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Autism on TV: UAE parents hail Netflix show ‘Atypical’

A new series, with an autistic teen as the lead, sets out to show that people with the disorder can also have normal lives

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Parents of children with autism in the UAE say they are looking forward to a new Netflix show that will feature a teenager on the autism spectrum in the lead.

Atypical is a coming-of-age story that follows 18-year-old Sam (played by Keir Gilchrist) as he searches for love and independence. The show premieres in the UAE on August 11.

According to health experts, autism or autism spectrum disorder is a lifelong condition characterised by challenges with social communication and repetitive behaviours and interests. Asperger Syndrome is also a type of autism that affects how people perceive the world around them in a different manner.

While it remains unclear what Sam’s character is diagnosed with on the Netflix comedy, ‘atypical’ autism or Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), is another type of a neurodevelopmental disorder that health experts describe as a mild form of the condition.

For Sharjah-based Harish Thottathikulam, father of 14-year-old Aftab who’s been diagnosed with PDD, news of the show comes with “positive encouragement” for parents of children on the spectrum.

He said: “People think autism is a mental disorder. But actually it’s a neurological disorder and the abnormalities and characteristics differ person to person.”

Thottathikulam is hopeful the show will help dispel some misconceptions about autism, one of which is people believing those with the disorder excel at any one particular skill.

He explained: “Although this TV show [and the] character represents one case... In the western world, individual therapies are given at very early age, say 15 to 40 hours per week and lots of improvement is seen in kids when they grow. But in the Middle East and Asian countries the therapy hours are less and the improvement is very less.”

Keerthana Shenoy, mother to the 16-year-old Sujit, weighs in saying: “Autism is presented once in a while in big films, but it doesn’t present the truth. They create films based on an autistic man or a child who ends up recovering [and transforming] into a normal person; but autism is a lifelong disorder.”

Geeta Pydisetti, mother to the 19-year-old Danush — who’s on the ‘high functioning’ category on the autism spectrum [an informal term used for children affected with atypical autism] — says the new generation at least, is more aware about autism.

“In the UAE, from school they are taught about accepting people with the disorder,” she said.

Yasmeen Abdullah, whose autistic son Hassan is 22-year-old, agreed, saying that films aimed at children have done well in raising awareness; but more needs to be done.

While representation is one thing, giving people with autism opportunities is a whole new battle, said Gulshan Kavarana, a mentor and arts teacher at the Dubai non-profit called Mawaheb, an art studio that teaches disabled people life skills.

“Just like any ordinary person, people with autism deserve opportunities too,” she said. “Just like any other disability, autism is on a spectrum. There is a large range on the spectrum. There aren’t two people with autism who are the same.”

Kavarana said a few documentary films such as Louis Theroux’s Extreme Love — Autism and Asperger’s Are Us, have had a big impact on creating awareness about autism.

She said she was happy with Sam’s character traits in Atypical, saying: “Just because he has autism doesn’t mean he can’t have a normal life. There are many people with [living with this] diagnosis and still lead a normal life.”

Neena Raina, the founder of Tender Hearts, a recreational centre for kids with special needs, was supportive about movies representing autism in a positive way, and hoped Atypical’s Sam will “responsibly” represent youngsters with the disorder.

She spoke about Bollywood films and their representation of autism, describing Shah Rukh Khan’s character in My Name is Khan as “overacted” because of his “proper way of talking and ability to travel across the US”, whilst praising Priyanka Chopra’s role in Barfi!, which saw her character get married in the film and lead a regular life.

Speaking about her expectations from the upcoming Netflix show, Raina continued: “I want the character [of Sam] to show life skills and [take on] responsibility because his parents may not live forever to support him and it will be a burden on siblings.

“He should be able to live by himself, do his daily chores, be able to study, cook food and be properly trained.”

Raina added: “Autism isn’t a disease; it’s a condition. Society has to believe in people with autism and films can do better because they help society show empathy.”

Don’t miss it

Atypical begins streaming on Netflix from August 11.

—Viraj Asher is an intern at Gulf News.