So, I watched all eight episodes of the new Netflix series, “Atypical” in a day. And yes, I’m upset they didn’t include an autistic actor. Yes, I think it’s wrong autistics weren’t consulted in the creation of a character. Yes, it was another show about a more “high functioning” autistic teen. Yes, it was another male instead of a female. Yes, there were stereotypes — again. I still loved it.

Perhaps I should have prefaced that first paragraph with the fact that I am not a person with autism. I am a neurotypical mother who has three children, one of whom has autism. That being said, “Atypical” is not a perfect show, but, is there perfect show besides “Breaking Bad?” As a mother of a child with autism, an autism blogger and an autism advocate, for me, “Atypical” did what it was created to do: it entertained me. I laughed, I cried, I sobbed big, ugly tears and I even shouted, “Hell yeah!” more than once.

It also brought back dark, lonely times. It reminded me of where I once was and where I am now. I felt the loneliness, the uncertainty and the guilt. Oh dear heavens, I felt the guilt after learning of my son’s diagnosis, all over again. I sent a text to my 19-year-old neurotypical son who is away at college, “I’m sobbing through episode four of Atypical. I’m sorry if I ever made you feel less by trying to make Ryan feel more. I love you so much.” Then I went to my neurotypical 11-year-old daughter and held her in my arms and said the same. Then I went to my 15-year-old autistic son and said, “Sorry about all the times I didn’t get it and screwed up.” Yep, guilt.

“Atypical” also made me laugh out loud — remember thing I had long since forgotten. But mostly it reminded me of the progress my son, Ryan, has made, as well as the rest of our family as we traveled this unfamiliar road. And although some of that progress, for all of us, was difficult, it was good to watch this series and be reminded: we did it.

 

I think some of us parents would like to see our child represented in a television show or movie, so people would understand autism and our family. But we can’t talk about wanting our child to be seen as unique yet expect Hollywood to create a character who fits every individual on the spectrum. We can’t yell, “no more stereotypes” then be discouraged when our kid doesn’t fit the next character with autism on our television or movie screens.

Many of us loved “Friends,” but did they hit every demographic of every 20 something in the ’90s? No. “The Cosby Show” was a huge hit, but did the Cosby family represent all black families in America anymore than “Full House” was a good representation of white families? I don’t think so. And as much as we love the day-to-day happenings at “Seattle Grace Hospital,” do you think every hospital in Seattle has a McDreamy or a McSteamy? Sadly, no. And for every 20 and 30 something woman who gathered around their televisions with girlfriends to watch “Sex and the City” while deciding which friend in their inner circle represented Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda, many weren’t having sex or living in the city. That’s Hollywood folks.

As a mother, of course I don’t want negative stereotypes about autism perpetuating mainstream media, and I know there are many individuals with autism who are unable to work at a technology store fixing computers who are not represented anywhere in the media. But I love that our autistic adults and children are represented at all. When my son was young, there was no Julia muppet, no Max, no Sheldon Cooper and no Sam. At that time, for me, it felt like Ryan was the only child with autism I knew, and for a while he was. And although “Atypical” may continue some of those negative stereotypes, I hope those stereotypes are at least conversation starters: “Oh, your son Ryan has autism? I watched Atypical, is Ryan just like Sam?” For decades, there was no one on our televisions to even start that conversation.

Here’s the thing, of course I made comparisons to my son, of course I made comparisons to myself, but, just like Sam is not Ryan, I am not Elsa. Did I love seeing a family traveling a journey similar to mine on television? Of course I did, but, part of my binge watching had everything to do with hoping that Sam got his happy ending and transposing that hope for my son. Isn’t that what we all want in life and in a television series, a happy ending?

As for my son, Ryan, he had no interest in watching “Atypical” because, “it’s not a Japanese show that includes anime which is much more interesting than what you are describing.” “Atypical” may not be for you, or my son, but for this mother, the creators of the series did what I believe they set out to do: entertain me and give me a glimpse into another family who also has a child with autism. And teach me a lot more than I ever knew about penguins and Antarctica.

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As summer comes to an end, students across the country are getting ready to go back to school. With the new school year comes back to school shopping. For students on the autism spectrum as well as those with sensory processing disorders, sensory-friendly products can make the school year a lot more enjoyable.

We asked The Mighty’s autism community which sensory-friendly school supplies they’d recommend. Here are their suggestions. 

Just so you know, we’ve selected these links to make shopping easier for you. We do not receive any funds from purchases you make.

1. Retractable Writing Tools

retractable pen

Retractable writing tools can help kids with limited fine motor skills feel more confident when writing or drawing.

“I buy retractable everything,” community member Sheila M. told The Mighty. “Pens, highlighters, sharpies. My son doesn’t have the greatest fine motor skills and we used to lose so many caps and the caps frustrated him to no end”

Buy the retractable pens above on Amazon for $7.44.

2. Scented Pencils

scented pencils

Adding a fun element to your child’s school supplies can help keep them engaged in a sensory-friendly way. Karen R. and Michelle M. recommend Scentos, which makes pens, coloring pencils, rulers, erasers and felt tip pens.

Buy the scented pencils above on Amazon for $13.99. 

3. Monster Pencil Case

Monster ZipIt Pencil case

Staying organized can be challenging for students of all abilities. Choosing items that are both fun and functional can help students keep their belongings in one place.

Community member Karen R. suggests a monster pencil case.

Buy the pencil case above on Amazon for $6.26.

4. Pastel Highlighters

pastel highlighters

Using highlighters as well as color coding notes can help students better understand key words and phrases. If bright colors are too jarring, try swapping neon highlighters for pastel ones.

“A good [product] I’ve heard mentioned is the pastel colored highlighters as they are not so harsh on the eyes,” community member Pandora P. said.

Buy the pastel highlighters above on Amazon for $6.20.

5. Durable Folders

durable folders

Given the amount of handouts and homework students are given, folders need to be able to endure wear and tear throughout the year. Durable folders — especially those made of plastic — are a great way to stay organized and keep papers in tact.

Kelly S. recommends “folders that can take one heck of a beating and still keep papers from crumpling.”

Buy the durable folders above on Amazon for $11.99.

6. Pencil Grips
pencil grips

Sometimes pens and pencils can be too thin, hard or sharp to hold. Pencil and pen grips are “great for helping with fine motor skills and are great for fidgeting with,” Hannah H. told The Mighty.

Buy the pencil grips above on Amazon for $9.00. 

7. Bendy Pencils
colorful bendy pencils

Bendy pencils are a colorful, functional and fun writing tool that can also act as a fidget device for kids with sensory sensitivities.

Buy the bendy pencils above on Amazon for $4.89.

8. Sticky Notes

post it notes

Not only are sticky notes great for jotting down ideas, community member Diana L. shared an ingenious way sticky notes can help kids with sensory sensitivities when using school bathrooms.

“Sometimes an automatic flusher can activate before a child is ready and startle them,” she said. “With a sticky note over the sensor, the child can activate it once they are ready.”

Buy the sticky notes above on Amazon for $11.38.

9. Chewable Jewelry and Fidget Toys

Necklace featuring a neon green alien

Created by Cynthia Kim, a woman on the autism spectrum, Stimtastic is a toy and jewelry company that promotes stimming. Stimtastic sells wearable and chewable fidget tools for both children and adults that are comfortable, fashionable and low-cost.

Buy the chewable necklace above at Stimtastic for $8.90.

10. Wobble Cushion
blue wobble cushion

For some children, sitting still is difficult and moving around on a hard chair can be uncomfortable. Wobble cushions allow kids to sit and wiggle in a sensory-friendly way while improving their posture.

Buy the wobble cushion above on Amazon for $33.48.

11. Writing Board

white writing board

Slanted writing boards provide a stable surface that can help students improve their handwriting and posture. Some boards include dry-erase and portable versions as well as clips to keep papers from slipping.

Buy the writing board above on Amazon for $35.97.

12. Daily Visual Calendar
Daily Magnetic calendar

Visual aids can help students understand and remember schedules. Using colorful boards that students can arrange themselves can help to empower kids and make them excited for the day ahead.

Buy the calendar above on Amazon for $19.51.

14. Nesel Pack

sensory friendly backpack

Developed by a team of students at the University of Minnesota, Nesel Pack was designed specifically for kids and teens on the autism spectrum. Nesel Pack includes pockets for weights, making it similar to a weighted vest. It is made of durable fabric and features seams and zippers as well as clips and windows for ID cards, key chains and decorations.

Buy the backpack above at Nesel Pack for $99.99.

15. Senseez Pillows

blue sensory friendly pillow

Created by Stephanie Mitelman, whose son lives with a sensory processing disorderSenseez offers lightweight, portable and vibrating pillows for children with sensory sensitivities. Senseez also offers adaptable products that include a weighted pad, hot and cold pad and vibration device.

Buy the pillow above at Senseez Pillow for $29.99.

What back-to-school sensory-friendly products would you recommend? Let us know in the comments below.

Header credit to Amazon and Nesel Pack.


There has been a lot of buzz lately about Netflix’s new show “Atypical,” which revolves around how one fictional family experiences autism. Being “atypical” myself, I was waiting patiently to watch and review “Atypical.” Before the show even aired, there was controversy in the autism community about how Keir Gilchrist, the actor who plays an autistic high school senior named Sam, is not autistic himself. Autistic actors such as Mickey Rowe, who plays an autistic character on Broadway, commented on the controversy when he reviewed the first episode. Further, no autistic people were consulted for the show. How could I not want to watch it?

Naturally, I binge-watched “Atypical.” I couldn’t wait to see how mainstream television was going to talk about autism. I’m sure I’ll be thinking similarly when ABC premiers its new show, “The Good Doctor.” The last time I saw autism talked about on television was with NBC’s “Parenthood,” where we saw Max Braverman grow up from his initial diagnosis of Asperger syndrome at age 7 up until his high school years. Since “Parenthood” ended after a critically appraised run, it was about time for a refreshing take from an autistic perspective, and there is where “Atypical” swoops in.

“Atypical” focuses on Sam Gardner, an autistic high school senior who is extremely passionate about penguins and really wants a relationship with a girl; and the rest the Gardner family: his autism warrior mom Elsa, ashamed paramedic father Doug, and his track star younger sister Casey. All of them have varying storylines of their own: Elsa’s infidelity, Doug’s acceptance of his son’s autism, and Casey’s promising athletic future and her first boyfriend (who also is a little bit of a troublemaker).

Here are the the things I absolutely loved about “Atypical:”

Sam is successfully employed at a computer electronics store. Oftentimes, autistic people are discriminated against in the workplace or do not have the opportunity to work any job. This detail of Sam’s character eases my fears about integrating autistic adults into the community. To the contrary, Sam is a high school senior and has an after-school/weekend job. His boss seems understanding of his autism. Sam is even best friends with one of his co-workers and fellow high school students, Zahid. Sam’s relationship with Zahid is positive – Zahid is concerned with Sam’s sex life and tries to help however he can, from unsuccessfully taking Sam to a strip club, to interrupting customer interactions to assure Sam, to using his own girlfriend’s employee discount at Claire’s to help Sam give a girl a gift.

Sam’s mother Elsa, sister Casey, and classmate-turned-girlfriend Paige, are all fierce advocates for Sam. I consider this a double-edged sword since Sam is not an advocate for himself, except when he stands up to Elsa when he says he is capable of picking out his own clothes and going to the mall without his noise-canceling headphones even though the lights, sounds, and the waterfall at the mall are enough to make him overwhelmed and have a meltdown. Sam is willing to better himself, even if it’s only with the goal of finding a girlfriend of getting to lose his virginity, or to please his therapist (who he has a crush on). But before even going to the mall, his mom calls the manager and demands accommodations for her son. I respect and admire Elsa’s determination, but she also really just needs to believe in Sam and give him a chance to try before having to attempt to save the day. Casey stands up to other kids at their high school, makes sure he has
lunch money, and tries to protect him from getting hurt by Paige. I also respected when Paige went to the PTA meeting to make the winter formal more accessible overall by successfully proposing a silent disco instead of the flashing strobe lights, loud music experience most of us are familiar with at school dances – and at said PTA meeting, we see a lot of parents lash out at Sam’s mom, thinking she put Paige up to this (she didn’t). I did empathize when Elsa talked about how there are bigger concerns than hairdos for Sam and that there are different concerns for children with disabilities.

I also have to give a nod to Sam’s father, Doug. There were a lot of touching interactions between father and son, as Doug aims to better understand his 18-year-old son. Doug is frustrated with his son’s diagnosis. He initially left the family shortly after Sam’s diagnosis, came back, and after hiding Sam’s diagnosis from a work colleague for years, Doug realizes his internalized shame about Sam. He aims to become the expert – he attends Elsa’s autism parent support group (where he immediately corrected about everything), talks to Sam’s therapist, apologizes to Elsa, and works on building a better relationship with Sam. So many parents are in denial that something is different about their children, and it was touching to see Doug come around and accept that autism is a large part of who Sam is.

My favorite performance of the show was Casey’s. Casey is a complex character with varying emotions and a lot of teenage angst. She is frustrated by feeling empty or invisible in comparison to Sam. Her relationship with both of her parents is strained. She realizes her father left when Sam was diagnosed and resents that her mother doesn’t seem to give her the attention and affection she desperately needs. Casey’s boyfriend has to stand up for her and shout at the dinner table for her parents to even acknowledge that Casey is being recruited by a top private school to run track because it paled in comparison to Sam making a pro-con list to determine whether or not he liked Paige and Paige sharing with everybody that she found Sam’s list. Her experiences are valid, complicated, and give “Atypical” a heart. I was really looking forward to all of Casey’s scenes, and again, admired her for standing up for Sam when she has enough to grapple with on her own besides feeling protective of her older brother.

Here are the things I absolutely disliked about “Atypical:”

Other than giving into television stereotypes of Sam initially wanting an intimate relationship with his therapist, coming of age stories, Elsa’s steamy affair with the bartender, and good-girl athlete Casey falling for a bad boy, I had genuine concerns about the show and its portrayal of autism.

Sam is totally the stereotypical “higher functioning” autistic character, except he isn’t obsessed with trains.  Otherwise, he’s a perfect stereotype. Nobody is a perfect stereotype in real life. Sam simply misses every social cue, finds every excuse possible to talk about penguins and Antarctica, and appears inherently selfish and inconsiderate. He becomes the joke. He knows he’s weird, and he doesn’t really care, except when it comes to his quest to have a girlfriend and have sex. He ignores people’s feelings, and every line of dialogue he has somehow involves a social misstep. With autism, it isn’t always this obvious, and at least for me, the awkward moments and miscues are more nuanced. These stereotypes are damaging to autistic people, their families, and their friends. Instead of helping us, the show hurts us by falsely portraying us as creepy, insensitive, and just really awkward.

I was particularly disturbed by Sam’s relationship with Paige. There was a scene where he locked her in a closet because he was upset that she was touching all of the stuff in his room and ultimately touched his pet turtle. Obviously, his parents tell him to stop and know this isn’t OK. But Sam’s behavior absolutely is not typical of autistic people. It is consistent with abusive relationships, and people with disabilities and autistic people are far more likely to be the abused than the abusers. “Atypical” flips that fact straight on its head when Sam locks Paige in a closet, and not only is Paige OK with it, she takes one of Sam’s sweatshirts as a souvenir.

Paige also tries to defend her winter formal silent disco success to the student body after the PTA meeting. She explains how silent discos were ways to have raves and then makes some off-color joke about something that meth addicts and autistic people have in common. I know Paige’s heart is in the right place, but something about Paige makes me think she sees Sam as a zoo exhibit (after all, they did bond over biology class) or a case study. I don’t see how Sam makes her happy, nor did I see how she made Sam happy until he realized he was focusing too much on her being annoying, like when she touched all his stuff. I do agree with Sam on one thing though: Paige is kind of annoying, in a do-gooder “I totally understand autism and am now the autism expert” way, but Sam likely is the only autistic person she’s ever known. Sam is the expert, not Paige, and not his family, and “Atypical” fails to capitalize on Sam’s potential to be the audience’s voice of reason about autism and the autistic experience.

Building on Doug attending the autism parent support group, I cringed a little bit when the parents immediately corrected and shamed Doug for saying the word “autistic” and absolutely insisted he used person-first language and show disgust when he uses autism “cure” rhetoric. Saying “autistic” is not a bad thing. Some people do want a cure for autism, and others do not. The support group rules are naturally a confusing dichotomy – autistic communities are against a cure and prefer identity-first language. Doug redeems himself from this patronizing support group when he declares he frankly doesn’t care about whatever the proper language is; his son is still on the autism spectrum regardless of the words used.

In the words of Sam’s mom Elsa, “It’s OK to be a little selfish.” Elsa says this to Casey after her friends turned on her when she applied to the private school for track, but Casey feared leaving Sam to his own devices and putting a strain on the family financially. Elsa encouraged her with the line, “It’s OK to be a little selfish.” It’s OK to be a little selfish for my autistic friends and supportive autism allies to skip “Atypical,” fearing that the show further stigmatizes autism.

And my message to the autistic community: like Sam’s penguins, we need to just keep swimming because we have a lot of work to do to be accurately represented on television and to be heard by everybody else.

This review originally appeared on HuffPost.

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At first, you appeared to be just another mother letting her child release energy on a hot, humid morning. We engaged in brief conversation while sipping coffee as the children climbed through tunnels and giggled down the slides. When another child informed you that your daughter had removed her pants in the tunnels above, you hid your face and apologized to me. As you explained that she was on the autism spectrum, you asked for forgiveness for something that was out of your control. It seemed to me that you had met unaccepting minds during your journey thus far; but I was not going to be one those people. There was no need to apologize.

Our paths crossed at a difficult time in my life. You wouldn’t know by my appearance, but I’ve been dealing with a debilitating condition for 12 years that has recently become much worse. My body has been plagued with an illness that has had no name, despite over a decade of extensive medical testing. You may think this has nothing to do with your daughter, but let me explain why it does.

 

We all deal with something in this life. Some of us struggle more than others, making life seem unfair and daunting. I saw you there, patiently providing the support your daughter needed in a moment of unpredictability. I wanted to give you a hug. I wanted to tell you that it was alright; no one was judging you or your family. In that moment, I felt I could relate to you; not because I had been in your shoes, but because I had struggled in my life to depths that can feel isolating. My life struggles allowed me to empathize with yours; an ability unique to human beings.

You reminded me that I don’t struggle alone. You reminded me that our world is a place of heterogeneity, and while we may feel we stand out from our surroundings, there’s always someone who can see past the facade to empathize with our individual situations. I know my letter won’t make your parenting, or your daughter’s journey any easier, but I hope you remember me the next time you find yourself in an unpredictable situation. Your calm and loving parenting is admired, and does not go unnoticed. And, lastly, thank you for reminding me that in the middle of a world that demands perfection, we are all just perfectly imperfect human beings.

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Thinkstock image by freemixer


I was lying in bed the other night, watching some show on a news channel. The hot topic of the night was — you guessed it — healthcare. News reporters were debating, senators were giving speeches and guest speakers were chiming in whenever they could.

One person would argue millions of people would lose healthcare under the new plan. The next person would respond by saying that number doesn’t factor in the economy’s growth. The debates continued for what seemed like an eternity.

Then they played a clip of the president saying how he’s going let the present healthcare system implode — then people will come to their senses.

Wait, what did I just hear? I think we need to take a timeout.

I didn’t hear one politician mention my well-being or that of my children.

I’m a mom raising four boys, and all of them have issues. One of my 12-year-olds has asthma and a severe nut allergy. He requires quarterly doctor appointments and several medications, even when he’s not sick. He also carries an Epipen everywhere he goes, just in case (I’m not going into how much that costs). My other 12-year-old has GI issues, nothing too serious, but he also requires medication.

My youngest two, the twins, were born prematurely. They’ve spent a collective 17 weeks in various ICU’s since their untimely arrival. Now one has an autism diagnosis and the other one is developmentally delayed. Together, they see three different doctors and a handful of therapists. They keep me very busy.

As you can imagine, healthcare is very important for my family. Personally, I don’t think either bill is good enough, so I’m not taking sides. Instead, I want to remind our politicians of a few things as they continue their discussions:

1. You aren’t debating a healthcare bill about numbers and statistics; you’re debating the health of real people. Frame your arguments accordingly. I don’t want to hear about tax breaks or special interests. I want to hear about supporting, researching and improving our care.

2. No matter how healthy you are now, you’re only one diagnosis or accident away from being “unhealthy.” We all have family members with age-related illnesses. Many of us have spotty medical histories ourselves. And then there are the children, the ones who can’t speak for themselves. We need to protect them. Even if your own child is “healthy as a horse,” you most certainly know a child who is nt. So before you begin talking about “pre-existing conditions” and “high-risk pools,” I urge you to keep these people in mind.

3. If healthcare fails, you all fail. I don’t care what bill you voted for. You’re not doing enough, as a whole, to improve our care. One side is having closed-door sessions while the other is making speeches to a room full of people in their own party. My 12-year-olds work together better than you do!

So as you continue debating about the health and well-being of my children, please set your egos aside. Focus on the task at hand. Our children are counting on you.

Follow this Journey at Not an Autism Mom

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Dear Son,

I guess I must have blinked, because here you are, a vibrant 5-year-old with big ideas and bigger dreams. In just a month, we will walk down the street with your backpack to enter the bustling hallways and classrooms of your new elementary school for your first day as a Kindergartner. You have thrived in your loving and intimate pre-school class, growing and learning with the same dozen children over the past three years. You say you are “so ready” for school, and I know you are. I also know you are likely to learn much more this year than you can imagine about yourself, about other kids, and about navigating an environment designed for neuro-typical children.

You might learn most other children don’t need to cover their ears to protect against the rebounding cacophony of sounds off the cinder block walls, or scoot over to the very edge of the cafeteria bench to avoid the wafting, pungent scent of a friend’s hot lunch.

You might learn most other children don’t routinely count by 13s or quote hilarious lines from favorite books and movies at the mere mention of a key word or phrase.

 

You might learn most children don’t jump up and down with exuberance at the sight of a rainbow, or stomp over and over in tight circles when they lose a competitive game.

You might learn these general truths as you acclimate to your new school. But how will you learn them? And what will you deduce about this wider, louder world in which you stand out for your differences? These are not lessons I can teach you. These are lessons to encounter in your own time. Some lessons will yield new opportunities. Some will hurt keenly.

My promise to you is I will greet you with firm hugs at the end of each day, and listen expansively to what you do and say about your experiences. I will advocate with empathy and vigor when you need me, and trust your growing capacity when you don’t.

Close-up of boy smiling

For the biggest truth of all is this: You are mighty, and worthy and loved for exactly who you are. For every lesson you learn, there is another one only you can teach. I know you are “so ready” for school. I hope school is just as ready for you.

Love,
Mama

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