‘Atypical’ Season 2, Episode 3 Recap: ‘Little Dude and the Lion’

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EDITOR’S NOTE

The following is a review of the third episode of the second season of “Atypical,” and contains spoilers.

Episode three opens with Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine) jogging alongside her boyfriend Evan (Graham Rogers). They flirt and Casey suggests that maybe they’re taking things too fast. Evan says that they can go slower for their “second first time.”

The scene cuts to Sam (Keir Gilchrist) standing by his locker. He talks about the need for certain animals to be in packs and then talks about how his own pack is deserting him — his mom moved out, his sister went to a different school and his girlfriend broke up with him. I like the way he uses animal metaphors to make sense of the human world. Many people on the autism spectrum relate better to animals than to humans. Sam explains that most people are worried about him being without Casey when they should really be worried about him being dumped by Paige (Jenna Boyd). Sam twiddles a rubber band, a common act of self-stimulation people on the autism spectrum often engage in when they’re anxious. As someone who often has a rubber band in hand, I found this highly relatable.

The next scene cuts to Sam meeting with his parents and school counselor about his plans after graduation. The counselor says that she notices Sam has not applied to any colleges. His mother, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), assures the counselor that they have everything worked out. The plan is for Sam to continue living at home next year and to continue working at the computer store while taking one or two classes at a community college. Sam’s father, Doug (Michael Rapaport), asks him if he wants to go away to college. It was unclear whether the father was asking out of genuine concern for Sam or to spite his wife. Either way, it is good to see Sam’s wishes taken into account.

When Sam’s mother explains that the family has been going through changes, Sam clarifies changes means his mother moved out because she cheated on his dad. Sam’s dad admonishes him, telling him that information should be kept private. This part seemed true as those on the spectrum tend to have a hard time recognizing the privacy needs of others and have little patience for beating around the bush. The guidance counselor tells the family about a group she runs for students on the spectrum who are graduating soon and invites Sam to come. She refers to the world of adulthood as the abyss in a menacing voice. To distill the awkwardness that has settled over the room she exclaims, “There goes the bell!” before the bell has actually rung.

It was good to see the show address Sam’s post-graduation plans, an important and challenging time in the lives of young adults on the spectrum. One of my criticisms of the last season was that such an essential part of Sam’s life was excluded in favor of focusing solely on his hunt for romance.

Another criticism I had of the first season was that it focused on autism solely from the perspective of the white heterosexual male. I found myself wanting to see an autism support group for Sam in addition to the support group for parents of those on the autism spectrum. I’m happy that the second season featured a support group for Sam that includes autism represented in females and people of color. (Editor’s note: All of the actors playing new autistic characters in the support group scene are actors on the spectrum. You can learn more about the actors in the video below.) 

The show seemed compelled to make every person in that group obviously autistic in some way when it should have made at least one of them appear indistinguishable from a neurotypical. Sometimes the signs of autism are subtle and you may not notice them within the first few minutes of meeting the person.

A theme addressed in the group is change. When the group leader asks who in the room has trouble dealing with change, every single hand shoots up. Change can be hard for anyone, but it is especially difficult for those on the spectrum. Transitions are a struggle and the transition from high school to adulthood is a huge one. Smaller transitions can be upsetting as well. One of the girls says that her current dentist can no longer see her so she’s going to just let her teeth fall out. Sam tells her that’s stupid. The group leader tells him that in the group they don’t judge. One of the participants admonishes Sam for judging and the group leader asks her not to judge Sam for judging.

The group leader concludes the group by saying that colleges are legally required to accommodate students on the autism spectrum, but in order to get the help they need the students have to self-advocate. This is important because some students on the spectrum may not realize they are entitled to accommodations and many have trouble asking for help. At one time it was mostly assumed that autistic people just didn’t go to college. Luckily that perception is starting to change and there are even a few college programs catered specifically to those on the spectrum.

In preparation for self-advocacy, the guidance counselor assigns the group members homework, telling them they need to ask somebody for something they need. Sam decides to ask his ex-girlfriend Paige if they can walk together to class sometimes. She agrees, and he comically walks away while she’s still talking.

While waiting for Sam outside the group room, Sam’s father chats with the mother of another group member. He tells her he’s an EMT and she tells him her daughter loves ambulances. Doug offers to give her a ride in an ambulance and they exchange numbers. While this interaction seems innocent enough, given the circumstances, I can’t help but wonder if it foreshadows an affair.

Initially, Sam’s mother said she wasn’t interested in the peer autism support group because Sam was going to a new therapist instead. Sam wasn’t interested either, but his father convinces him to go. Much to his mother’s chagrin, the group occurs during the appointed therapy time and she is left alone in the therapist’s office, her husband and son having bailed on her. Although her husband is still angry at her for cheating on him, he apologizes for not telling her ahead of time that they were going to group. After the group, Sam announces to his parents that he wants to go away to college. His parents say they support his decision. Although Sam’s mother may be overprotective at times, it’s good to know that she’s willing to let him spread his wings when he declares his desires.

In the narration, Sam talks about how everyone wants to run away sometimes and when you’re autistic, it’s referred to as elopement. This was news to me, as I associate elopement with marriage rather than autism.

During the classroom scene, the class is asked to divide into groups of four, but Sam sits at his desk alone listening to his headphones. When a teacher taps him on the shoulder he runs out of the classroom and into the parking lot where he is hit by the car of a student driver. Fortunately, he is uninjured. The awkwardness of being asked to find partners for group work, sensory overload and the desire to run away from it all, will evoke familiar feelings for many on the spectrum.

Another animal metaphor is introduced when Sam shares the legend of an autistic boy who wandered away and was eaten by a lion. This is accompanied by Sam’s rather charming artistic rendition of the legend. Towards the end of the episode, Sam says he feels as though he’s trapped in the lion’s belly but that he will find a way out of it. We are left to wonder what that way out will be.

Meanwhile, Casey is experiencing problems of her own at her new school. While she’s running track alongside, Izzy, a girl who’s been giving her problems, Izzy falls and insists Casey pushed her. They end up in detention together and while initially antagonistic towards each other, they start to bond when Izzy reveals that she takes care of her three siblings. Casey, in turn, reveals that she looks out for her autistic brother. Izzy discloses that she’s not as privileged as the other girls at the school and eventually decides to steal alcohol from a popular girl’s locker. She and Casey get drunk together. Casey stumbles home drunk to Evan, who decides he has no choice but to call Casey’s mother. In the “Me Too” era in which we hear all sorts of stories about men taking advantage of women when they are inebriated, it was good to see Evan being responsible and refusing to take advantage of his girlfriend. The episode ends with Casey in bed at the place where her mother is staying and her mother saying, “We have a lot to talk about, young lady.”

The episode also features Sam’s estranged therapist, Julia. She and her partner seek mediation from a friend and her partner accuses her of being in denial about the pregnancy, as evidenced by the fact that she wears rubber over her pants to avoid wearing maternity clothes and that she hasn’t told her parents about the pregnancy. Like when her pregnancy was announced in the first season, this had me shrugging and thinking “Where are they going with this plotline?”

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