First Look: Teen with autism comes of age in Netflix’s ‘Atypical’
Atypical gives itself away in the title.
The new Netflix series, available for streaming on Aug. 11, takes the coming-of-age story in a new direction, telling it from the perspective of a teen on the autism spectrum.
With many youths diagnosed with autism on the cusp of adulthood, series creator Robia Rashid (The Goldbergs) figured a story told from the teen’s point of view, a first for a TV comedy, would be a great way to explore dating and other rituals connected with growing up.
High-school senior Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist, United States of Tara) provides that voice, she says, while explaining that the show can’t reflect the situation of every person with autism. “We’re telling the story of this one kid on the spectrum, and that’s his life. It’s a very specific the story of this family.”
But Rashid also hopes to tell a broader story about growing up by focusing on 18-year-old Sam, his family and, by extension, everyone, whether or not they have experience with autism. “The theme is: No one’s normal.”
Sam is a sweet, intelligent young man who has a consuming interest in penguins, dislikes noisy environments and accepts questionable dating advice from online and a friend so literally that it leads to embarrassing predicaments.
Although Gilchrist, 24, doesn’t share Sam’s autism, he’s found many connections to the character.
“Sam’s honesty is the most relatable part of him,” he says. “Most people will relate to the way he puts into the words the difficulties (of) dating. The way he describes some situations is basically how everyone feels, but most people don’t actually put it into words.”
His bluntness “creates conflict and also hilarious situations,” Gilchrist says.
Sam’s condition affects his loving family, too, in the eight-episode season. His parents, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight) and Doug (Michael Rapaport, Justified), debate how protective they can be as their son ventures into adulthood. His younger sister, Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), has learned to behave like a protective older sibling, even writing his online dating profile.
Leigh (The Hateful Eight) liked the show’s universal appeal, “how it used (Sam) being on the spectrum as a metaphor for what every family goes through.” As a mother, Elsa “is overly attached initially (to Sam),” she says, so “letting go is that much more difficult.”
Rashid acknowledges a responsibility to get Sam’s and his family’s story right. She consulted with a California State University professor who worked at UCLA’s Center for Autism Research and Treatment.
Leigh, who began her acting career as a youth, gives a thumbs up to Gilchrist’s portrayal.
“Keir is really perfect. He never gets cute with it. … You feel like he’s very much in Sam’s shoes.”