Netflix’s new show, Atypical, about the challenges of living as an autistic teenager, shows that disabled lives matter. People who live in Iceland might want to watch it—as an August CBS report about the country noted, Iceland has nearly killed off its Down Syndrome population through abortion. Here’s what Icelanders could learn from Atypical: people with disabilities are still humans with hopes, dreams, and the same worth as everyone else.
Atypical features Sam Gardner, an eighteen-year-old on the autism spectrum. Sam is a smart young adult who, because of his autism, struggles to live a normal life. The show starts with his therapist suggesting he try dating, prompting him to start pursuing girls. Of course, as his mother points out, the world of dating is one of the biggest challenges for those with autism: it relies almost entirely on non-verbal communication, social cues, and subtlety.
Sam is nevertheless determined to live a “normal” life. He’s aided in this endeavor by his family, who rallies around him as he begins to have success in forming his own version of adult life—he even starts dating. The series is remarkable for its treatment of autism. It doesn’t pretend that life won’t be difficult for Sam, but it shows that Sam is just as worthy of compassion as everyone around him. He’s got a charming personality, in his own way. He loves penguins and Antarctica, and his best friend is his turtle, Edison. He still wants to love and be loved like anyone else, even if it’s more difficult for him to secure those affections.
But Iceland doesn’t view their disabled people the same way. They have the highest rate of abortion of Down Syndrome children in the world. Of expectant mothers who take the prenatal test for Down Syndrome, ninety-eight percent abort their child when they find genetic markers for Down syndrome, according to the CBS report. By contrast, the United States has a Down syndrome abortion rate of sixty-seven percent. While not perfect, that means that about sixteen times more children with Down syndrome are given the chance at life.
Unsurprisingly, when a culture begins to view certain groups of people as unable to work or contribute to society, it begins to believe they have no inherent value. And as Iceland shows, that leads to a collective decision to kill off that population before they have even been born. And Down Syndrome isn’t the only “condition” targeted; being born the “wrong” sex is enough to justify elimination. In some parts of China, 130 boys are born for every 100 girls, thanks to sex-selective abortion. This is something the reproductive rights movement, which has long avoided acknowledging the eugenics roots of Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, should confront.
Atypical shows us why we need to challenge such views of disability. Sam leads a real life in the show. He is as deserving of life and love as anyone else. He contributes value and wonder to his family and community. The show demonstrates that disabilities like autism or Down syndrome don’t affect a person’s worth.
And parents of children with Down syndrome agree: “I wish people knew that no matter what my son goes through, he is probably the happiest person alive—full of smiles and energy,” wrote one mother of a Down Syndrome child on HuffPost. “He gives people that special feeling when he hugs them. My son Payton is 5 years old and he is absolutely no different from the rest of the world.” Does that sound like a child who doesn’t deserve to live?