What Netflix comedy Atypical gets right and wrong about autism

Back in the mists of 2009, in the opening scene of the film Bruno, the fashion-obsessed Austrian-accented title character, created and played by Sacha Baron Cohen, and his decorative female colleague posit that autism was “so cool at ze moment” because “it’s funny”. Therefore, it falls into the “in” column on Bruno’s In and Out list (unlike poor chlamydia, which was “out”).

The gag seemed a little audaciously off-colour at the time, although pretty tame in the context of a movie that also features a subplot where Bruno tries to adopt an African American baby he names OJ. (Also, the autism joke may have been a semi-affectionate shout-out to Sacha’s first cousin Simon Baron-Cohen, a renowned developmental scientist who studies the condition.) But what’s interesting looking back at this early, casual joke is that it turns out to be a bit prophetic: today in 2017, autism is indeed very much “in”, part of the international conversation about identity in a way it’s never been before. Moreover, it also now permissible to see it as funny as well as a condition that can make things difficult and challenging, not just for those who have it but also those close to those on the autism spectrum.

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14th August 2017