Thursday, November 1, 2012

Presenting: Flummox and Friends

Ever since Ben was diagnosed with autism, he’s benefited greatly from extra support at school for those things that just don’t come naturally for him, particularly the unspoken rules of social interaction.

I wish I had a nickel - okay, maybe a dollar - for every time another parent, one with a so-called typically developing kid, asked me how their child could get the same kind of support for social skills or emotional development.

"How can I get that for my kid?" they ask me. "My kid could use that," they tell me.

And then, often times, they want to talk to me about their child's struggles. Maybe knowing that my child is on the spectrum gives them an opening that feels safe.

"He's not autistic, exactly, but he obsesses about every little thing and is so rigid sometimes that we don't know what to do."

"The pediatrician said it's definitely not Asperger's, but all of her teachers say she just shuts down in large groups and we're really concerned."

"I've never wanted to label him, but he's just really socially awkward. He's in fourth grade and never really had a friend."

The CDC says that 1 in 88 children in the US is diagnosed with some form of autism. But if you talk to lots of parents or teachers or spend time in an elementary school classroom, you'll see that there are probably 3 or 4 or 5 in 88 that struggle - to a greater or lesser extent - with social interaction and emotional regulation.

Observing this, I wondered why there wasn’t a television show to help teach social skills, the way other shows helped kids learn to read, or do math or learn about science. Not an "autism intervention" but just a fun show that all sorts of kids would have access to and enjoy with their families.

So I decided to make one myself.

I teamed up with Jordan Sadler and Liesl Wenzke Hartmann, experts in social communication with a wealth of experience working with children on these issues. They too had been looking for fun and engaging ways to help families reinforce the learning from therapy sessions and social groups they conducted.

The result is Flummox and Friends, off-beat, live-action comedy that helps kids navigate the social and emotional world. We recently released the pilot episode, which was funded in part by a grassroots Kickstarter campaign.

I hope you'll check it out: watch the episode, complete the survey, download an episode guide for professionals or families.

And most of all, I hope you'll share it with your friends and extended communities.

We want to make more episodes. And I thrilled that so many people have been asking us to make more episodes.

And early fans are part of what will make that possible, because we can take them along with us - virtually - into our pitches to investors and production partners to show that we've already created something that has the beginnings of a loyal and passionate fan base.

So watch our pilot, share it with friends, and tell us what you think. Help us show people that this is an idea worth investing in.


Friday, May 18, 2012

Dismantling the Dreamatorium

My boy's stim is pretending. Some kids flap their hands or jump up and down or spin or make unusual noise. Ben re-enacts scenes from movies and TV shows.

I know that doesn't sound like a stim. It sounds like something all kids do. But like a stim, it seems like something his whole being is compelled to do regardless of whether or not people around him view it as appropriate or "expected behavior." And it's something you can't just ask him to stop doing.

Believe me. I've tried.

To be fair, we actually haven't tried to place many limits on pretending, since it clearly gives him joy and is a primary mode of expression for him. But we and his teachers are trying to help him understand why he needs to be able to join "the real world" sometimes.

Sadly, most of the time.

Ben seems to view the world as an improv game and everyone in it as his improv troupe. He is constantly making offers, which is the improv term for establishing a imagined reality by simply starting a scene with another person without discussing it in advance.

And Chris and I are former improvisers so we're good at "yes, and-ing," the improv term for accepting the world that someone has established with their offer, adding information, going on with the scene, never negating someone else's reality.

When he gives us a time turner, we're at Hogwarts. When he mimes a light saber, we're on the Death Star, when he shouts "YOU! SHALL! NOT! PASS!" we're in the Mines of Moria.

We do it because when you've done improv you have an instinct to say "yes, and..." to whatever someone throws at you. And we do it because it makes our boy happy. And we do it because it's really exhausting to try to get him to switch gears, so sometimes you just do the sword fight.

But his friends aren't as good at accepting these offers. They often walk away, confused. And he's getting to the age where it's going to be harder for him to make friends if he can't spend a bit more of his time in the real world.

So I was completely touched by the finale of NBC's Community last night. If you don't watch it 1) you should and 2) I'm not going to spend time explaining it to you so very little of the rest of this post will make sense. Sorry.

At the end, there's a montage showing how each of the members of the Greendale Seven is taking a new step in his or her life that represents some level of growth and change. Troy and Annie are helping Abed take down the Dreamatorium, the holodeck-like room he's created for acting out his imagined scenarios.

Abed reminds me so much of Ben - more at home in his mind, inhabiting stories from pop culture than in the real world. And also Abed reminds me of Ben because they are both so comfortable with who they are. "I've got self-esteem coming out of my butt," Abed once explained to his friends, who wrongly assumed he needed help meeting girls.

So as Abed took the Dreamatorium apart, his character was acknowledging he was ready to spend more time in the real world, with his friends. But Community's creator Dan Harmon - who acknowledges that he himself is on the spectrum - didn't just stop there. Before the scene ends, we see Abed sneak into a large box that he's hidden in his room. A clandestine Dreamatorium that bursts forth into light as he disappears into it.

Harmon allows Abed to grow without changing who he is. He gets to keep a little bit of the Dreamatorium for himself.

When Ben wrote out his New Year's resolutions for a school assignment in January, one of them was "less pretend, more real." I hope that, like Abed, Ben will be able to grow enough to join us more often in the real world, but never entirely dismantle his own Dreamatorium, or forget the first lesson of improv:

Accept the offers you get, and always say "yes, and..."

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Danny Pudi as Abed Nadir

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

An epidemic?

I was asked last night to comment on the new CDC statistics about how 1 in 88 children are now considered to be on the autism spectrum.

How did I feel about the use of the word "epidemic" that often accompanies this piece of information? Or what about the dismissal of these numbers as proof of lazy parents seeking a fad diagnosis to explain their children's' bad behavior?

I stammered and rambled and am pretty sure I gave an incoherent answer.

But in the middle of the night, my real answer occurred to me. I think it's too late to amend my response, but at least I can share it with you.

Advances in things like brain research and a better understanding of human development are allowing us to be better at identifying different learning needs and variations in development. Science can help us recognize, for example, that delays in auditory processing can make it difficult for someone to keep up in conversation.

The variation isn't new. But the understanding of the why and how it happens is. So now we can call it something besides, "a little bit slow."

While we're getting better at identifying variations and labeling them with more objective and less judgmental terminology, our schools and institutions haven't been able to change fast enough to keep up with our understanding of neurodiversity.

Schools still need, for example, any given second grader to do pretty much the same thing as all the rest of the second graders. I don't blame them. It's just more efficient.

So while some people say there's an epidemic of autism, I think the real epidemic is our epidemic lack of support for individual needs.

Many people have pointed out that likening autism to an epidemic suggests that autism is bad. Like cancer. Or Ebola. This is our deficits-only model of diagnosis-as-identity, courtesy of the DSMIV, omigod don't get me started...*

I doubt everyone who is using the "epidemic" term thinks autism is really a disease, but there certainly is a sense of panic as if people are saying, "what in the world will we do with all these people?!?"

If we were truly equipped as a society to accommodate differences, maybe identifying more people on the autism spectrum would be as newsworthy as identifying more redheads or more lefties.

* a whole other blog post

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Flummox and Friends: That's a wrap!

We just finished shooting our pilot episode. And here's a behind-the-scenes video to give you a sneak peek!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Subtype: Goofball

I've been noticing that autistic characters, or characters with autistic traits, have been showing up in lots of TV shows and movies lately. Joseph Kahn at the Boston Globe noticed this too and wrote an article about it.

I like that this is happening. Autistic traits are, after all, part of the spectrum of human traits, and they deserve to be represented in a variety of ways (not just in a Hallmark Hall of Fame tragic way) and they can make for pretty interesting material for character development and interaction within a story.

But what I've noticed is that when I see autistic/Asperger's characters in popular culture, they often conform to a fairly narrow type: overly serious, fixated, unemotional, occasionally non-verbal but with amazing superpowers.

I enjoy watching Max on Parenthood, for example, but it kind of bugs me that I can't recall many - if any - episodes where I've seen him laugh, or even smile.

The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon's logical, literal, loquaciousness is great comedy material, but Sheldon himself is a pretty deadpan guy.

My favorite character with autistic traits is Abed, on NBC's Community. He's clearly an Aspergerian guy, though the show doesn't belabor a diagnosis. He's obsessed with pop culture, and given the best story lines on the show (interestingly, creator Dan Harmon discovered he himself was on the spectrum while writing for Abed) but even Abed doesn't smile or laugh much.

These characteristics aren't totally inaccurate. In fact, one of the characters I've developed for Flummox and Friends, Milo, is more serious and intense. Frankly, because it makes good fodder for the story, the interactions, and the teachable moments about flexibility and receptivity to others.

So while I applaud the trend, I think there's still opportunity to expand people's notion of what autism looks like across that oh so broad spectrum. And for me, there's something - maybe a "subtype" - missing from the current array of characters: the picture of autism that I see everyday at home with my son.

The goofball.

And when I say "goofball" I mean a kid who wants to practice spit takes at dinner, who skips everywhere he goes, who acts out Looney Tunes scenes in the aisles of the grocery store, who directs his parents in comedy sketches, who laughs his way to sleep at night thinking about funny things in his head, and rehearses the "Who's on First?" routine until he's doubled over with hiccups.

Yes, he can also be fixated, anxious, socially clueless, sometimes even emotionally unresponsive, but primarily, he is a goofball: craving laughter and fun, sometimes to the point of perseveration, to the point of his parents and friends have to ask him to put a lid on it once in a while.

And I know he's not the only one. In fact, just recently, I discovered there's a comedy group, Aspergers Are Us, comprised of a group of young Aspies.

Breaking news: autistic people have a sense of humor.

So I hope to someday see a character with autistic traits in popular culture that's more of a goofball, who will smile a little more often, laugh a little more often, and maybe even quote Daffy Duck once in a while, because that's a big part of what autism looks like to me.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

You said "yes!"

On Monday night, I watched as donations to Flummox and Friends came in one after another, pushing us closer and closer to the $30K goal. But along with all the excitement, I was, frankly, exhausted.

It's been quite an eventful fall, with this video project being just one of several things I'm juggling (though none quite as fun as this). We were $600 away from the goal and I assumed we'd hit it in the morning.

"Wake me if we go over," I told Chris, somewhat as a formality, and got in bed.

Ten minutes later, he shouted for me to get up and yes, we had gotten a donation that pushed the total to the $30,000 we needed, assuring that we could collect all of the pledges made to date.

The experience has been humbling and inspiring. Getting support from hundreds of people that don't know me or the other team members personally, but who said "yes" on the merits of the idea alone shows me that we're on to something. Something exciting.

This is a note I sent to our supporters on Monday night:

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And here are a few links to articles and interviews about the project that you can check out and share with friends who might still like to donate up until December 9th.

***Just released!*** My interview with Jeremy Fuksa of The Cocktail Napkin podcast. Download audio or video versions.

Jean Winegardner's article in Washington Times Communities

Shannon Rosa's interview with me in The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism

I hope you'll follow along with our progress by liking our Facebook page, following us on Twitter, or, if you haven't already, pledging a few bucks to our Kickstarter campaign so you can receive the backer updates that we'll be sending to all of our supporters so they can watch us spend their hard earned cash making the pilot episode of Flummox and Friends.

Thanks to all of you made donations, to those who blogged and re-blogged and tweeted and re-tweeted, who cajoled and nudged your friends and family and coworkers to help make this happen.

Fist bumps all around and stay tuned!