Netflix’s ‘Atypical’ reopens the disability representation debate | The Friday Article

The debate around the representation of disabilities in the media has been re-energised this week, following the release of promotional material for the upcoming Netflix drama, Atypical. Making its way onto the streaming site on August 11, it centres on an 18-year-old with autism and his search for romance. If the cringeworthy ‘boy tries to find his one true love’ plot doesn’t raise your eyebrows, then the fact it’s been branded as a ‘dark comedy’ in news reports should have you worried. Failing that, then the trailer, released last week, gives us a glimpse as to what we can expect…

It’s The A Word meets The Inbetweeners. In the two minutes, we see family disputes akin to the former, and the awkward sexual humour of the latter. Whilst there’s no denying that mothers, fathers and sisters have their own reactions to a relative’s autism diagnosis (something The A Word explores rather well), the ‘sometimes I wish I was normal’ self-pity and the awkward dinner table discussions only creates this harmful idea that audience members can poke fun at the condition. If this show wants to be a comedy, then there’s other ways to go about it.

There’s also the risk of generalisation that comes with any show that tries to represent disabilities through one sole character, which is especially important to note when it comes to autism – a condition unique to everyone with it. Add that to the fact that British actor Keir Gilchrist – who plays the main character – isn’t autistic, then those on the spectrum have every right to be concerned that the portrayal may not be 100 percent accurate.

Thus, the question of whether the teenager – named Sam – could have been played by an autistic individual has been raised by people online, and it’s a valid question to ask.

Only on a couple of occasions has a valid reason been given for a neurotypical portraying a character with autism – one of them being the role of Christopher in the stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Even though it isn’t specifically mentioned in the book that the 15-year-old has Asperger’s Syndrome, many people have made the connection. However, with the show involving flashing lights, strobe effects, loud music and a lengthy monologue at the end, it’s understandable that neurotypicals play the demanding role.

However, with regards to the aforementioned The A Word, the reasons its creator gave to The Mirror were that it was “too big an ask for a six-year-old on the autistic spectrum to imitate a whole range of emotions in keeping with the piece. By definition they have difficulty processing and imitating.”

Whilst that is true, one has to ask at what point does such a role become improbable to someone with autism? To dismiss an individual with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) because autistic people struggle to understand emotions is unfair to those with the condition who are trying to pursue a career in acting – most of whom, one imagines, have probably developed their own thought processes to help them understand the emotions they need to replicate for their performance.

Nevertheless, in terms of Atypical, the demands of the role are yet to be revealed to the audience, and we can still question the casting team’s decisions. Though more importantly, there is another argument to be had here, in terms of representation off-camera.

It’s an issue raised by the actor Lenny Henry in relation to the BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority-Ethnic) communities. The comedian is quoted in an ITV News article, saying “if the pickers and deciders remain the same then nothing changes, because only what gets measured gets done.”

So, using that idea and applying it to the world of disability, just as much as it’s important that the actors are autistic, we must also campaign for those with ASDs to be part of the creative process – whether it be helping with the casting, advising the creators or even producing the show themselves. With the team behind Atypical giving the role to a neurotypical actor, one can only hope that autism charities in America and those with the condition were able to advise important members of the crew throughout the writing and production stages.

Although it may be unfair to judge a whole series from a two-minute trailer, the short insight we’re given is enough for audiences to discuss whether the show will do a good job of representing such a misunderstood condition.

Now we wait until August 11…



Accessible theatre: Seeing a relaxed performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

If you’ve been around since November 2015, you’ll know just how much I love the play, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. An extraordinary tale about the unique mind of Christopher Boone, I fell in love with its sheer emotiveness. So, when the opportunity came up for me to see it for a second time, of course I said yes.

Curious Incident Theatre Sign
I was able to see the show for the second time on Monday night. This time at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

However, unlike the first performance, this one was a little bit different. For the first time as a theatre-goer, I attended a relaxed performance of a play, with my good friend Connor, who is autistic.

Ahead of the performance, I had a few questions in mind. The main one being what changes to the show would there be? At the start, for example, there are a sequence of flashes. With sharp lights being a possible issue for some autistic people, seeing how they would deal with that was interesting.

Luckily, I found a video online which explained some of the changes: a reduction in strobe lighting, the theatre doors remaining open throughout, and the audience lights staying on for the whole show too. If anything, most of the changes were to calm the intensity of theatre, and it worked. It certainly felt relaxed whilst also remaining powerful and emotive when it needed to be.

Another thing I noticed was a sheet of paper detailing some of the aspects of the show which may be an issue, including shouting, lighting and sound effects which audience members should be aware of. Yet another thing which helped to put the minds of audience members at ease.

All of this had us nicely prepared for the show itself. I won’t go into too much detail about it (see my first review for that), but in short, it was another emotive, raw and magical performance. I was left buzzing, even though I had seen the play already.

Curious Cast on Stage
Some of the cast came out afterwards to answer questions from the audience.

What was even more exciting was the question and answer session with the cast and director afterwards. With this not being something offered after the first performance I saw, I was excited to put some questions to the actors, including the importance of silence in the play (how much is too much) and memory tips – these actors have to remember some complex lines indeed! It was also great to hear the cast discuss autism, too, and their approach to the issue.

Liam with actor Sam Newton
Actor Sam Newton, who plays Christopher in the current UK tour.

Thanks, once again, must go to Sam Newton (who played Christopher) for stopping for a quick photo, as well as the rest of the cast. It was a phenomenal performance. A big thank you as well to the Birmingham Hippodrome, who were able to make the show accessible to so many people.

Review: The National Theatre’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’

Mark Haddon’s award-winning novel explores the imaginative world of an extraordinary mind. In the National Theatre’s stage adaptation, the story is a beautifully translated performance.

Even before the show starts, we get to see the atmospheric stage design – a large cube with bright lights and various boxes placed around the stage. We also see an incredibly convincing dead dog – Wellington – with a pitchfork through it.

Then suddenly, thumping music and flashing lights start the show and set the mood. This happens throughout the play, as atmospheric music combines with stunning lighting and visual effects.

Chris Ashby stole the show with his performance of Christopher Boone. The script contains numerous details such as full postal addresses, mathematical equations and sequences. I take my hat off to Ashby for being able to recall all the information for the show. Alongside that, his performance of a character with ‘behavioural problems’ (which many readers have taken to be Asperger’s or autism) is accurate, respectful and insightful. With Ashby being the centre of the play, his ability to remember so many lines and maintain an excellent performance throughout is to be commended.

But as well as that, it’s the play’s minimalistic style which makes the show unique. Supporting actors play multiple roles and also partake in choreographed scenes and physical theatre. There are no set changes, so the screen displays describe the atmosphere for us. It is simply brilliant.

Lastly, I have to talk about the adaptation from book to play. In particular, it’s fair to say that the stage show adds so much more to Mark Haddon’s work. There’s definitely more emotion that cannot be translated as well in book form. But also, there’s one aspect of the first act of the play which I considered to be fantastic when you think about it in detail.

At the start of the play, Geraldine Alexander (whose role is Christopher’s teacher Siobhan – amongst others) narrates Christopher’s diary and internal thought processes. This is alongside the spoken dialogue by Chris Ashby.

For me, I took this to be an exploration of the two sides of a complex condition such as autism – the internal thought processes of the individual and what other people see on the outside. If this is the intention, then it is a great artistic decision and adaptation from the first person narrative in the novel.

It is this effect in the play – combined with excellent acting and an engaging set design – which enables the audience to get a deeper insight into the complex and magnificent mind of Christopher Boone.

Rating: 5 out of 5


The Reason I Jump (REVIEW)

Firstly, there are two reasons why I finished the book over the course of two days. The first being because the book was rather small anyway (180 pages exact), and the other being because it was really good!

The book itself is an intriguing and valuable insight into the autistic mind, and is written in a talented way by Naoki.

Set in the form of a question-and-answer to Frequently Asked Questions about autism, whilst also making use of metaphorical fables and short stories, the book is a handy guide for those who have encountered autism in their lives.

Lastly, it saddened me to find that I found the book at my local Waterstones in the self-help section. Personally, you don’t have to be affected by autism to find this book interesting and enjoyable.