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What TV Gets Right — and Wrong — About Autism

Creating a TV series that accurately and effectively captures the experience of raising an autistic child is a bit like making a TV series about sand: for every autistic child there’s a different manifestation of the disorder, for every autistic child there’s a different story to be told.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is just that—a spectrum. It’s not one specific neurological disorder but an umbrella term used to describe a wide-ranging and complex set of behavioral and developmental problems that affect communication, behavioral and social skills. There are autistic individuals who do not speak; others become movie stars (Dan Aykroyd and Darryl Hannah are both on the spectrum). The variables are endless, the definition of what it means to be autistic is fluid and unbound.

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, about one out of every 68 children is diagnosed with the disorder, and far more boys are diagnosed than girls. As a result, autism is very much on trend in pop culture, a hot-button topic in critical essays and fiery debates. It’s also the focus of three current TV series—“The A Word” (SundanceTV), “Atypical” (Netflix) and “The Good Doctor,” bowing Sept. 25 on ABC—all of them featuring an autistic lead character struggling with the pervasive stigma and societal challenges that come from being “different.”

“The A Word,” adapted from an original Israeli TV series created by Keren Margalit, takes places in the tranquil remote hills of England’s Lake District, a setting so mellow and bucolic it’s in stark juxtaposition to the dizzying dysfunction of the Hughes household, in which five-year-old Joe (Max Vento, in a startlingly precocious breakout performance) becomes a lightning rod for familial conflict when he’s diagnosed with autism.

If you’re the parent of an autistic child—and I am—you very soon discover that the rules for raising one do not exist in any handbook. Joe’s mother, Allison (Morven Christie), wrestles with this unsettling truth, morphing into an obstinate, solipsistic, micromanaging control freak in an effort to understand her son. Allison loves Joe fiercely—of course she does, she’s his mother—but she can’t step outside the boundaries of her own neuroses and grief to recognize that he will never become that “normal” boy she desperately longs for him to be.

Allison wants Joe to look at old family photos and “feel” something; Joe wants to listen to loud British pop music, something he does compulsively to self-soothe (befittingly, Julian Cope’s ‘80s hit “World Shut Your Mouth” is on repeat). Wary of labeling Joe autistic, Allison attempts to keep his diagnosis a secret from the rest of the town. She pulls him out of school and sets up a makeshift homeschool, forcing reluctant family members, including Joe’s father, Paul (Lee Ingleby), to sign up for what essentially become babysitting shifts, an experiment that proves wildly unsuccessful when Joe’s grandfather (Christopher Eccleston) winds up taking him to a pub.

At one point Allison chases after a speech therapist whom she’s convinced is Joe’s savior, cornering her in a hospital and demanding she work with Joe. Allison wants so badly for Joe to be like every other kid his age that she becomes an unlikable and insufferable bully. She alienates not only Paul, but also Rebecca, their teenage daughter, whose own adolescent woes don’t get nearly the parental attention they deserve. Meanwhile, Joe becomes downright miserable, pitching fits, throwing objects and, ultimately, walking off and getting lost, sparking a town-wide search and rescue mission.

But this is what works so well about “The A Word,” a show in which almost everybody is in massive denial about who Joe is—and what he is not. It’s honest, painful and, with the exception of minor plot points that just don’t measure up (if your five-year-old is prone to wandering off unannounced, maybe install a childproof lock?) it accurately reflects the tumultuous impact having a special needs child can have on a family.

Family tensions also run high in season one of “Atypical,” a mostly sanguine look at the dating life of a high-functioning 18-year-old with autism. In the comic series, Keir Gilchrist (who nails the performance with his perfectly calibrated quirks and ticks) plays Sam, a high schooler who longs for independence and decides it’s time to find a girlfriend. He’s also obsessed with Antarctica, has difficulty reading social cues, and is madly in love with his therapist, a pretty lazily contrived character who asks Sam to donate his brain after he dies so scientists can study it. Still, she relates an important, if sobering, statistic around which the entire series seems to pivot: only 9% of people with autism marry.

But if Sam learns a few simple tools, she contends, he can beat those odds and find everlasting love.

Sam’s mother, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), thinks it’s a terrible idea to let Sam date. After all, isn’t heartbreak inevitable? But Sam’s father, Doug (Michael Rappaport), aching for a way to connect with his son, encourages him at every turn.  They argue and fight—just as Allison and Paul do in “The A Word”— and their lives unravel at a more alarming rate than the kids they’re trying to save. Sam also has a sister whose problems get overshadowed, although I think that’s an overhyped trope. I’ve got a neurotypical kid who gets more attention that her autistic brother at times.

Both “Atypical” and “The A Word” do a pretty decent job at depicting the ways in which parents of autistic children becomes so feverishly consumed with their kids’ lives—to be sure, this happens for parents of neurotypical offspring, but even more with parents of special needs kids—they’ve lost sight of who they are. It’s a terrifying thing sending an autistic kid out into the world, whether he’s 5 or 18. And this fear is what sets Elsa and Allison on a path of potential self-destruction.

The Good Doctor” is a different sort of show. Its lead character, Shaun Murphy, is a gifted young surgeon, autistic, and recruited to join the pediatric surgical unit of a prestigious hospital. He also has Savant syndrome, which in his case basically means he’s a genius when it comes to human physiology. In the pilot, Shaun saves the life of a boy at the San Jose airport using only found objects, including a half-empty bottle of liquor. It’s a far-fetched scenario (why didn’t anybody call 911?) but it makes for a compelling and highly watchable start to a series that attempts to humanize autism spectrum disorder.

But of all the stereotypes about autism, one of the most annoying is also the most flattering—that every person with autism also has a special talent. Savants only make up about 10 percent of the autistic population; most autistic individuals have a difficult time securing regular steady employment, never mind understanding with uncanny precision, and without the benefit of an echocardiogram, why a person’s atrioventricular and tricuspid valves aren’t functioning.

But while Shaun is a very specific type of character, what he endures to prove himself valuable to the hiring board of the hospital is something familiar to so many people with autism. How can Shaun be an effective member of our community if he can’t relate to people? It’s a question that Joe, Sam and every person with autism will likely experience at some point in their lives.

Ultimately, what “The A Word,” “Atypical” and “The Good Doctor” demonstrate best is that once we as a society accept the autistic individual for who they are, we come to realize that being quote unquote “normal” isn’t always the best way to be.

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