Thursday, January 26, 2012


A new show involving a child with autism called Touch had its premiere on FOX this week.

The premise of the show is that Jake, an 11 year old boy who "never speaks, shows little emotion, and never allows himself to be touched by anyone" but just happens to "obsessed with numbers—writing long strings of them in his ever-present notebooks—and with discarded cell phones", has the special ability to "perceive the seemingly hidden patterns that connect every life on the planet".

The child's father, Martin, who "has tried everything to reach his son" and is "haunted by an inability to connect to his emotionally challenged ... son" almost loses his son to foster care until Jake's extraordinary gift is discovered by "a professor and an expert on children who possess special gifts when it comes to numbers".

This discovery, of course, changes everything and Martin realizes that his son is actually talking to him through his long strings of numbers and that it is his new job to "decipher these numbers and recognize their meaning" which will allow him to "help people across the world connect as their lives intersect according to the patterns Jake has foreseen".

Or at least that is what the show's website says the premise of the show is supposed to be.

I did not watch the premiere nor do I have any intention of watching the show when it starts airing regularly in another month or two.  Why you ask?  Well, the reason is quite simple.

Even if the show is the best written show out there and even if it gets right the details of what life is like with a non-verbal child on the spectrum, I am so very sick and tired of the autism myths that the show perpetuates.

I am so very tired of constantly running into the theory that autism somehow grants a person special gifts.  In the overwhelming, vast majority of people with autism that is simply not the case.

Having autism does not give you super human abilities in math nor does it give you exceptional eye sight nor does it make you an expert musician nor does it allow you to "perceive the seemingly hidden patterns that connect every life on the planet".  Nor is it necessarily a good thing when a person with autism does manage to achieve a higher level of knowledge or functioning in an area because they are fixated on the subject.

There is a big difference between a person obtaining knowledge or expertise in a subject because they want to and a person obtaining the same level of knowledge because they have a compulsion to do so.  Yes, the end result might be similar, but the person who decides to pick up a subject on their own initiative also has the freedom to put it aside if they want to.  A person with autism who gains knowledge from because they perseverate on the topic will rarely have the same freedom.

And then there is the automatic assumption that if a person with autism happens to be good at something that it must be their autism that gives them the ability to do so.  But that completely ignores the fact that autism is just one facet of a person and that there is far more to the person than their autism.

I used to think that this entire idea of autism always granting special gifts was a joke and could be safely ignored.  That is until I kept running into well-meaning people who, upon learning that my children had autism, would ask me what their "gift" was.  I kid you not, this has happened to me more times than I can count.

So the last thing that the autism world needs is yet another show suggesting that autism brings special gifts.  Because for a lot of people, the only exposure they have had to autism is what they have seen on TV or read in the media.

There is also another less common but equally damaging myth here.  It is the idea that every non-verbal child with autism has some special way that they are trying to communicate if only their parents could figure it out.  I can tell you that, after many years of trying to trying to communicate with my own children who were at first non-verbal and are now semi-verbal, this idea is mostly garbage.

There may be a few children out there who are trying to communicate through alternative channels and just not being understood, but I highly doubt that this is any more common than special gifts are.  As a parent you certainly do learn to read a non-verbal child's subtle body language and other tells and to infer what they are thinking from those signs, but that is a long, long, long way from meaningful communication.

And again, I wouldn't really care about this myth either except that I have run into other people - some of them in the autism community - who assume it is true.  I have had people tell me that my children must be communicating with me and I just have to try harder to understand what they are saying.

But the reality here is that it takes a great deal of time and effort to build channels of communication with children who are non-verbal.  Sometimes you get lucky and the child and reach out and start talking on their own and other times you are left with trying every possible alternative form of communication out there in an effort to build those channels.  There is no magical shortcut that, if discovered, will lead to an instant ability to communicate.

Maybe I am being too harsh on the show from the little I have heard about it, maybe I'm not.  But the bottom line is that these myths about autism are as harmful as the old refrigerator mom theory of autism.  What the TV viewing world needs is a healthy dose of what life is really like for children who are cut off from the world by their autism and not yet another Rain Man.


  1. You can't really take fictitious TV shows like this seriously. I don't think they or anyone else are trying to imply this rings true of real life. Though I can understand you taking offense to this, sometimes you have to take things in the spirit in which they are done. It provides a good entertainment media.

    Of course Laurent Mottron claiming that all autistics possess gifts that can be leveraged in the job market and help them get along with parents, etc. and the fact autism speaks has given this man half a million bucks to pursue research along these lines is another story.

  2. Hi Jonathan,

    It might be just a TV show but that doesn't mean that people won't buy into the autism myths in the show. People tend to belief what they see on TV even when they know they shouldn't.

    Although maybe these myths are better than some of the other ones out there like autism is caused by bad parenting.

  3. Yes, people still insist that my son has some special divine gift that I must be missing and will emerge with age. Its nice to be that hopeful, I am not offended, but I feel they miss out all the amazing things he does, that are naturally programmed in their kids, but for him it has taken years of hard work and teaching. So they miss the real gift which is just that he tries really hard. I wish someone would show case that in a movie for a change. But it would not be entertaining to see that a kid learned to eat with a spoon at 6 or to ask a question at 10....

  4. I understand where you are coming from with this. I too, have had my share of people ask what my son's gift is. I also have had people think autism meant my son was naturally a genius - where do they really get this stuff? Yes, some can come from pop culture, including TV.

    That being said, the creators of the show have denied that the protagonist, a mute 11 year old boy is autistic according to a Huffington Post review. That is not the correct "disorder" according to them. None of the info I found through Fox suggests "autism" nor was it said during the premiere.

    I did watch it. It was a fascinating show which was emotionally "touching" (no pun intended) because of the father's attempts to connect with the son and the way they did connect at the end. It is not plausible but neither was Star Wars or The Sixth Sense. Still, I don't believe in Darth Vader or seeing dead people...

    The show was interesting. It was fun to hear the Fibonacci code mentioned and used with cell numbers to unify seemingly unrelated stories and "save" people. It was what Hollywood always gives us - "entertainment". It no more shapes someone's ideas about autism (autism is never mentioned) than a soap opera shapes ideas about extramarital affairs.

    Basically, and it's just my opinion, ignorant does not need a TV show to manifest itself. It's there anyway. I hope you do give the show a chance. You might be entertained. Did I mention I was a fan of Kiefer Sutherland? ;)