[This piece is co-written by Rebecca Einstein Schorr and Ben Schorr]
There is nothing like watching television with my kids. Over the years, I’ve learned a great deal about them: their likes and dislikes, their values, and their beliefs. Letting them react to what we see and engaging them in conversation never fails to shed light into their internal workings.
This was no more evident than when watching the new Netflix Original Series, “Atypical,” with our son, Ben. Ben, who is 17, was diagnosed with high-functioning autism when he was 6 years old, and is around the same age as the main character, Sam—who shares Ben’s diagnosis.
We reviewed the show together, in dialogue.
Towards the beginning of the first episode, Sam mentions to his therapist that he would like to have a girlfriend. When he gets home, however, he tells his family that his therapist suggested that he should date.
Ben: I totally get that. Sometimes I don’t process things correctly so I might report something differently from what was actually said.
That was an important revelation because we often notice that Ben’s account can sometimes vary from our recollection of an exchange or an event. It’s important because (a) it gave me insight into how Ben’s brain works and (b) it shows that Ben is able to self-reflect about an area with which he struggles
The writer did a remarkable job at conveying the unique struggles of rearing a child on the spectrum. When Sam’s mom, Elsa, remarks that she jumps every time the phone rings, I am reminded of my own anxiety every time I see the school’s number on caller ID.
When she says to her husband, Doug, “first he’s dating, then he’s graduating, and then he’s moving out into the world and we can’t protect him,” I was reminded of the ever-present concerns my husband and I have been discussing all summer.
Throughout the episode, we see Sam grapple with the intricacies of dating, relationships of all types, and communication. These communication struggles are real. When the fitness instructor asks Elsa to join a few of the girls for a drink, for example, my son Ben was shocked that the next scene was in a bar and not at a café.
He simply assumed that the “drink” in question was coffee because after years of “Just Say No” assemblies, he does not understand that alcohol can have an appropriate and healthy place in adult social settings.
After some false starts, Sam is successful in asking out a girl and the date progresses, awkwardly, from dinner to the unnamed girl’s dorm room. As they begin to get physically intimate, Sam’s voiceover describes what the encounter feels like and the visceral discomfort it causes.
Ben: His description is spot-on.
And that is where things began to unravel. Sam reacts to the sensory overload by pushing the girl onto the floor.
“Are you retarded? Is there something wrong with you?” yells the girl.
Ben: That was mean.
I paused the show. I had to understand what Ben thought was mean. I also had to use this teachable moment to talk about appropriate physical reactions.
Ben: What she said was really awful. It’s completely normal for someone with autism to have that kind of reaction. He didn’t like the sensation [of being touched]. His reaction was to the weird feeling on his skin. It’s like when you put two equal poles of two magnetics together and they repel one another; it’s the same type of thing. When he jumped up and pushed her, it was just the way his body reacted.
In the gentlest manner, I asked my nearly 6’2” son if he could see how Sam’s physical reaction might provoke such a heated response from his date.
He couldn’t. At first.
Perspective-taking, also known as Theory of Mind, is a social executive functioning task whereby an individual can understand that others have beliefs, desires, and perspectives that are different from one’s own. It requires acquiring, processing and responding to multiple pieces of information simultaneously and in a nearly instantaneous amount of time. Many people on the autism spectrum lack the skills required for perspective-taking; Ben is one of them.
So I posited the following scenario to him:
What if you were a dad? And your college-aged daughter came home and said that her date hurt her. That he pushed her onto the floor. How might you, as a dad, react to someone physically attacking your daughter?
Ben: I’d be mad. That’s a terrible thing to do to someone.
A brief pause. Understanding showed in his face.
Ben: I didn’t realize why she acted that way. She thought she was being attacked while he was just having a physical reaction to the touching.
There has been a lot of recent discussion in the disability community about having able-bodied and neurotypical actors in roles of people with disabilities. The Ruderman Family Foundation, in particular, has been leading advocacy efforts that challenge the systemic discrimination of performers with disabilities in Hollywood, and is providing an important voice for balanced representation.
Me: Hey Ben, do you think that the actor who plays Sam is on the spectrum or neurotypical?
Ben: It never occurred to me that the actor (Keir Gilchrist) is neurotypical. I found him so believable that I’m surprised.
Me: How do you feel about that? About a typical playing someone on the spectrum?
Ben: It really wouldn’t be acting, then, would it? You’d just be playing yourself. Plus, it might be really hard for someone on the spectrum to deal with being on the set. What is important is that the actor gives an accurate portrayal by doing research and by interviewing several people with autism because we’re not all the same.
Ben’s final verdict: It’s really important that people see this show so that they can understand what autism can be like.
I completely agree.