In Apple TV+’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” an autistic daughter isn’t what weighs down a single mom’s life, she’s the one who raises it. I understand.
“How are these two things alike: a car and a train?” the neuropsychologist asked Dahlia, my then 5-year-old daughter. She looked pensive. Finally, she said, “They both look like a hummingbird.”
When the doctor looked puzzled, she added, “Only if you close your eyes, though.”
Even though many are now looking beyond the deficits of autism – seeing it as a difference rather than a disorder – the word still carries a heavy stigma.
As so often, Dahlia’s response sent my mind back. One of our many purchases related to the Covid pandemic had been a hummingbird feeder. Was that what she had studied that day when she didn’t want to get up from the grass despite my pleas? I felt a wave of shame.
I met the doctor’s eyes and shrugged. We both knew she wasn’t giving the “right” answers to the test. But “correct,” as my daughter taught me, is a limited term.
“How are Monday and Friday alike?” asked the doctor.
“They’re not,” my daughter said, her voice now completely defiant. “It feels exciting; we have shivers.
Chills? That’s exactly how Monday feels for a young child, I thought. Especially to a child for whom the previous year of Covid incursions had ruined her school experience.
Over time, I realized that Dahlia’s answers cannot be considered right or wrong. They’re true to his unique way of seeing the world, which, if you really listen carefully, can also help change the way neurotypical people see the world.
Autism is a largely misunderstood disease. It’s less a disease than a range of behaviors, ranging from an inability to speak or communicate resulting in repetitive behaviors or movements to (as in Dahlia’s case) difficulty processing social cues as people do. neurotypical children. Even though many are now looking beyond the deficits of autism – seeing it as a difference rather than a disorder – the word still carries a heavy stigma.
Some of that stigma has to be attributed to popular culture’s portrayal of autism, perhaps best known by actor Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.” But lately, Hollywood is doing better. In “Cha Cha Real Smooth”, one of the main characters is Lola, an autistic teenager shunned by her classmates. She is played by Vanessa Burghardt, autistic. At first, it seems like Lola might be a burden to her mother, Domino, played by Dakota Johnson, but we find out that despite all of Lola’s limitations, she’s actually Domino’s emotional anchor. As a single mother with an autistic daughter, I felt this feeling deeply.
Recently, a mom on the playground looked at me with pity when I told her that Dahlia was changing schools because of her diagnosis.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, avoiding meeting my gaze. “It’s hard.”
“No, it’s not,” I replied and quickly walked away.
For the first few years after Dahlia was born, as her differences became clearer, this woman’s sympathy might have made my stomach ache. Not anymore. It’s not that I’ve developed a greater tolerance for seemingly smug moms on the playground, but I don’t view Dahlia’s differences as tragic at all anymore. Indeed, learning to see the world through her eyes has opened mine. I don’t often get the answers I expect from my daughter, but in that same surprise, I often find myself pausing, rethinking, and reviewing things.
In high school, I had an art teacher ask us to spend a week looking for diamond shapes in the world around us. It turns out that when you search for them, diamond shapes abound. That’s what it’s like to be a parent of an autistic child. In Dahlia’s presence, I am suddenly surrounded by things I had never noticed before. That piece of blue glass on the sidewalk? It’s a treasure. That flapping of the curtain at the window? A princess hides there. This paper clip? It’s the wings of a fairy.
“Why?” she asks me constantly, her mind struggling to order the world. “Why can’t we wear pajamas on the playground?” “Why can’t we talk to the dead?” “Why do we take pictures of things? »
Dahlia sees things as they are, not as she would like them to be. Although it sometimes puzzles her, there is a lot to be said for her approach. She doesn’t see, for example, her father and I raising kids in separate homes as a problem. It helped me see things differently too. When I stopped seeing the disintegration of our family as a failure, I could see how rich and rewarding our new configuration could be.
Before, I cared so much about what people thought that I tightly controlled myself. Watching Dahlia go through life without worrying about other people’s reactions, I found myself imitating her. In my writing, I no longer care so much about confronting or exposing my innermost thoughts. And my patients benefit from the daily reminder I receive from Dahlia that the most practical approach to a given situation – the one that yields the “right” answer – is often not the most creative or enlightening.
There were losses too, but even those were enlightening. Those friends who were put off by his outspokenness or his behavior that they thought were odd were probably not close friends. And the fact that Dahlia, like many autistic children, doesn’t always like to be hugged compelled me to reach out to her in different ways: art, stories, building Lego structures or forts made from boxes. It made me realize how often I used physical touch as a substitute for deeper forms of communication.
I may not always fully understand how Dahlia’s mind works, but I’ve come to appreciate her creativity and spontaneity. Before I got it, I was hanging around in life, and I didn’t even realize it. Now I revel in its beautiful and wild unpredictability.
Dahlia not only made my world brighter, but she also made me a bolder, more awakened version of myself. What I should have said to that playground mom was, “We should all be so lucky.”