This blog post was written by Kathy Hooven who's son Ryan has autism. You can read more about Kathy and her family on her blog, "The AWEnesty of Autism."
So I watched all 8 episodes of the new Netflix series, “Atypical” in a day. And yes, I'm upset they didn't include an autistic actor and yes, I think it's wrong autistics weren't consulted in the creation of a character and yes, it was another show about a more high functioning autistic teen, and yes, it was another male instead of a female, and yes, there were stereotypes (again) and yes, feel free to judge away, I still loved it.
Perhaps I should have prefaced that first paragraph with the fact I do not have autism, I am a neurotypical mother who has three children, one of whom happens to have autism. That being said, "Atypical" is not a perfect show, but, is there any show that is perfect, besides Breaking Bad? As a mother of a child with autism, an autism blogger and an autism advocate, for me, “Atypical” did what it was created to do, it entertained me. I laughed, I cried, I sobbed BIG, UGLY tears and I even shouted, “Hell yeah” more than once!
It also brought back dark, lonely times. It reminded me of where I once was and where I am now. I felt the loneliness, the uncertainty and the guilt, oh dear heavens the guilt, all over again. I sent a text to me 19 year old neurotypical son who is away at college that read, “I’m sobbing through episode 4 of Atypical. I’m sorry if I ever made you feel less by trying to make Ryan feel more. I love you so much.” Then I went to my 11 year old neurotypical daughter and held her in my arms and said the same. Finally, I went to Ryan, my 15 year old son with autism and said, "Sorry for all the times I didn't get it and screwed up." Yep, guilt.
"Atypical" also made me laugh out loud, remembering things I had long since forgotten, but, mostly, it reminded me of the progress my son Ryan has made as well as the rest of our family. And although some of that progress, for all of us, was difficult, it was good to look back now and think, "we did it".
I know for parents loving a son or daughter with autism, many of us would like to see our child represented in a television show or movie so people would understand autism and our family. But we can't talk about wanting our child to be seen as unique and not like the next kid with autism and expect Hollywood to create a character who fits every individual on the spectrum. We can’t yell, “no more stereotypes” then be discouraged when our kid doesn’t fit the next character with autism on our television or movie screen.
Many of us loved “Friends”, but did they hit every demographic of every 20 something in the 90's? No. The Cosby show was a huge hit, but, did the Cosby family represent all black families in America? Not any more than Full House represented a white family in America. And as much as we love the day to day happenings at Seattle Grace Hospital, do you think every hospital in Seattle has a McDreamy or a McSteamy? Sadly, not. And for every 20 and 30 something woman who gathered around their televisions with girlfriends to watch Sex and the City while deciding which friend in their inner circle represented Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda, many weren't having sex or living in the city. That’s Hollywood folks.
Of course I don't want negative stereotypes about autism perpetuating mainstream media, and I know that there are many individuals with autism who are unable to work at a technology store fixing computers who are NOT represented anywhere in the media, but, I love that our autistic adults and children are represented at all. When my son was small there was no Julia muppet, no Max, no Sheldon Cooper and no Sam, at that time, for me, it felt like Ryan was the only child with autism that I knew and for a while he was. And even if "Atypical" continues some of those negative stereotypes, I hope that those stereotypes are at least a conversation starter. "Oh your son Ryan has autism? I watched Atypical, is Ryan just like Sam?" For decades, there was no one on our televisions to even start that conversation.
Here's the thing, when watching "Atypical", of course I made comparisons to my son, of course I made comparisons to myself, but, just like Sam is not Ryan, I am not Elsa. Did I love seeing a family traveling a journey similar to mine on television? Of course I did, but, part of my binge watching had everything to do with hoping that Sam got his happy ending and transposing that hope for my son. Isn’t that what we all want in life and in a television series, a happy ending? And like any mother, there is no happy ending I want more, than for my children.
As for my son Ryan, he had no interest in watching “Atypical” because “it’s not a Japanese show that includes anime which is much more interesting than what you are describing”. “Atypical” may not be for you, (or my son), but, for this mother, the creators of the series did what I believe they set out to do, entertain me and show me the ins and outs of another family, who happens to love a child with autism. Oh, and teach me a lot more than I ever knew about penguins and Antarctica.