Category Archives: Parenting

Autism and the Fall Lineup on Television

The fall lineup of television has three shows depicting a character with Autism as a central theme: The Good Doctor on ABC, Young Sheldon on CBS, and Atypical on Netflix. (Yes, I know they never mention if Sheldon has Asperger’s, but I think we can all agree he does).

In the last 48 hours, I’ve watched all three, and two of them as a family. Our youngest is now Young Sheldon’s biggest fan. He was already a fan of the Big Bang Theory, but he was sucked into watching a child who loves bow-ties as much as he does navigate his life at the same age he is. There is a scene in the pilot episode where Sheldon points out a woman’s mustache to her and I cringed. I’ve lived through several of those scenarios with our youngest, scenarios that no matter how many times you live through it, they are still mortifying.

Atypical does a fantastic job reflecting navigating the teenage years. Because it does deal with the subject of dating and sex, my husband and I decided our youngest is not ready to watch it, but we will watch it with our oldest.

We sat down to watch The Good Doctor last night, and it turned out that our oldest had already watched the show without us but gushed about how much he loved it. Then, he sat down and watched it for the second time with us, eyes glued to the television the entire time. When I tucked our youngest in for bed last night, he said, “Dr. Murphy’s Autism is what saved that little boy’s life.” He was referencing the main character, Dr. Shaun Murphy, a pediatric cardiology resident who is Autistic, saving a young boy’s life by recognizing signs that the other surgeons couldn’t see. “One day you will wake up and realize that your ability to think differently is a gift,” I said, as I kissed his forehead.

I had to fight tears as I watched The Good Doctor. There are several scenes where the hospital administration is arguing whether or not someone with autism has a place on their surgical team. It was heartbreaking, infuriating, and a real concern of mothers of children on the spectrum who wonder if others will hold their children’s diagnosis against them. We know they have exceptional abilities, but do others? When all you focus on is what makes them different, how can you see what makes them exceptional?

What all three of these shows get right is showing the nuanced family reactions. The struggles of the siblings, the parents trying to do what’s right by their kids or by trying to ignore their child’s behavior, the people that shun them, and the people in their life that can see their potential and keep pushing them forward. All three also show that these children/young men have a level of perseverance that most adults lack. The ability to keep showing up and pursuing their obsessions serve these characters well in the long run, even when it seems everyone around them is actively working against them.

I never thought about representation on television in regards to my children as they are both white, middle-class boys. When I thought about representation on television, I thought about female superheroes, African-American families with positive stories, shows with minority storylines. My children could watch any television show and see themselves reflected on what they were watching.

Or so I thought.

They might be able to see people who look like them, but no one who acts like them. In retrospect, I wonder if watching other kids who look like them, but are neuro-typical made them feel even more like an outsider than they already did. My kids don’t play sports like the kids on sitcoms or gravitate towards typical young male interests. The only shows they’ve seen with characters who have similar behaviors to them are adult characters, such as Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory.

Most of us have childhood heroes that can be traced back to television. But even superheroes aren’t reality, and superheroes are a creative escape (which are also needed, don’t get me wrong). When kids on the spectrum feel as though they are the only ones navigating a neuro-typical world, it’s comforting to know that there are options of television shows who are including characters with Autism. Not only does this help them feel less excluded, these shows are also breaking down preconceived notions about Autism, opening doors for future inclusivity.

 

 

When Children Speak, Listen Carefully

 

Our children go to public school. Where we live, this is an anomaly. Families like ours, white and middle income families, don’t send their children to public school.

I have watched mothers pull their children on a playground from playing with ours once they notice our children’s uniform tops. I have listened to mothers whisper loudly ‘those are public school kids’ when my children walk by them.

When my husband and I made the decision to enroll our oldest in public school, we made an informed decision. We attended open houses of private and public schools and we talked to the staff of the schools. And yet, the driving force of enrolling our children at a public school was diversity; it reflected the racial makeup of our city.

Once I enrolled our second child in this same school, I had an acquaintance physically recoil when I told her where our children were. Then, I had another one tell me that she couldn’t send her child there, because she wanted the best education for her child (as if I didn’t).

But after it was obvious our children were going to public school and it was a decision that was sticking around, the nastiness really started.

“You’re really going to let your kids go to school with black kids?” (I heard that a lot)

“I thought public school was just a phase you were going through.”

Most of you have never met me in real life, but if you have read any of my stuff, you can imagine that didn’t go over too well.

Yes, our children go to school with black kids. They also go to school with Indian children. And Hispanic children. And Jewish children. And Chinese children. And you know what? It’s amazing and our children’s lives are richer for it.

A few months ago, I was stuck in traffic with our youngest child. I sat on one block for over an hour and I was frantically trying to figure out how I was going to get everything done that I needed to that night, now that I was running an hour behind. Our youngest talks. And talks. And talks and is never quiet. He was rambling on and on and then he said something that made my head whip around so fast my neck hurt after.

“I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” I asked, my cheeks burning and my eyes seeing white from anger.

His eyes got really big and his eyes started to well up.

“I said I don’t want to be friends with *Student A* anymore because he called my friend *Student B* the n word and he doesn’t think it’s wrong.”

I took a deep breath because I realized he thought I was mad at him. When I explained the cause of my anger, he said to me, “Mom, I just don’t understand why people hate people so much that they don’t even know.”

This conversation has sat on my heart for months. I’ve wanted to write about it, but I didn’t, because there are women I love, who have children that they have to comfort at night and explain to them that they are equal to white children and I’ve never wanted to make their heart ache anymore than it already does. The level of respect I have for these women is unparalleled. Knowing that they cannot protect their children from this and knowing that one day, their children will be made to feel inferior due to the color of their skin or their religion makes my stomach turn. There is no part of this that is okay.

But now? Charlottesville? The hoods are off. What you are seeing cannot be unseen and Freedom of Speech does not equal freedom from consequences. In the wise words of Maya Angelou ‘When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.’ We are witnessing evil and it cannot go back to hide in the dark.

And so what should be done by those of us with privilege? I believe that some people say things with good intentions because they want to help and don’t know what to say. If you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything. Listen to those that are hurting. Educate yourself. Get involved with something, anything that will make a difference.

I write a lot about speaking up about what is wrong. But I don’t write anything just for the sake of writing it. Most of what I do, I don’t put on social media. The hard work is off of social media. Loving your neighbors? Harder than trolling the comments on social media. Showing up at a non-profit to help the homeless and not telling anyone about it? Harder than screaming your opinions on social media. Raising kids? Really damn hard. Much harder than reading the comments on the internet.

And so, while I don’t write updates constantly on social media, I am watching and more importantly, listening. I am raising our children to not exhibit bystander behavior and to call out hate and to listen to other opinions who are not like their own. And I’m pouring all of my extra time and energy into a project I believe will profoundly change our city and the future of our community.

These things are part of a marathon, not a sprint. Advocacy work is exhausting and the level of burn out is high when you are passionate about something. Imagine screaming at the top of your lungs and not stopping until you have no voice. You’re tired. You’re physically exhausted from the mental toll it takes on your body and you have no energy to finish the race. This helps no one on the other side of the finish line. Change never happens overnight, it takes time. Stop screaming at the top of your lungs and preserve some energy for the long run. Because that is what we are looking at — a very long marathon.

Your children are watching, they hear every word you say, they scream at what you scream at, they learn their passions from you, and also your fears and biases from you.

Every year before school starts, we give our children books. I try to match the book to something that would be relevant to life lessons they may learn that year. This year, I gave our oldest the books 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. They suddenly seem more relevant than ever.

I wrestled with what to write on the inside of the jacket. But this is what I ended up with:

It’s time to start questioning everything you know and hear and also what you don’t hear.

Know that doing the right thing is often the much harder choice and the opposite of what everyone you know is doing. Learn to trust your gut and shut out the opinions of those who do not matter, for if they are not fighting by your side, their opinion is just white noise.

 

 

Leaf Piles and Imposter Syndrome

A few months ago, Radcliffe came to me with tears in his eyes.

Me: What’s wrong?

Radcliffe: I don’t want to tell you. I need you to take me to the doctor because something’s wrong with me.

After some coaxing, he said this:

Radcliffe: I hear voices and I know it’s weird and I’m embarrassed and people are going to judge me.

I internally start to panic, but I remained calm.

Me:  Are the voices telling you to do things?

Radcliffe: (looking at me quizzically) What? No! These people live in my mind like a movie and they have adventures and fight bad people. But they keep having adventures, even when I try to ignore it.

He inherited my brain, I realized. I hugged him and told him I needed to show him something. I brought him into my office and pointed to a piece of white butcher paper taped to the wall with black sharpie notes written on it.

Me: These are the people that live in my brain that I can’t turn off. This is the book I’ve been working on.

I could see the lightbulb go off and a wave of relief wash over him. This child, who with Asperger’s sees the world in black and white but is the most creative child, does not understand his own creativity. It must be so confusing, to be nine years old and not understand that this is how a creative mind works when you generally see things in stark contrast.

We’ve talked a lot since then about stories, how they’re made, keeping a notebook of thoughts, storyboards, and how to turn thoughts into a story. Since then, he’s come up with two comprehensive storylines that, dare I say, exceeds anything I could ever imagine.

Last year, he won first place in the region for poetry and placed second in the state. This year, we received another invitation to an award ceremony, telling us that he had won first place in poetry for the region and the state winners would be announced that night.

Tuesday night, he seemed nervous. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me he was nervous he wouldn’t place in state like he did last year.

Jesus. He has imposter syndrome already and he’s only nine.

After lots of hugs and encouragement, we went to the ceremony where they announced he also placed first in the state for poetry. The look on his face when they announced it brought tears to my eyes.

He sat down and said, ‘Wow, this is really exciting.’

It really is. It really, really is. It seemed fitting that this happened the beginning of Autism Awareness Month. We all worry about our children, and autism mothers worry about their children finding a place in this world. While I will always have this worry, I love seeing our children find a spot where they feel good about themselves and seeing them light up when they are in that place. Every day is Autism Day in our house, not just the month of April. But these days? I’ll take every single one of them.

His poem:

Leaf Piles
Leaves falling like rain in a pile.
There are so many they make me smile.
A wind will make my pile gone in awhile.
But that’s okay, it’s just my style.