Embodying autism on the small screen: Part 2- Sam Gardner

Film editor Joe Holloran continues his exploration of autism representation on TV with the Netflix hit Atypical

Joe Holloran
24th February 2020
Back before the winter break I wrote a piece on the character Sheldon Cooper from the hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory and how he is represented in terms of his (unofficial but clear) Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Author's note: You can read part 1 of this series by clicking this link.

As I stated in that article I myself have Aspergers Syndrome (AS), and felt that perhaps I could share my perspective on how accurate or not that portrayal was given my own experiences as an 'aspie'. This time I am focusing on Sam Gardner from the US Netflix comedy/drama series Atypical.

Sam is portrayed by actor & grindcore band Whelm vocalist Keir Gilchrist. Image:Wikimedia

First a bit of background on the show. As the name suggests a major element of the show is the life of 18-year old high school (later university) student Sam Gardner.  Sam has an unspecified form of "high functioning" autism (a term I understand is problematic, however I will use it for the sake of simplicity) and when he turns 18 decides he is ready to have a girlfriend and prepare for adult life.

The show was created by Robia Rashid. Rashid, to her great credit, conducted much research when creating the character of Sam. Similarly, the actor she chose to play the role, Kier Gilchrist, met with dozens of people on the spectrum to more accurately capture what he saw.

Because of this effort the portrayal of Sam's autism is nuanced, changing and, most importantly, not his defining feature. Here are some specific elements I noticed that I feel are both portrayed accurately and that I can relate to from my own experiences.

All of these things he does to maintain a sense of control in a world that often feels chaotic to those of us on the spectrum.

For instance Sam has many comfort and calming techniques to help him cope when he is overwhelmed. I can relate to many of these.  Sam is sensitive to sound so always carries a pair of noise-cancelling headphones in public. I have my earphones on hand at all times for the same reason. Sam repeats words internally, wears the same cloths and follows a strict routine. All of these things he does to maintain a sense of control in a world that often feels chaotic to those of us on the spectrum. Sam, like myself, has a sanctuary where he can get away from people, something I also had when I was at school. However, when Sam does have a meltdown the show uses clever cinematography, sound design and editing to accurately portray what that feels like to go through. When I saw that scene for the first time I must admit it made me emotional.

Sam's loving girlfriend Paige is sweat, friendly & fiercely protective of Sam. Image: IMDB

Sam's quest to find a girlfriend and lose his virginity is not initially successful. He goes back to a girls neon-lit, loud dorm room only to throw her off him when she touches him. She responds by calling him "retarded". However, mid-way through the first season, Sam meets a fellow high school student named Paige.

She quickly establishes herself as his girlfriend. This in itself is fairly groundbreaking as autistic people having any type of romantic relationship on screen is very rare. Some people have problems with the relationship between Sam and Paige, feeling that her intentions with him are not good. Sam's sister Casey even asks Paige outright "Are you desperate, or do you think you'll get extra credit for dating the weird kid?" to which Paige is offended. Paige does love Sam and while at first, her interest in him seems to be more with his mind, it quickly becomes clear that those qualities that make it clear Sam in on the spectrum are the very same reasons she loves him.

Once he knows he has upset someone he feels the guilt deeply and goes out of his way to make amends

One of the best things this show does is dispel the myth that autistic people don't care about others or have empathy. Sam - like many ASD people - has trouble recognising peoples internal feelings and reading social situations. He/we can't help that. However, once he knows he has upset someone he feels the guilt deeply and goes out of his way to make amends. Often to Paige. This is the main problem I have with Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory; he is constantly told what he says upsets or offends people but rarely apologises or strives to do better in the future. Sam is the opposite. Believe it or not, when you spend most of your life with people treating you like your some kind of alien weirdo, you know how bad that feels and in the black & white world of autism: why would you treat others in a way you would not want to be treated?

Sam's sister & tormentor-in-chief Casey played by Bigett Lundy-Paine. Image:IMDB

Sam's best (only) friend is his co-worker, the extroverted 'ladys man' Zahid, who acts as Sam's guide into the aspects of adult life that his therapist, school and parents perhaps don't want him to know about. Zahid accepts Sam instantly and never talks down to him. The shows funniest moments come out of their conversations.

Overall I think Atypical is about a good a portrayal of aspergers as there has ever been. It is compassionate, funny and truly insightful to both those with autism and without. It is important to remember that autism is a wide spectrum. No two autistics are alike so there can't be one 'true' portrayal. Kier Gilchrist himself is keen to point out that he based Sam on the traits of dozens of different autistic people he met while researching the role. As he put it "He [Sam] is one person that is on the autism spectrum. He's a very specific character". What matters is the care taken to create a character that doesn't fall victim to cheap stereotyping or is simply someone without their own will or agency. Atypical succeeds on all these fronts and for that, I commend it deeply.

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