In Apple TV+’s “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” a daughter with autism is not what burdens a single mom’s life — she is what elevates it. I can relate.
“How are these two things alike: a car and a train?” the neuropsychologist asked Dahlia, my then 5-year-old. She looked pensive. Finally, she said: “They both sound like a hummingbird.”
When the doctor looked perplexed, she added: “Only if you close your eyes, though.”
Even while many are now looking beyond autism’s deficits — thinking of it as a difference, rather than a disorder — the word still carries a heavy stigma.
As so often, Dahlia’s answer sent my mind reeling backward. One of our many Covid pandemic purchases had been a hummingbird feeder. Had that been what she had been studying that day when she wouldn’t get up from the grass despite my entreaties? I felt a hot twist of shame.
I met the doctor’s eyes and shrugged. We both knew she wasn’t giving the “correct” answers to the test. But “correct,” as my daughter has taught me, is a limited term.
“How are Monday and Friday alike?” the doctor asked.
“They’re not,” my daughter said, her voice now fully defiant. “One feels exciting; one feels shivery.”
Shivery? That’s exactly how Monday feels to a young child, I thought to myself. Especially to a child for whom the previous year of Covid incursions had ruined her school experience.
Over time, I’ve come to understand that Dahlia’s responses cannot be seen as right or wrong. They are true to her singular 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 widely misunderstood condition. It is less an illness than a spectrum 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 in the way neurotypical children do. Even while many are now looking beyond autism’s deficits — thinking of it as a difference, rather than a disorder — the word still carries a heavy stigma.
Part of that stigma must be blamed on the depiction of autism in popular culture, perhaps most famously by the actor Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man.” But lately, Hollywood has been getting 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, who has autism. At first, it seems that 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 is in fact Domino’s emotional anchor. As a single mother with an autistic daughter, I connected deeply with this sentiment.
Recently, a mom on the playground looked at me pityingly when I told her Dahlia was switching schools because of her diagnosis.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, avoiding meeting my eyes. “That’s hard.”
“No, it’s not,” I answered and quickly walked away.
For the first few years after Dahlia’s birth, when her differences were becoming clearer, this woman’s sympathy might have caused my stomach to drop. Not anymore. It’s not that I’ve developed greater tolerance for seemingly smug moms on the playground, but I no longer consider Dahlia’s differences at all tragic. Indeed, learning to see the world through her gaze has opened my own. I don’t often get the responses I’m expecting from my daughter, but in that very surprise, I often find myself pausing, rethinking and seeing things anew.
In high school, I had an art teacher who asked us to spend a week looking for diamond shapes in the world around us. It turns out that when you’re looking for them, diamond shapes abound. That’s what it’s like parenting 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 flutter of a curtain in the window? A princess is hiding there. That paper clip? It’s a fairy’s wings.
“Why?” she asks me constantly, her mind struggling to order the world. “Why can’t we wear pajamas to the playground?” “Why can’t we talk to dead people?” “Why do we take pictures of things?”
Dahlia sees things as they are, not how she wishes they would be. Though it sometimes leaves her confused, there is much to be said for her approach. She doesn’t, for instance, see her dad and me parenting in separate homes as a problem. That helped me to see it differently, too. When I stopped thinking about the disintegration of our family as a failure, I could see how rich and rewarding our new configuration could be.
I used to care so much about what people thought that I kept myself firmly in check. Watching Dahlia march through life heedless of others’ reactions, I’ve found myself imitating her. In my writing, I no longer worry as much about confronting or exposing my innermost thoughts. And my patients benefit from the daily reminder I get 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 illuminating.
There have been losses, too, but even these have been enlightening. Those friends who were put off by her directness or behavior they deemed odd probably weren’t such close friends. And the fact that Dahlia, like many autistic children, doesn’t always like to be hugged has forced me to reach her in different ways: art, stories, building Lego structures or forts made from boxes. It’s made me aware of how often I used physical touch as a substitute for deeper forms of communication.
I might not always understand precisely how Dahlia’s mind works, but I’ve learned to appreciate its creativity and spontaneity. Before I had her, I was trudging through life, and I didn’t even realize it. Now I revel in its beautiful, wild unpredictability.
Dahlia has not only made my world a brighter place, but she’s also made me a bolder, more awake version of myself. What I should have told that playground mom was: “We should all be so lucky.”
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