In the Netflix series “Atypical,” Sam Gardner, a teen on the autism spectrum, is played by Keir Gilchrist. On screen, that is.
On paper, the central character of the sharp and empathetic comedy is “played” by Michael Richey White, a Los Angeles-based artist who is on the spectrum himself.
“Sam can’t always articulate what’s in his head, and his art is a really good way for us to get his point across in a way that feels authentic,” series creator and showrunner Robia Rashid told The Times. "[White] is so talented and very fast, and I probably drive him crazy with all my notes, but he has a way of figuring out exactly what I’m looking for.”
“I could really relate to Sam,” said White. “Ever since I was a kid, drawing was my preferred escape from whatever I was doing. My pencil is always with me in my pocket. That and my sketchbook are my security blankets.”
White joined the series in its second season, at the referral of “Atypical” acquaintances who worked with him on ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat.” Since White works off-set and delivers pieces in time for production, he and Gilchrist didn’t meet until the Season 2 wrap party last year.
“We’re both playing the same character, because when I’m drawing for Sam, I’m kind of acting it out too,” White told Gilchrist, who also grew up pursuing various visual arts.
“He was basically making me look good with his art!” Gilchrist said of White. “He’s so amazing. It was great to finally meet him.”
Released earlier this month, the third season of “Atypical” follows Sam as he ventures into uncharted territory: college, to study scientific illustration. The ambitious expedition includes confusing classwork, new routines and a looming pressure to make new friends — a challenge for people on and off the autism spectrum.
“Sam is thrown into this new environment and he’s forced to get out of his comfort zone,” said Gilchrist, who does not have autism. “He ends up creating some unique and amazing pieces, more interesting than the earlier art in the show. They really represent, visually, how he’s changed as a person.”
Along with making humorous and heartfelt doodles, White was tasked with evolving Sam’s aesthetic beyond the first season’s quirky cartoons and his own technically perfect sketches of Antarctic animals in Season 2. As Sam struggles with abstract assignments from his free-spirited professor (played by “Will & Grace” star Eric McCormack), White also hustled to make the grade with Rashid, whom he previously pleased with his first drafts.
For example, when Sam is told to “capture an animal’s essence” in a piece, he spends the entire sixth episode asking his friends, classmates and Google for guidance. “Dumbest assignment I’ve ever heard,” he says. “What does ‘essence’ even mean?”
White pondered this question over at least 15 canvases, as he went back and forth with Rashid to identify exactly what she was looking for. “We were running out of time because we were shooting the next day, so we ended up going backward and made some tweaks to something we had about three-quarters of the way through,” he recalled.
That piece was a penguin, outlined in ink with Sam’s meticulous observations about its behavior, and glued over harsh strokes of acrylic paint that symbolize the brutal atmospheric conditions the species endures. By including a small, water-colored doodle of Sam himself, the piece also echoes how he’s quietly persevering through his college experience.
“It’s really thick and rich because I painted over two different versions I had already done to get that depth,” said White. “Making that one got a little frustrating at one point, but it was fun to explore. I loved every minute of it. It’s my favorite so far.”
Sam must also create a piece that sheds light on a political cause he’s passionate about: the Magellanic penguin chicks of Argentina, who are dying as a direct result of climate change. He angrily dismisses draft after draft, frustrated by both the assignment and a fight with his best friend (played by Nik Dodani). “Everything I do seems not important enough to make a difference,” he says of the former (and probably the latter).
Since the season’s penultimate episode sees Sam’s sketchbook getting drenched by fire sprinklers, White poured water on his graphite sketches before digitally manipulating them into the profound piece. “That’s my favorite from the season,” said Rashid. “I love it so much, I want in it my house.”
“Atypical” has previously worked with Exceptional Minds, a nonprofit professional art school for those on the autism spectrum. The training academy provided visual effects cleanup for Season 1 and an animated sequence for Season 2.
While the series has helped White learn a ton about Antarctic animals, it’s also allowed him to work side-by-side with one of his daughters, a Cal State Long Beach senior studying to follow her father into Hollywood’s art departments. She helped out in the third season’s fourth episode, when Sam and his classmates sketch on the same prompt and the production needed six distinct drawings.
But White — who also created the art of Sabrina Carpenter’s character on the Disney Channel’s “Girl Meets World,” the book collection in “The House With a Clock in Its Walls” and the board game elements in Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney quasi-biopic, “Vice” — hopes his work ultimately encourages others on the autism spectrum who dream of pursuing any career.
“As a kid, I got misdiagnosed as bipolar, and called just plain weird,” he said. “But once I learned it was autism, I became really focused, and that’s how I can do what I do now. It’s given me a superpower, in a way. I hope anyone on the spectrum who is watching will be inspired to do whatever big things they want to, because I can. I’ve been doing this for years, and they can too.”