‘Atypical’ made life on the autism spectrum into great TV. Here’s what it got right

A young man sits on the couch in his apartment, surrounded by moving boxes
Keir Gilchrist as Sam Gardner, a young man on the autism spectrum, in Netflix’s “Atypical.”
(Patrick Wymore / Netflix)

As a protective parent and fan of Netflix’s “Atypical,” I admit that I’m not ready for Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist) to leave the nest — or for the streamer’s sharp, poignant dramedy about how a family copes when one of its members is autistic to leave me for good.

I’ve been watching “Atypical” since its debut in 2017, when Sam, who’s on the spectrum, was just 18 and facing the realities of every teen‘s life: dating, the struggle for independence, impending adulthood. Now the series’ fourth and final season, premiering Friday, finds Sam leaving the safety of his Connecticut home and venturing out into a perplexing world that often seems perplexed by him.

Watching one’s child strike out on their own is bittersweet for most parents. But for those of us who spent every waking hour helping our sons or daughters acclimate to a neurotypical world — from decoding mysterious social cues to tolerating the tactile assault of clothing tags to constantly standing guard against those who might try and tear them down because of their differences — it’s particularly heartbreaking and terrifying.

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The concluding 10 episodes of “Atypical” deftly tackle those fears and more, cementing the show’s legacy as one of the best series to deal with autism and its butterfly effect on family, friends and loved ones. At once hilarious and moving, irreverent and reaffirming, Season 4 aptly chronicles the final stages of Sam’s move toward self-determination — and the South Pole.

Sam would be the first to tell you that certain species of Antarctic penguins leave the nest within weeks of their birth, and he sees his journey more like a migration than a matter of flying the coop. Sam has always filtered his understanding of the neurotypical world through his deep obsession with impenetrable glaciers, enigmatic sea life and the complex social order of penguin rooks. Surviving an inhospitable climate is all about adaptation.

“Unlike most animals, the lens of a penguin’s eye changes shape,” he says during one of many internal monologues in “Atypical.” “When it’s on land, it becomes flatter, like a human’s. When it’s underwater, it becomes round, like a fish. So no matter where a penguin goes, everything’s seen in focus. ... Sometimes I wish I had penguin eyes. Then I could see clearly no matter where I am.”

A young man's parents look on as he moves into an apartment
Michael Rapaport and Jennifer Jason Leigh play Sam’s parents in “Atypical.”
(Patrick Wymore / Netflix )

The beauty, heart and wit of the show has always been centered in how deeply it mines Sam’s unique challenges, as well as those of his family, as they navigate life on the spectrum together. Sam’s fiercely protective mother, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), would do anything to help her son, and though his move away is a good thing, it’s setting off all her alarms. His reticent father, Doug (Michael Rapaport), has learned how to be more present, but it’s an ongoing process. And his snarky younger sister, Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), a natural leader who once took up less space because her brother required more, needs to step back in and take charge of her destiny.

The Gardners have been shaped by one another, which of course is true of any family. But “Atypical” reframes coming-of-age themes, the rigors of parenting and the pressures of keeping a family together by throwing disability in the mix. Emotional intensity is amplified on one end with Casey and Elsa and muted on the other with Sam and Doug. Common ideas about selfishness and selflessness are turned on their head. Sacrifice abounds, yet no one is a saint. In the past, the kids got in knock-down, drag-out fights on the kitchen floor. The parents cheated on one another in order to escape the pressures of their household. They fell apart to come back together; their cohesiveness was forged by fire.

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Created by Robia Rashid (“How I Met Your Mother”), “Atypical” was initially criticized for failing to feature performers on the spectrum. By Season 2, though, the show had hired consultants such as Elaine Hall of the Miracle Project and “The Journal of Best Practices” author David Finch. The series also brought in several actors with disabilities to play characters like Jasper (Domonique Brown) and Sid (Tal Anderson) — and scenes in which the characters meet for student peer groups or at the college’s Disability Services office became revealing discussions about the trials of navigating the everyday while on the spectrum. They’re loaded with comedic moments too: “What are you a master of?” Sam asks his peer for a college survey. “Preventing tooth decay,” replies Jasper frankly.

“Atypical” has been masterful at avoiding the preciousness that has often plagued other shows or films that have tried dramatize autism stories or create characters with developmental disabilities. The series cuts the tension and taboo with keen humor, often bordering on the impertinent, but Sam is never the butt of the joke. The risk paid off, and has allowed for ongoing gags that remind viewers that the Gardners are not the Cleavers. After Casey mails her brother a handmade award — “In recognition of your extreme lameness” it reads — it hangs on Sam’s fridge for all of Season 4.

I’d like to give “Atypical” an award for capturing the bittersweet journey of raising a kid who’s different, from a mom like Elsa who has seen herself as a retaining wall between a cruel world and the complex soul that is her son. And with the series’ end, maybe I can loosen my grip just a little, as Elsa has, and let his journey of adulthood begin.



Where: Netflix

When: Any time, starting Friday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)