love, etc. It was a bumpy start, but, like Sam and through the last three years, I have conquered those fears, have learned to love my school, am not afraid to express myself and, most importantly, have found those who I can go to for help.

One of those lifelines includes someone who mirrors Sam’s younger sister Casey. My “Casey” is my twin sister Sarah, who has been an inspiration and a critical resource throughout my life and during my time at IU.  

Although this miniseries may not portray all degrees of autism, this is the most progress I have seen in representing the autism spectrum since the 2003 novel, “A Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night Time.”

This series provides not only a much clearer interpretation of disability than before, but a reason to celebrate difference. While television and society may continue to struggle in accurately portraying those of us who are different and may show a somewhat two-dimensional side to a multi-dimensional movement, at the end of the day the moral is that we are part of a diverse and intelligent family and we have so much to offer to society. 

Despite a number of usual Hollywood clichés, i.e side plots such as teenage romance and conflict between parents, the portrayal of Sam as a generalized checklist of symptoms, and a lack of further ASD representation, these shortcomings will hopefully be improved as the series moves into its third season due to premiere in late 2019. 

Criticisms and inaccuracies aside, “Atypical” is a major step forward in understanding those on the Autism Spectrum and bringing awareness to autism in general. Together, like Sam and with the right resources, we can rise and conquer the stigmas that continue to permeate our society.

Abe Shapiro

Junior in history


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