Good representation to me is accurate representation that does not reinforce harmful stereotypes or ideas about a group of people. There is probably more to good representation than this but when I consider if I am well represented this is what I think of.
Recently there has been lots of talk about representation of autistic people in Atypical. Many autists feel the representation is mixed, with elements that they relate to and other parts that are literally taken from the DSM. Other people feel that the representation is just awful and others feel more positive about it. It should be expected that there will be a range of opinions among autistic people and I think that is fine. We are not a monolith, we are not a hive mind, we are individuals with individual experiences of autism that will inevitably be impacted on by our other identities.
I think that sometimes things can be accurate but uncomfortable. Atypical is about a white male autist who wants to find someone to have sex with. Many autists have raised concerns about the misogyny in Atypical and the way that autism is used to excuse abusive behaviour. We know that there are male autists who are misogynistic, and we know that there are people who hide behind their autism and use it to excuse their behaviour. So if Atypical is about a misogynistic autistic man I would say that is pretty accurate rep.
The issue for me is not about it being accurate but about this being the story that Netflix chose to tell. BAME (black, Asian, minority ethnic) autistic people are almost never represented. I know from my day job the additional barriers to getting diagnosed that BAME autists face. It would have been wonderful if Netflix had decided to make a show about a BAME autistic person. We know that there is a misconception that only boys can be autistic. Imagine the impact of portraying an autistic girl. I don’t have stats but I’m pretty sure there is a higher proportion of non-binary and binary trans people in the autistic community but we never see them on television. There are white autistic men who are not abusive and misogynistic and they need representation too. There is no positive representation of them either and Atypical doesn’t change that.
If an autistic writer and director got together and decided to make a critical show about the misogyny in autistic communities, I would be behind that 100%. It would be uncomfortable viewing for many reasons but it would be valuable to the community. This is an issue we need to address. But that isn’t what Atypical is.
So representation is complex. I can’t write that Atypical is bad representation of autism nor that it is good. I can say that I think there are elements they got right and other elements that just reinforce stereotypes. I can say that there is ableism that they never addressed (perhaps not meaning to present it as ableism) and that allistics have clearly not picked up on this ableism.
These conversations, around representation of autistic people, should be had among autistic people. I am absolutely here for autistic people who say they identified with the main character in Atypical (as long as it’s not his abusive behaviour they identify with). I identify with Sheldon Cooper to an extent and he is all kinds of problematic. I reluctantly support parents of autistic people who feel represented by the show. I say reluctantly because a show about autism should not centre family members and if there was a show to be made for families of autists it should be made by autists and used to challenge the ableism within families. What I’m not here for is allistic people saying that it’s good representation of autism.
If the autistic community can’t agree that Atypical is or isn’t good representation, what makes allistic people think they are qualified to decide? It takes all kinds of privilege and arrogance to think that you can speak for a group to which you don’t belong. Many of the allistics I have found on Twitter claiming it is good representation do not seem to have any connection to autistic people and I can only conclude that what they mean is that their knowledge of autism is based on stereotypes and that because atypical portrays autism in the stereotypical way that they are used to they believe it to be accurate.