Atypical Creator Robia Rashid on Autism: ‘I Had to Do a Lot of Real Learning’

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Robia Rashid. Photo: Getty Images

Over the years, writer-producer Robia Rashid says she’s collected “thousands” of books filled with “edgy and odd” stories. Those kinds of stories aren’t exactly a good fit for network television, though, so after a career spent working on shows like Will & Grace, How I Met Your Mother, and The Goldbergs, Rashid decided to write a pilot script on her own time. The gamble paid off: Netflix bought the script, ordered a full season, and the resulting series, Atypical, premiered on August 11.

A coming-of-age story of an autistic teenager navigating his love life, friends, and family while striving for independence, Atypical stars Keir Gilchrist (It Follows, The United States of Tara), Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Michael Rapaport. In an interview with Vulture, Rashid spoke about why she wanted to explore autism in a half-hour comedy, casting Gilchrist in the leading role, and the scene that made her sob during production.

What was the inspiration for the story?
After working in network TV for a while, I just wanted to do something for myself. I was very aware that more people were being diagnosed with autism, and it was interesting to me that a whole generation of kids were growing up knowing that they were on the spectrum and wanting independence. That point of view seemed so interesting to me — and such a cool way to tell a dating story. You’ve seen the story of somebody looking for independence and looking for love before, but not from that specific point of view. I really was drawn to that. I was a little annoyed because it sounded really hard! I had to do a lot of research. A turning point was when I figured out that I wanted to use Sam’s voice-over. But it was both helpful and harder because it made the project much harder to write.

What do you mean?
Because Sam can’t always communicate, I can cheat and get into his head with voice-over. That makes it easier for the audience to understand him, but makes it harder for the writer because I couldn’t just write any voice-over. I needed to really get that voice right. It was really important to me. If the main character were a half-Pakistani, half-white girl, it wouldn’t have been as hard because that’s me. But with an autistic teenage boy, I had to do a lot of real learning and listening to people. It was a voice that I had to learn, and once I started diving into this world, the voice came naturally. I would just write and the words would come out.

Sam loves animals, nature, and science, and he sees everything through that prism. It’s an easy entry point into how he thinks. I imagine you learned about all kinds of things writing this character — not just autism.
Well, I’m kind of obsessed with Antarctica now. [Laughs.] I learned so much about random things, like birds that flare their wings and lizards that show their colorful dewlap. It was also super helpful for metaphors in the show. I’m a real nerd, so I’m really into how these stories are tied together. For me, the show is about what it means to be normal and how nobody’s normal, and that is why the show is relatable. It’s about everyone and their struggle to be understood and find love and feel like they’re not alone.

Did you have any personal experience with autism? Are you close with anyone that is autistic or has autistic kids?
I do have personal experience with it, yeah. I don’t want to talk about it too much because I want to protect their privacy, but yes, I do.

I was just wondering if that was related to the inspiration that you had in the beginning?
It really was. Sam’s story and this person’s story are very different, but it really helped with me being drawn to this topic and keeping an eye on the family members of people on the spectrum, and how they’re affected. It also made me very conscious about doing this right, being very careful about it, and it’s not something that I took lightly. It definitely influenced me emotionally and intellectually. It made me really want to do it justice.

You’ve worked on a lot of network shows. How did you end up working with Netflix for this?
I actually wrote this pilot on my own, so Netflix didn’t come onboard until after I wrote it. As I wrote it, it just seemed clear that it felt more like a Netflix show. The fact that we just tell one continuous, long story over eight episodes is so fun: You can start something on episode two and then not touch on it again until episode six or whatever, but you’re making this whole world that stretches over eight episodes. The length thing was also great because if we have a 38-minute story, we can tell a 38-minute story. It feels a little more natural.

What is a Netflix show to you?
I guess it felt like a non-network show to me. [Netflix] felt like a place where creators had room to explore a little bit and I definitely knew that this show needed space. I don’t ever want to fall into jokes or be too cutesy. I want there to be edge and heart, so I knew that a place where there’s this freedom to explore with tone and content would be a great home for this show. Netflix always felt like that kind of place to me.

Atypical also has an autism consultant, Michelle Dean. What is her role exactly?
She came and talked to the cast on set and answered questions, and then she read every script and watched every cut, so her contributions were so helpful. They weren’t story contributions. It was more letting us know when language was incorrect or something didn’t seem realistic. For example, she watched a cut once and there was a moment where Sam’s friend Zahid (Nik Dodani) makes some crude joke at work, and Keir, the actor, looked around a tiny bit in one take. She said, “He wouldn’t look around like he wasn’t embarrassed because he wouldn’t be.” So we just changed the take where he wasn’t looking around. We were that conscious about it, right down to the eye movement.

One of the supporting actors, Anthony Jacques, is autistic. Did you consider casting an autistic actor for the lead?
We auditioned people with autism-spectrum disorder and neurotypical actors, and Keir Gilchrist ended up being the right fit. And he was amazing. But actually, Anthony Jacques, who plays the character of Christopher, was somebody we found during that process, and we wrote the role for him because we loved him so much. I didn’t think he was Sam, but I felt we needed to write a role for him.

What was it about Keir that made you feel he was the right one?
He sought me out and was really passionate about it. He’d had experience with people with autism as well. He works with teenagers and kids, and he just cares about it a lot. He’s an exceptional actor, and he really plays this role very subtly and beautifully. It’s very different than him as a person. When he shifts into it, it’s kind of startling but totally natural.

What in Keir’s performance stood out to you as capturing the essence of the story you were telling?
Keir knows Sam better than anyone, and he does an excellent job of maintaining Sam’s integrity. If you watch him over the course of eight episodes, he’s very concerned about consistency in terms of eye contact and the smiling.

He’s very subtle throughout the series. Then there’s the big scene where Sam loses it on the bus, but Keir doesn’t overdo it. What did you think when you were watching that performance?
I was bawling when we were shooting that scene. I’m getting tears just thinking about it. I wrote it, so I knew it was coming, but yeah, I was really crying. There are a lot of people on our set who have kids who are autistic, so that happened a lot. People would start crying on set. Like the scene in the first episode where Casey stands up for Sam and she says, “Nothing is wrong with him; get away from him!” People were crying.

Brigette Lundy-Paine is so great as Casey. She and Keir have really great sibling chemistry.
I really love that actress, and I love that character. I feel like I wrote that character for teenage me because teenage me didn’t know a lot of girls that felt like me. I wasn’t looking cute and dressing in little cute outfits. I was gangly, awkward, and angry.

The silent school dance is such a wonderful idea, and when you see it, it’s very touching. Where did that come from?
I was hoping that it was going to be that moving. One of our writers, Dennis Saldua, pitched this idea of a silent dance, which are these things that really happen, and I was like, “Oh my God, that’s the perfect thing.” We really wanted a big ending for the season, and I loved the idea of cutting in and out of the music and the headphones and the silence. I loved the idea of a dance that was autism-focused. And when we thought of the igloo building, oh my God! Throughout the writing process, I always asked myself, “What can we do on our show that other shows can’t do? What is specific to our show?” The silent dance felt very specific to our show because Paige is doing it for Sam because he finds dances overwhelming, and it is very moving.

The igloo was also a great idea because it gave you your funniest line: “I got a hand job in an igloo!”
I love it so much. I’m still kind of shocked I can do that bus scene and that igloo scene in the same episode. Not only are they in the same show, but they are in the same episode. It’s so dramatic and I was sobbing on set, and then we laughed about that hand-job line for months. I think it really says something about Netflix that I can do a show with such an unusual tone that has all that stuff and still feels balanced.

Atypical Creator Robia Rashid on Depicting Autism on TV