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ATYPICAL: some food for thought on autism

ATYPICAL: some food for thought on autism

“… You probably wouldn’t expect it but, in Antarctica there are 37 volcanoes with names. Many of them are covered with thick sheets of ice. Often, under all that ice, the lava creates hot cavities. So, even in that relentlessly cold landscape, you can find hidden heat … “,” … I like Antarctica, it’s so quiet and nothing is really what it seems … “.

These words are from Sam Gardner, eighteen-year-old protagonist of the “Atypical” series. These words prompted me to write some reflections on a very delicate topic about which we still hear a lot of debate. There is a classification to describe different types of autism.

Although the precise autism nature is not yet known, for the diagnosis the affective and relational disorders are not ignored but diagnosis itself remains more in favour of organic and neuropsychological aspects.

The Netflix series cited above, addresses the problems of a boy diagnosed with high functioning autism. I immediately appreciated that the creator and writer, Robia Rashid, never speaks of this disorder as organic and genetic. Instead, in my opinion, he highlights the limitation encountered in considering the learning of behavioral techniques as a psychological cure. For Sam something moves instead (albeit in an awkward and bizarre way) only when a deep human relationship force him out of pre-established schemes. This aspect struck me a lot because this American series remains outside the organicist theories very popular in the United States.

Sam was diagnosed with this disorder at the age of four. One might expect that everything in the series revolves exclusively around this point but it is not the case. For a lot of people this is the weak point of the story allowing criticism that is not always positive. On the contrary, as far as I am concerned, the way in which the theme is addressed is the starting point that I found most interesting. The focus is exclusively on the experience of this boy. The protagonist tells us about his attempt to get rid of the atypical / abnormal label, while trying to live experiences common to all adolescents through complicated relationships of friendship, love and family. In the beginning Sam is obviously a child and, later on, a teenager experiencing great malaise. Apparently the series does not show us anything so different from what a common boy of his age has to face: bullying, making love for the first time, choice of study path, misunderstandings and changes in the different areas of life. Instead, the author tells us about these issues from the point of view of an autistic boy who has lost that vitality, “feeling good”, and that if we manage to keep ourselves isolated, it becomes possible to face even the most difficult sufferings and disappointments.

Certainly, on the contrary of what happens to Sam, we will never be immune to sadness and sorrows, but we do not risk loosing that “feeling” that allows us to remain whole and not fall apart. Sam has always tried to keep everything constantly under control. He relies on his rituals to affirm his certainties and he thinks that by learning the correct answers (with the help of lists of do’s and don’ts, the rational “learning” of what I was talking about at the beginning) he can feel good. Sam does it because he is afraid of things that change and takes refuge in the repetition of certain behaviours to delude himself that everything is remaining the same.

We understand that he needs everything to remain as it has always been, because having to realize that this is not the case, forces him to change himself and leave the comfort zone where everything is known Therefore does not scare him.

Sam has a perfect relationship with the “things” that surround him. He can put an object exactly where he wants and move it as he likes (in an attempt to find reassurance and fixed points in this). But he soon realizes that with people everything is different. In fact, he finds himself having to deal with a sudden hug, a stolen kiss, a painful rejection, a place never seen, a feeling never known before. All these points generate a deep crisis for Sam and forces him to move towards the human reality that is deeper than himself. He does it trying to rationalize everything, struggling to understand the meaning of the words and therefore also the possibility of making irony in serious and complicated situations. He does not use filters to say what he thinks and his internal emotional lack does not allow him to modulate his words, not realizing that this can hurt people.

He meets a girl. For the first time and for her, he manages to put himself on background and do something for the other. Could it be on this occasion that, under glaciers coldness, he discovers that warmth he talks about?

What happens that forces Sam to take refuge in himself and protect himself from everything around him? We should ask ourselves why in the first years of life, in during which we rely on the love and affectivity of adults, something may not work. We should ask also about a child that can detach himself from the outside world, losing a lot of what is within himself.

If Sam senses that in humans relationships he can seek the possibility of getting better (as we see in the course of the various episodes), can we think (perhaps we “must” think) that it is in human relationships that we can get sick?

He feels that in the relationship with human, rationality is not enough and is very different from animals (in particular to the penguins, for which he is particularly fond of).

At the end, Sam knows he has to accept that everything changes, that he has to break away from his addiction to family and try to walk alone. He does not give up to accepting that the condition in which he finds himself cannot change, even if someone imprisons him in a “list” of things that in percentage a boy like him will be able to do or not in his life (according to statistics!). He does this by trying to experience every situation and relying on the care of a psychologist. Obviously we could say a lot about this figure, as it is represented in this story.  Leaving aside considerations on this matter, what I would like to emphasize is that it is considered appropriate for this boy to let himself be helped by this professional figure and that in their emotional relationship he finds something of himself.

Looking at “Atypical” I said to myself several times how essential it is that some signs are interpreted right away. If a child manifests difficulties it is important to intervene as soon as possible to help him and those around him to understand that there is nothing predetermined, no sentence, nothing organic and that therefore there is the possibility of being well and to heal.

The responsibility of giving us all the answers is certainly not inside this series. But it seemed for me a good basis for asking ourselves the right questions.

Valeria Verna

Thanks to Federica Tamburella for the translation of this article.


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ATYPICAL: some food for thought on autism