I learn a lot from television.
My ABC's and 1-2-3's come directly from Sesame Street. My political and grammar education is the result of Schoolhouse Rock. Hey, even Darryl Hannah learned how to speak English watching TV in her hotel room in "Splash."
I've heard a lot about autism over the years. Family members, good friends and people I work with are directly affected by this. Robert Smigel's Night of Too Many Stars (another introduction courtesy of TV) informed me about NEXT for Autism. But I never really got what being "on the spectrum" actually meant.
There are lots of lectures and documentaries that do a great job explaining all that this condition entails. But when television is at its best, the storytelling breaks through clearer than any seminar or charity event. It helps you see firsthand what these kids and their families are going through and it deeply resonates.
Two recent Netflix programs really educated me when it comes to being "on the spectrum."
Michael Rapaport has become a pal of mine. The actor told me years ago that he was working on a project that was pretty special. Michael has been a part of a variety of different shows and films, so I never know what to expect. He didn't want to spoil anything for me – he told me "Just watch it, you'll see."
He was right. Atypical is the story of a teenage boy on the spectrum who wants to be more independent. As a result, his entire family changes. Sounds like a cliched premise, but this show lives up to its title and is anything but ordinary. Sam's sister Casey, played by Brigette Lundy-Paine, struggles with sexual identity. His mom, played by the great Jennifer Jason-Leigh, longs for life before having to take care of two kids. And his dad, played by a subdued Michael, tries to relate to both of his children as they grow older.
It feels like you're watching a real family deal with actual issues on Atypical. Sure it's a sitcom, but teenage son Sam's struggles are fair game for jokes within the family. His desire for a relationship and struggle to be independent is portrayed honestly and treated very seriously.
The rest of the family has as many issues as Sam does, if not more. All of the actors do a great job showing the vulnerability of their characters without coming off as cheesy. As Sam's universe expands, the friends, teachers and doctors naturally fit into his world.
What's most impressive about Atypical is that it's funny. There are poignant storylines all over the place, but the laughs are real and the path to many easy jokes is avoided. The writers do a nice job going the extra mile mixing in cleverness with the material.
My family are huge fans of Atypical, and we can't wait for the fourth season.
Love On The Spectrum
I've been very clear about my feeling for reality shows - other than Survivor, no thank you. Let's just say I didn't shed a tear when hearing the recent Kardashian news about hanging it up after this season.
On the face of it, an autism dating show set in Australia sounds exploitative and voyeuristic. But my wife heard some good things and that the program was actually very sweet, so we decided to give it the one episode try. Boy am I glad we did.
If you don't feel anything watching these different guys and gals on the spectrum search for love, you need to go to Oz and get a heart. These young adults just want to meet someone who they can share their lives with. And it turns out that dating on the spectrum isn't all that different than dating off of it.
Everyone interviewed is extremely self aware. They describe when and how they learned they were on the spectrum and the different ways they've dealt with it. No two stories are the same. Many have a great sense of humor, and you can relate to their relationship struggles whether or not you're autistic.
It's the sincerity in this series that rings so true. The eloquence in describing what they want in a partner is heartbreaking. The supportive parents. The helpful coaches. The failed dates. You can't help but root for all of the people profiled to find the perfect match.
What I enjoyed most about Love On The Spectrum is that it wasn't all happy endings. It echoes real life. Sometimes, you don't get the guy or girl. But that doesn't mean you should give up on love.
The five episode season has you rooting for everyone involved and learning a thing or two about life on the spectrum. It's a lesson we all can benefit from.
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