Atypical’s Journey to Authentic Disability Representation: Shining a Spotlight on College Disability Services

This article has been extracted from Flip Screen.

In 2019, the Higher Education Commission ordered an inquiry into the experiences faced by disabled students, including autistic students, to investigate why educational institutions are failing to support their disabled students. 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the 10th anniversary of the Equality Act 2010, and yet there are still barriers preventing disabled students from achieving their full potential within academia. Policy Connect states that disabled students are more prone to experience social isolation and loneliness, they are generally less likely to complete their degree and they are paid less as graduates. For many disabled young adults, the prospect of higher education brings with it uncertainty as to their capability to commit to the demands of university education.

Typical coming-of-age stories within television often discuss the transition young people face moving from high school to university, exploring the rollercoaster ride of excitement and dread as they prepare to enter the next chapter of their life, away from the safety and familiarity of their status quo. It’s a rarity to see plotlines featuring young people with disabilities contemplating their future and the support they’ll be afforded for a smoother transition.

Atypical is a coming-of-age Netflix series that centres around Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), an 18-year-old student on the autism spectrum. The show follows Sam as he navigates through high school, dating and family struggles.

Netflix poster for Atypical. Atypical is written in all capitals in the centre, with Sam, his sister, father and mother lying down looking up.

Season one faced backlash for excluding autistic people from the creative teams developing the plotlines, with none of the writers, directors or producers being on the spectrum. The missing discussion resulted in the perpetuation of many stereotypes being portrayed, ignoring the fact that autism is multifaceted with varying symptoms across the spectrum. Instead, we see what neurotypical people think autism is. One of the fundamental pillars of the modern disability rights movement is the principle of “nothing about us without us”.   Inaccurate or one-dimensional depictions of autistic people can be harmful and damaging, especially if the general public are misinterpreting mainstream media as a valid educational source.

In popular media, disability has a 2% representation rate, in which disabled actors portray only 5% of disabled characters. Imitated representation of disability often stems from the belief that autistic people, and disabled people on a broader level, can’t share their stories and speak for themselves. Atypical redeems itself in season two and three, in which a part of Sam’s plotline introduces a support group for young adults on the spectrum, all portrayed by actors with autism. 

Photo showing the support group for young adults on the spectrum. Sam is seen sitting in a circle with his peers.

During the third season, we see Sam settling into college and coming to grips with unfamiliar environments and routines. In the third episode, titled ‘Cocaine Pills and Pony Meat’, Sam begins his ethics module and becomes overwhelmed with the demands of the class. He starts to have trouble sleeping due to the changes in his life, worsened by his stern professor. Sam’s father, Doug (Michael Rapaport), talks to him about possibly asking for support from his college. Sam visits the Disability Services Centre where he’s shown around by Sid (Tal Anderson) and Jasper (Domonique Brown).

“…and even if you don’t use the services, you can still use the bean bags.”

The episode finishes with Sam sitting in his ethics class, along with Excited Evelyn (Marietta Melrose), his ‘anonymous’ note taker.

It’s refreshing for audiences to be introduced to a narrative that acknowledges disability services, enabling viewers to conclude that there’s no shame in asking for help as it’s there for a reason. Disability is no indication of limited capabilities, and education should be accessible to everyone. 

In the UK, some of the disability services available to students include mobility training for blind or visually impaired people; lecture notes provided in alternative formats or in advance; notetakers; support workers and alternative arrangements for assessments. Although there is an adequate system in place, there are still fundamental flaws that require attention.

Having said that, it’s crucial to ensure that disabled students are aware of the support that’s available to them. Illustrating everyday dilemmas faced by disabled people is vital in the fight for authentic disability representation within television and film.

Notwithstanding the negative reactions towards Atypical‘s first season, the pioneering show has since made leaps and bounds in its disability representation, narrative and storytelling. The introduction of an LGBTQ+ relationship in the latest season is just another example of how marginalised communities are taking centre stage and breaking through stereotypical dynamics.

Since the release of the third season, audiences have anticipated the announcement of a fourth, which Netflix has not yet confirmed. 

I Am Mother: Post-Apocalyptic Confines

I Am Mother is a 2019 Australian science fiction thriller, widely released by Netflix. Sputore’s directorial debut follows a girl living in a post-apocalyptic bunker. She is raised by an android, whose purpose it is to aid the repopulation of Earth and the restoration of humankind. Their relationship is tested when a wounded stranger arrives at the bunker.

I Am Mother opens with a title card that reads “DAYS SINCE EXTINCTION EVENT: 001”. The audience is introduced to “Mother”, an android (voiced by Rose Byrne) who is raising a human child within the confinements of the post-apocalyptic bunker. Time jumps forward to introduce a teenager simply named “Daughter” (Clara Rugaard). Mother and Daughter live together in isolation, protected from the contamination and threat that still lingers on Earth’s surface after the extinction of humanity.

‘Mother’  android
‘Mother’ in Netflix’s I Am Mother

Everything changes when an injured woman (Hilary Swank) arrives at their door, pleading for help. Along with Woman’s unexpected arrival, Daughter learns some disturbing truths about Mother. Despite the classic sci-fi ‘evil robot’ trope, this film pleasantly surprises with an unpredictable and unconventional story.

Early on, we learn that Daughter is being prepared for an exam. The film’s ending reveals that Mother had a far more insidious motive for Daughter’s testing as she attempted to raise the ‘perfect human’. Ultimately Daughter must prove that she and humanity are worthy of survival. It is later insinuated that Mother executed the extinction, to protect humankind from destroying itself. Daughter discovers that she wasn’t the first child raised by Mother, finding human bones in the incinerator. It is suggested that Woman also originated from an embryo within the bunker.

Hilary Swank’s character is up against a wall, looking scared of ‘Mother’ Android

After Daughter and Woman escape to the Earth’s surface together, Daughter quickly learns that Woman lied about living with a community of human survivors, admitting that she manipulated Daughter so that she could escape the bunker. Daughter abandons Woman, returning to the bunker to confront Mother and to raise her new brother, whose embryo she had previously chosen as Mother’s reward to her for her exam results. Daughter’s demonstration of her selfless determination to ensure the human race’s survival convinces Mother of Daughter’s capability.

Mother concedes to Daughter, as her purpose has been fulfilled. The android is no longer needed, assured that Daughter has proven herself as a capable guardian. Daughter sobs as she shoots Mother, who falls to the ground. Mother’s AI consciousness still exists in the other droids that roam the Earth’s bare surface, one of the droids visits Woman’s home and addresses her in Mother’s voice.

“Funny that you’ve survived so long. As if someone’s had a purpose for you. Until now.”

Mother had orchestrated Woman’s injury and arrival into Daughter’s life, catalysing Daughter’s curiosity and escape from the bunker. Once Daughter returned to the bunker and proved herself worthy of guiding humanity, Woman had outlived her usefulness.

Followed by an ominous slam of the door, Mother carries out her final task.

This dystopian film is tense, intelligent and suspenseful. I Am Mother is an ambitious and well-acted science fiction story with a central psychological paradox that poses intriguing questions about motherhood and humankind’s reliance on technology. Newcomer Clara Rugaard has a dynamic presence on screen, lending substance to her role as a human that questions what it means to be human.

Woman and Daughter’s faces are side by side, a still of Mother is underneath their faces. There is a black backdrop

The visual storytelling drives the film’s dystopic vision and imposes mecha-maternal sentiment as we witness the sweet moment of a head resting on a robotic shoulder. The downside of this film is that it can be easy to become lost in the plot’s details and twists, especially if you have a habit of checking your phone whilst watching movies.