Autism and television: The big turn on

Dec 3, 2012 at 11:00 a.m. ET

In 1951 reel life, I Love Lucy filmed its pilot episode. In real life, Lucille Ball was pregnant (and showing) with her husband Desi Arnaz’s first child, Lucie.

At the time, CBS executives insisted no reference be about the fictional Lucy Ricardo’s pregnancy, as it was thought to be in poor taste.

Season Two of I Love Lucy found Lucy Ricardo pregnant once again, this time with son Desi Jr., (portrayed by Keith Thibodeaux) and named "Little Ricky" on the show. CBS executives once again refused to use the "P-word" and referenced the less incendiary word "expecting." (As Lucy and Ricky Ricardo were shown to sleep in separate twin beds, it’s a miracle how they got pregnant in the first place!)

Special needs on screen

The '50s through the '70s saw a plethora of family shows: The Addams Family, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Brady Bunch, Family Affair, Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, The Munsters, The Partridge Family, The Waltons, et al. While married couples did share beds, very few were shown to have children with special needs. Some shows mocked or demeaned characters with special needs, while other shows portrayed differences in a positive light, albeit rarely as main characters: All in the Family (visual impairment), The Avengers (physical impairment), Gunsmoke (physical impairment), Highway to Heaven (paralysis), Ironside (paralysis, main character), Kung Fu (visual impairment), Little House on the Prairie (visual impairment), Peyton Place (hearing impairment) and Police Woman (autism).

Finally, on April 13, 1979, Like Normal People, the made-for-TV movie starring teen icon Shaun Cassidy, gave us a sensitive, up-close-and-personal look at two adults with development delays who fell in love and wanted to marry. Yet, thirty years passed before network television finally unveiled — in a positive, uplifting light — a major character with special needs, which, of course, was Chris Burke's portrayal of Charles "Corky" Thatcher, a child with Down syndrome in ABC Television's 1989 series Life Goes On.

Through the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, television shows continued to dip a foot into the proverbial "special needs waters" with shows like American Gladiators (hearing impairment), The Cosby Show (dyslexia), DeGrassi Junior High (epilepsy, leukemia), The Facts of Life (cerebral palsy), House (physical impairment, main character), Las Vegas (paralysis), Malcolm in the Middle (physical impairment), Monk (obsessive compulsive disorder, main character), Nash Bridges (epilepsy), Once and Again (anxiety), St. Elsewhere (autism), The West Wing (multiple sclerosis) and Young Riders (alopecia universalis, vocal cord paralysis).

By the numbers

Recent reports estimate that 54.4 million Americans — 20 percent of the population/one in five residents — live with some form of disability. As autism and autism spectrum disorders alone now affect 1 in 88 children, expect that disability number to skyrocket in future years. For a multitude of reasons — not the least of which includes me trying to 'Momager' my son onto the set of Glee (Ian Brennan, Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, call me… ) — we as parents of special needs children and front-line advocates must continue to help educate the general population about special needs individuals. In this instance, less is not more; more is more.

It is estimated that actors who are, or portray people with special needs represent only one percent of all spoken dialogue. While that might be true, the characters that portray special needs today show more fully developed, self-actualized people who have integrity, depth and honor.

Tellingly, these characters do not allow their differences to define them, they allow their differences to enhance them: The Amazing Race (hearing impairment, double amputee), American Idol (Asperger syndrome, visual impairment), America’s Next Top Model (Asperger syndrome), The Big Bang Theory (Asperger syndrome), Boardwalk Empire (facial disfigurement, hearing impairment), Breaking Bad (cerebral palsy), Game of Thrones (height impairment), Glee (three different Down syndrome characters, paraplegia, quadriplegia, and one "self-diagnosed" Asperger syndrome, most main characters), Little People, Big World (height impairment, main characters), Parenthood (Asperger syndrome), Real Housewives of New Jersey (autism), Switched at Birth (three different degrees of hearing impairment, main characters) and Teen Mom 2 (vision impairment, neurologic impairment).

The other P-word

Television executives, producers, directors, managers, agents and casting and talent directors simply can’t afford — both figuratively and literally — to overlook the beautiful diversity and gifts our sons, daughters, brothers and sisters bring to the world. When my son’s "Piano Man" video went viral, one of the first executives to reach out to my family was from the Disney Channel!

In 1951, television executives refused to reference the offensive "P-word" — Pregnancy. In 2012, I am both humbled and grateful to live in a world where television executives still refuse to solely reference the incendiary "P-word." Only this time, the offensive "P-word" in question is: Perfection.

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