By Michelle O'Neil
I agreed instantly to do a review of Autism the Musical, a film that aired on HBO last week. The movie was gorgeous and I fell in love with every single kid in it. I fell in love with the drama teacher who's vision was responsible for the whole thing. The moments of brilliance on the part of the children. A girl named Lexi, who sings like an angel but can't carry a conversation. A boy named Wyatt who deeply and openly processes his own feelings and behaviors on camera. Gentle Henry who finally calmed down enough to accept a heartfelt compliment from a friend. A non-verbal boy, that seemed to have nothing to say, but then typed out a poignant message to his dedicated mama, asking her to "listen" more.
There were moments of tension, when a mother so used to controlling everything about her son's life, is forced to let go during dress rehearsal.
A moving, somewhat lonely scene of a mother and son lighting their menorah for Hanukkah.
But as I reflected on what to write about the film, the thing that kept coming up for me was marriage. This movie went right to the heart of what autism in the family does to a marriage.
Autism is not what any couple signed up for. Autism blindsided my marriage. Hell, it's blindsided the whole world. No one was prepared. The medical establishment flails about, with no real answers. Educators are doing their best but they were caught off guard too.
Mothers, bowing to the Google Gods have been forced to take on the role of researcher, advocate, teacher, attorney, psychologist, occupational therapist, vaccine expert, etc. I know there are many dedicated fathers, but unfortunately, they seem to be few and far between.
My own marriage, which I consider a strong one, was in peril early on. My child was a screamer. After two years of it, I was a wreck. I did not have enough emotional strength or fortitude to carry my husband when I was already drowning. I was overwhelmed and resentful. He was keeping us at an arm's length. Helping, but not a full partner.
If he had questioned my every move, with the diet, the therapies, the behavioral approaches? If he had undermined me? If he had whined and complained about my "lack of attention to him?" Please. I would have told him to grow up. To be a man. To think of his child. And ultimately, probably, to get lost. You want to be "just a paycheck?" Fine.
Thank God he got on board quickly. We are presently, closer than ever. Much less starry-eyed about each other than when we started out, but we've been through the war together and we are firmly in one another's corners.
The couples in this movie where the man left, or had an affair, because the woman was so focused on the child infuriated me. No question autism is hard on a marriage, but it seemed like the women were being blamed for their husband's behavior. Granted, much of the blame was self-inflicted, but I have to wonder, when was the last time these guys took care of their wives? Held them? Told them they were beautiful. Or better yet, BECAME COMPETENT ENOUGH WITH THEIR OWN KID THAT SHE FELT SAFE LEAVING, TO TAKE A BREAK AND REJUVENATE? Perhaps I'm being harsh. I don't know these particular dads. I do know the stories of many friends however, and I know how I used to feel.
I wish I knew what causes so many men to tune out. Perhaps I'm jealous that "as the mother" I never felt like I had that option.
Back when we were in crises, our marriage counselor told my husband to "get his head out of his ass." He also told me to "take my foot off Todd's neck and decide if I was going to forgive him and get on with it, or stay pissed."
If only more "autism" couples had such blunt instruction.
Autism the Musical. It's a brilliant film. A poignant, uplifting film. These are kids you want to know. It also happens to be one of the first things I've ever seen about autism that might make you feel you're missing out if you aren't involved in the community.
High praise indeed.
You can watch Autism the Musical for free on-line by clicking Here: Autism the Musical.
Michelle O'Neil is a writer and mother of a child with Asperger's Syndrome. You can read her blog Full Soul Ahead HERE.