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Autism expert: New Netflix comedy tackling tough issues

The series Atypical debuts on Netflix on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017 and tells the story of Sam, an autistic 18-year-old, who is seeking love and independence.
The series Atypical debuts on Netflix on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017 and tells the story of Sam, an autistic 18-year-old, who is seeking love and independence.

The series “Atypical” on Netflix will portray the challenges of a teenager with autism.

The show, which debuted on Friday, Aug. 11, is billed as a comedy and there surely will be moments to laugh. But life with an autistic child is often more complicated.

Michele Villalobos, an assistant professor at UNC Chapel Hill who works in the TEACCH Autism Program, has heard of Atypical and said the show will be tackling some very tough issues.

“I think we’re seeing more and more dramas, TV series, movies with topics like autism,” Villalobos said. “Addressing the family dynamics of autism and what it’s like of living with autism is a newer topic, which this show appears to be covering.”

The eight-episode series stars Keir Gilchrist as Sam, who is seeking love and independence, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as his mother. She is having trouble stepping back and letting Sam take more control of his life. Sam’s father Doug (Michael Rapaport) is connecting with his son in new ways, while his sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) is trying to create her own life outside of the family’s focus on Sam.

Capturing all these dynamics will be a challenge, according to Villalobos.

“Autism is particularly challenging to put in the mainstream media because as the diagnosis implies, autism spectrum disorder, there are a lot of different expressions of the disorder,” Villalobos said. “The understanding of autism is different across the world and that makes it a challenging topic to pinpoint in a movie or television show.

“I could imagine a lot of families saying ‘That’s not my child with autism,’ and that would be true. It’s challenging to describe what it is like to live with autism.”

Another challenges Villalobos pointed out was the show’s treatment of 18-year-old Sam’s sexuality.

“They’re talking about sexuality and in particular this character’s understanding of his own sexuality and how to navigate that,” Villalobos said. “Adolescence is an awful time to figure all of that out for anyone, let alone trying to do it with a disability like autism, which makes it even more challenging. That’s an often unspoken topic in the disability world and one that parents struggle with because it happens. Puberty happens. It doesn’t matter who you are.”

Atypical was created by Robia Rashid and Academy Award-winning producer Seth Gordon. It is the second special needs-related comedy to be picked up by a major network this year, joining ABC’s “Speechless,” starring Micah Fowler.

Netflix said show creators worked with a professor of special education at California State University Channel Islands to tell a different kind of coming-of-age story, inspired by recent increases in autism diagnoses.

The first episode delves into Sam’s decision to get a girlfriend and his bid for more independence that puts his whole family on a path of self-discovery.

Joe Johnson: 919-419-6889, @JEJ_HSNews

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