An ‘Atyp­i­cal’ take on autism

Keir Gilchrist shines as a teen on the spec­trum but yearn­ing to be on the prowl.


For high school se­nior Sam, dat­ing is a deep mys­tery, like Stone­henge or crop cir­cles.

The tacit so­cial cues. The sub­tle body lan­guage. The veiled con­ver­sa­tion. It’s all Greek to the autis­tic teen who’d rather talk about the mi­gra­tion habits of Antarc­tica’s chin­strap pen­guin pop­u­la­tion, but fun­nily enough, it’s not the best chick bait.

Yet if Sam (played with hu­mor and sen­si­tiv­ity by Keir Gilchrist) ever hopes to have a girl­friend, ex­pe­ri­ence his first kiss or “see boobs,” he must de­code this odd courtship rit­ual be­tween hu-

mans. Com­pli­cat­ing things is that he’s like any other “nor­mal” teen on the precipice of adult­hood — con­fused, ir­ri­tated and dis­mayed.

Those who’ve raised, loved or cared for some­one autis­tic will rec­og­nize their story in Net­flix’s “Atyp­i­cal,” a se­ries that un­der­stands the minu­tiae and big pic­ture of liv­ing on the spec­trum, or liv­ing with some­one whom oth­ers may see as weird, odd or “not all there” (as one stu­dent says about Sam while she’s try­ing to de­fend him against bul­lies).

But this is not a sob story, or autism explainer, or af­ter­school spe­cial about the im­por­tance of tol­er­ance.

“Atyp­i­cal,” which is avail­able Fri­day on the stream­ing ser­vice, is a fast-mov­ing fam­ily drama that of­ten bor­ders on com­edy. Cre­ated by Ro­bia Rashid (”How I Met Your Mother”), the se­ries is as com­pas­sion­ate as it is snarky, pair­ing a deep un­der­stand­ing about ev­ery­day life on the spec­trum with a sense of hu­mor rarely found in pro­duc­tions that deal with autism. “Atyp­i­cal” risks of­fend­ing some, but it does more good than harm by de­mys­ti­fy­ing a sen­si­tive and painful sub­ject with an un­apolo­getic can­dor.

Jen­nifer Ja­son Leigh and Michael Ra­pa­port play Sam’s sup­port­ive par­ents, Elsa and Doug, and the im­pres­sive Brigette Lundy-Paine is his pro­tec­tive, tomboy sis­ter, Casey. To­gether, they are a work­ing­class fam­ily that has de­voted the last 18 years to help­ing Sam cope.

Casey still car­ries his lunch money and keeps tabs on him at school. Elsa makes him sep­a­rate meals and uses spe­cial de­ter­gent on his clothes (he wears the same thing ev­ery day) to pla­cate his sen­sory is­sues and tac­tile sen­si­tiv­i­ties. His fa­ther is still per­plexed on how to speak with his son and stays at arm’s length un­til he’s fi­nally needed to dis­pense some­thing mom can’t — ad­vice on how to get a girl.

This whole fam­ily of life­long pro­tec­tors is left won­der­ing who they are, or what their role should be, now that Sam is seek­ing some au­ton­omy. Casey ex­plains it best dur­ing a col­lege en­trance in­ter­view when she must take an in­com­ing call from her brother:

“Mom and Sam al­ways used to say ‘neu­rotyp­i­cals’ to de­scribe ev­ery­one who wasn’t on the spec­trum,” she says. “They called them NTs. But I thought they were say­ing ‘emp­ties’ be­cause Sam takes up so much space, ev­ery­one around him is empty.”

It’s beau­ti­fully or­ches­trated mo­ments like this that make more clumsy ones in “Atyp­i­cal” stand out. Sam’s co­worker at the Techtropo­lis elec­tron­ics store, Zahid (Nik Do­dani), is full of cringe­wor­thy stunts as the stereo­typ­i­cal South Asian nerd who iron­i­cally gets the hot ladies. He gives Sam bad ad­vice, steer­ing him to­ward a YouTube video called “How to Talk to Hos.”

And af­ter Elsa cheats on her hus­band, she stares long­ingly at a cu­cum­ber in the mar­ket. Get it? For a show that’s so de­tailed and smart through­out, it can be aw­fully stupid in spots.

But Gilchrist’s per­for­mance makes up for it. Sam’s not an easy char­ac­ter to play — his black-and-white take on things could prove too nar­row for view­ers, and his lit­eral take on say­ings such as “Go get ’em!” “Go where and get who?” could get an­noy­ing, but that doesn’t hap­pen.

Sam’s robotic tone, idio­syn­cratic be­hav­ior and so­cial ticks are lov­able, his un­fil­tered com­ments re­fresh­ingly hon­est.

Most charm­ing, or at least en­ter­tain­ing, is his ob­ses­sion with the South Pole. He can re­cite, with en­cy­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge, stats on pen­guins and ice shelves. He sketches glaciers and pen­guins in his note­books.

When other kids are wear­ing con­cert jer­seys, he’s wear­ing a T-shirt em­bla­zoned with var­i­ous species of whales. When he makes a pros and cons list about a school­mate he is think­ing of ask­ing to be his girl­friend, the pros col­umn in­cludes: thick hair like arc­tic fox.

We all like to say we’re a lit­tle weird. Be­ing dif­fer­ent is a badge of honor in post-ev­ery­thing Amer­ica. Be your­self, right?

But most of us have a choice of when to let our freak flag fly, and when to reel it in.

Sam doesn’t. He’s odd 24/7 and will be the rest of his life. “Atyp­i­cal” doesn’t at­tempt to show how Sam is “just like us,” mostly be­cause he’s not. And that’s what makes him a com­plex and unique tele­vi­sion char­ac­ter worth watch­ing.

Netf lix

YOUNG SAM (Keir Gilchrist, left) is an 18-year-old high school se­nior and still the fo­cal point of his dot­ing fam­ily as he begins to test his in­de­pen­dence as a man.

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SAM’S (Keir Gilchrist) com­ing-of-age story un­folds on “Atyp­i­cal.”

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