Autism goes prime time

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 27, 2011

It was a couple of sentences on a prime time comedy, but it said volumes about the change in awareness over the past few years. The show was 30 Rock and the actor who plays Tracy Jordan made a comment about being stuck in Temple Grandin’s “squeeze machine.”

How interesting, I thought, writers felt the name Temple Grandin’s was one folks knew well enough to use in their script. Not many years ago, the only people who knew Grandin and her work to raise awareness about autism were people with a connection to autism. They either had a family member with autism or knew friends who had a family member. Now because of the rising number of children with that diagnosis, autism is part of mainstream consciousness.

And it is not just this comedy. There are autism story lines on dramas and even soap operas.

When I watch these shows, it is a little like seeing my family’s life on the screen. However, for us autism is not a storyline, it is a day-to-day reality.

We watch our daughter navigate in a world that is very different from ours and from most everyone in the world. Sometimes figuring out how to negotiate the twists and turns with her is challenging.

There are many things she still struggles to master, simple tasks like washing her hair or answering a telephone. Well, maybe that is more my perception because she may not see them as struggles. Her communication limitations keep me from really knowing how she views things.

What I do know is she seems happy. She smiles a lot and as long as life follows her simple routine, she is content. She asks little of anyone except to let her be as she is.

When she was younger, I felt a push to find any and everything that might help her become more “normal.” I mean isn’t that the goal — for everyone to be society’s idea of normal, whatever that means.

Now that she is older, I keep my eyes open for ideas that might make life easier for her, but the drive to find a “fix” for her autism is not what it was at one time. These days I look at what she has to teach me, and I think people with autism have a great deal to show us if we pay attention.

My child never does anything on purpose to hurt anyone. Unkind words, gossip or cruelty never come from her. She does not understand sarcasm or jokes at another person’s expense.

I think she is more in touch with nature and perhaps feels the world better than most of us. She does not hold on to anger or frustration. When she is upset, she expresses it, and then lets it go. When she is happy, she express that in a joyous burst of laughter, not caring what anyone thinks.

I think we might be better off if we adopted some of her ways of moving through life.

I am not saying living in the land of autism isn’t different and sometimes overwhelming — it is and there are families with children who have much greater challenges than my daughter faces. However, life with a person with autism can be a gift, an opportunity to experience things in a unique way. You can learn a lot about loving unconditionally and about appreciating the little victories, like your child giving out an unexpected hug.

It is heartening to see references to autism on television, even a few lines on a comedy show, because the more awareness there is, hopefully the easier life becomes for people with autism. Tolerance, acceptance and understanding are what those of us who love and live with someone with autism want most, and we appreciate anything, including television shows, that help make that a reality.