The new Netflix sitcom Atypical has been billed as a sensitive look at the problems autistic people face in the dating scene. The eight-episode series centers on a middle-class, suburban family with two kids—one of whom, Sam, is smart, nerdy, autistic teenager dipping his toes into romance for the first time.
That sounds like a good set-up for a show that questions our cultural ideas of what’s “normal” and what’s not. But instead, Atypical portrays autism through a series of tired male nerd stereotypes. The result is a show that mires everyone—autistic and neurotypical—in the same dreary gender roles as ever.
In real life, women, queer people, and people of color can be autistic. But as Matthew Rozsca writes at Salon, an autistic individual onscreen is “nearly always as a white, heterosexual male.” Often, autism is effectively treated as a kind of accentuation of (white, heterosexual) male traits. In The Accountant, for example, Ben Affleck plays a hyper-intelligent, emotionless assassin. His autism just makes him a more James Bond-y James Bond.
Sam’s autism makes him hyper-male in slightly different ways. His difficulty in reading emotional cues means that he has trouble connecting with and understanding women. The result is a heightened play on Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. Why does that girl at school ask Sam to study with her when they’re both getting A’s? When his therapist teaches him to dance, does that mean that she loves him? In the show’s reading, Sam isn’t atypical. He’s everyman, struggling to interpret the bizarre signals put out there by those confusingly emotional women.
As autistic blogger K. Gallagher told me, in media it is almost always men who are shown as having trouble with social cues and communication. “Women,” she says, “can never have social difficulties of our own.” Instead women’s problems boil down to “just not getting how hard it is for men to talk to us.” It becomes women’s job to initiate lovably clueless men into social norms. Thus, in Atypical, a black woman stripper gives Sam some sage words of advice and expose her breasts to him for free while she’s on break because she finds his honest ignorance so adorable. Her only purpose in the story is to use her sexuality to help Sam self-actualize.
Sam’s autism is presented in gendered terms as an inability to read women. So any time he treats women badly, the show presents his actions as a symptom of his autism. Sam goes to one girl’s room to have sex, then panics and hits her. He tells his girlfriend that he doesn’t love her and breaks up with her in front of her entire family, right before prom. He sneaks into his therapist’s apartment—but when she is upset and confronts him, the show portrays her as unprofessional and cruel. When Sam treats women badly, it’s never his fault.
“Stories about autistic men reinforce gendered stereotypes in that they can portray misogynistic tendencies as inherent traits,” Kim Sauder a PhD student in Critical Disability Studies and disability rights blogger, told me. “I’ve seen more of this on social media than in film or television—stories of people excusing creepy or inappropriate behavior from men because they are or more commonly perceived to potentially be autistic.” Since sexism is seen as a trait of autism, and men are seen as naturally autistic, the result, Sauder says, is that expressions of sexism by all men are chalked up to autism.
“It also erases accountability for autistic men,” Sauder adds. “I cannot emphasize enough that sexism and misogyny are not inherent to autism and that autistic men who do exhibit such behavior should be challenged and held accountable.”
Using autism to reinforce or normalize stereotypical masculinity ultimately hurts autistic men as well, according to Ari Ne’eman, past president and co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “I think in stories about autistic men and women a common theme is autistic people failing at gender in some way,” Ne’eman says. “Unfortunately, a lot of stories about autistic people focus the narrative on how to overcome this by best fitting into the gender stereotypes around them.” Thus, Sam is presented as a nerdy male, and the goal of the show is to move him towards a more normative masculinity, including a girlfriend and sex.
The happy ending (too literally for comfort) is when he gets a hand job at the conclusion of the story, putting him a step closer to what is seen as a normal high school sex life. His story arc is about becoming less atypical. And since his autism is presented as equivalent to his masculinity, any expression of his masculinity or sexuality becomes about his autism. “The missing ingredient,” Ne’eman says, “is that these are real characters reflected as real human beings. They’ve got stuff going on other than ‘autism.’ That makes it possible to engage with these things without their being one-dimensional PSA props.”
All this isn’t to say that Atypical should have avoided depicting the trouble Sam has navigating dating. “It’s important to acknowledge that the challenges in social interaction reflected in narratives like this can be real for some people,” says Ne’eman. The problem is that the show isn’t really about what it’s like to be a teenager with autism; instead, it uses autism as a plot device to reinforce typical narratives about sympathetic nerds and the women who owe them understanding, admiration, and sex. Instead of thinking differently, Atypical aspires to make everyday sexism seem normal.