Television has become rather impressive in its depictions of special needs characters at the center of the story line. Speechless, The Good Doctor. Switched at Birth. Perhaps, however, one of my favorite new shows is one that has been streaming on Netflix for the past two years: Atypical. The premise of the show is rather simple. It surrounds the journey of a young man with Autism who decides he is ready for a girlfriend, and this simple revelation turns the lives of his family, his therapist, and his friends upside down. But I am not here to comment on how great the show is, or how wonderful it is to see a character with Autism deal with everything circumstances that would appear to be “normal” for neuro-typical individuals. Not gonna do it- simply because I know it’s been done before. Instead, I want to turn my focus to his momma and poppa. That’s right, the parents. So what happens to the parents?
Not much is ever said about the family of a person with Autism and what that diagnosis can mean for, and can do to, a family. Now, before you all starting running at me with your pitchforks and procedural rights and safeguards, I just want to reiterate that in no way does having a child with Autism ruin anything. Autism is a neurological condition that simply alters a child’s perception of his world. He or she simply thinks a different way. And because it’s a spectrum condition, it can manifest itself in a variety of ways depending on the child. Families are children with Autism must find new and innovative ways to forge a path to a new normal, but it doesn’t mean that families can’t enjoy the same experiences of those with neuro-typical children. It just means they have to find more creative ways to do so.
So with that being said and out the way, I want to address the reality of what having a special needs child can mean for a family. We all want to think that having a special needs child would bring a family closer together; we all seem to unite against a common struggle. However, the divorce rate for parents of special needs children is slightly higher than in families with neuro-typical children. Why is this? Well, first off, it is never EVER the child’s fault. But many times, the demands, depending on the child’s needs, that comes with caring for a child with special needs can be time-consuming and stressful, forcing parents to put much of their time into advocating for and caring for their child. And many times, when a partner feels neglected, it can result in marital problems that sometimes are too much for the couple to handle and they agree to then separate.
So with that in mind, I want to introduce you to Elsa and Doug, the main character’s Sam’s parents who, at the surface, seem to love each other and their family. Sam was diagnosed with Autism at 3 or 4 and while Elsa was relieved to finally know what was going on with her son so that she could take action, Doug was hesitant to accept that his son was different; that regardless of how much he could try, he would more than likely never be able to relate to his own son. There was this paralyzing fear that probably gripped both of them, but where Elsa so an outlet and threw herself into learning all she can about ways to support and help her son, Doug just couldn’t get past it. So he didn’t. It is revealed in season 1 that he leaves the family for 8 months because he just couldn’t deal with having a special needs son. He was scared and so he ran, leaving Elsa alone to care for her newly diagnosed son, and a toddler daughter.
Never fear for Sam’s family, however, Doug apparently returned as if nothing had happened and the family carried on as such for years. In fact, Sam’s sister, Casey, didn’t even remember that her father had left until her brother reminded her. Sam has a knack for remembering just about everything. But despite Doug’s return, he still carries a burden of shame with him, failing to tell his co-workers and friends about Sam. It seems as though he is embarrassed by his son until his wife does the unthinkable.
Being a full-time mother is hard, and it sucks 70% of the time (just being honest). It’s draining, lacks any kind of leave or break time, is time-consuming, and is beyond thankless. It’s easy to feel neglected and unappreciated when you are expected to do everything and be everything to everybody. The news that Sam wants to date sends Elsa into a whirlwind of emotion, causing her to lash out at his therapist, whom Sam has a crush on, blaming her to putting these ridiculous ideas into his head. Elsa has dealt with Sam’s diagnosis by being “super mom”: she learned the law and the rights her son had so that he would have all the accommodations he would ever need to be successful (this also includes calling stores ahead of time to ensure they would have a quiet area in which Sam could try on clothes. She goes to a support group every week and is active in the local advocacy groups. But these decisions have been made without consequence. She isn’t as attentive to her daughter, preferring to snoop rather than to make attempts to develop a meaningful relationship. And it isn’t very clear what the relationship between husband and wife is prior to her fateful decision because they carry on more so like partners who raise children under the same roof. There is a noticeable lack of romance that is common when there are children present. But it is clear that something isn’t quite right.
All this manifests itself when Doug encourages Elsa to find something for herself to do; to indulge in a hobby. She used to be a dancer in college so she decides to go dancing with a group of friends who then invite her to a bar afterward. It is at this bar that she meets and interacts with a cute, young bartender who seems to see her for who she is. For once, she’s not someone’s mom or wife. She’s just a woman, a pretty woman and for once somebody sees it. And not just anybody… a young, hot somebody. Now please do not take this blurb as my rationalization for adultery. Her response to her feelings was in no way shape or form appropriate. However, as a woman, it is easy to understand how she was feeling. Women need to feel loved and appreciated everyday. It’s just how we are. That no matter how old we get or how many babies we’ve had, that somebody would still find us desirable and attractive. And truth is, when we spend our every minute of every day caring for other people, it can be very easy to lose that part of ourselves which makes us, well us.
So what does any of this have to do with having a child with Autism? Well, nothing really when you only look at the surface. But once you understand the dynamics of having children, and then add onto that the stresses that often accompany receiving any kind of diagnosis, it can be easy to understand why both Doug and Elsa were driven to do the unthinkable. When a child is first diagnosed, there is such an overwhelming rush of emotion that makes it really hard to understand exactly what is going on, to fully grip the reality that your family’s everything has just changed. Some parents may rush to try to “fix” things as with Elsa, diving into every possible book, looking up every possible doctor and therapy, and attending as many support groups and events as possible to show they are on board. Some parents stay in the land of denial, choosing to act as if nothing has happened and go on to live their lives as they had been doing all along. And some parents, like Doug, run, afraid that they will never be able to support or help their child live a well-adjusted life. All these reactions have one thing in common: fear. We are afraid when we hear those evaluation results. We mourn the loss of all the plans and dreams and hopes we had for our child the very moment we found out we were expecting him or her. We grieve for the possible loss of “normal” kid activities because perhaps our child may not be able to attend birthday parties because of the over-stimulation and noise; that maybe he or she might have to have an aide with them at all times; that he or she may need hours upon hours of therapies which might impact the possibility of engaging in extra-curricular activities and planning family trips. And we are certainly not prepared for the judgment we will undoubtedly receive when our child has a meltdown in the grocery store, the lack of purpose we feel if we are saddled with the choice of whether or not we can remain employed, and the loneliness and seclusion that often accompanies being a special-needs parent. Many times, we will have the overwhelming feeling that no body gets us and no body ever will. It is within those moments, and in the many moments that will follow, we feel that a piece of us has been lost, that the lives we have imagined for ourselves is no longer the reality. And no matter how old we are and how much we have experienced in our lives, nothing can prepare you for that. Nothing.
Doug and Elsa are not real; they are a mere figment of some creative genius’ imagination (shout out to Robia Rashid) brought to life to entertain us. But their responses to their son’s diagnosis and to each other help illustrate what many parents have secretly felt or feel when raising a child with special needs. These two, despite their different choices, reflect the fear of the unknown and the fear of failure- Doug ran and Elsa became obsessed causing her to lose herself in the process which led to her infidelity down the road. I appreciate the realness of this couple because it goes to show what happens when parents don’t make their mental and emotional health a priority. So listen close when I say this. Dear fellow parents: we cannot do it all. But we can take each day at a time, do the very best we can, find an outlet that helps us better feel like ourselves, find a tribe, even if but a friend or two who knows what we are dealing with because he or she is dealing with it too, and know when to reach out for help when we need it. I certainly hope that in the next season, Elsa and Doug can learn to do this too… if only it’s not too late.
Here are some great resources to help you learn to put yourself back in your top 5: