Is Netflix Production “Atypical” A Realistic Portrayal Of Autism?

It’s easy to acknowledge that television in general is more accepting of individual differences than society at large, but it seems that most viewers are starting to wake up to the fact that celebrating differences isn’t so bad. We’re all different. Some of us just can’t hide it as well as others. Such is the case for many of those who are on the autism spectrum. Netflix’s TV show Atypical has allowed viewers to stream three seasons, and is expected to produce a fourth.

Talented 27-year-old actor Keir Gilchrist plays Sam, a high school student who is noteworthy for two big reasons: he’s obsessed with penguins and he’s autistic.

But how does Gilchrist’s portrayal of Sam stack up to what those on the spectrum actually go through? Gilchrist long ago admitted that he was friends with one or two people who are on the spectrum. Still, outsiders have pointed out that while his portrayal and the show’s writing seem to indicate that they know people on the spectrum, people on the spectrum obviously weren’t intimately involved in the show’s production. 

Mighty contributor Adriana White wrote: “It now seems obvious to me that the show was envisioned and created by someone who knows someone with autism, perhaps very well, but it is definitely not the same show we would be getting with an autistic person, or several autistic people, working behind the scenes. This is why I hope Netflix takes the autistic community’s concerns to heart, and makes a concerted effort to hire autistic writers, and more autistic actors.”

Advocate Kerry Magro shared these sentiments, but believes that the show has grown over the years. Reviewing the third season, Magro wrote: “I love how I could relate in several ways to Sam’s character. Growing up with autism, I also started in college at 19 and it was a dream come true. After years during my adolescence of being told by experts that I would be lucky to graduate from high school one day, I truly saw getting into college as a milestone that I could do anything I wanted in this world.”

When asked how the character of Sam is relatable, Gilchrist opened up about how he gets into the character’s head. “I don’t know that it’s as difficult as people think it is. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the autism spectrum. I’ve even been amazed when I started playing the part that people really had no idea what autism even was. Even if they’ve met people on the spectrum, they don’t understand how it works at all. But it’s very relatable.”