There’s Something About Charlie (#167)

On a walk this morning, Charlie kept grabbing handfuls of snow (some streaked with dirt or soot) and trying to pop them into his mouth. In his left hand he clutched a sock and a rubber band. “Ee-hee-hee!” he laughed stomping on the slushy sidewalk. At the Sports Authority, he pulled out a black plastic baseball bat and tapped it everywhere, then became engrossed in several cylinders of wrapping paper. Jim settled Charlie on the sled (just purchased at said store); Charlie flew down; Charlie smiled big; the sled stopped, Charlie got up and walked away, despite repeated entreaties from Jim and me to “get the sled.” (Jim pulled it back up.)
Eating questionable snow, making strange noises, seeming not to respond to a command that a toddler–let alone a strapping 4′ 6″ boy–should understand: To an unknowing observer, these might seem pretty weird and simply funny.

So, what if someone decided to make a movie–a comedy–about people with intellectual disabilities? A comedy in which the main character pretends to be “cognitively impaired” in order to participate in the Special Olympics?

Well, the Farrelly brothers (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, Shallow Hal, Stuck On You) are making just such a movie, The Ringer. Five actors with intellectual disabilities (a term more prevalent in Britain than here in the USA) have speaking parts. “‘My whole point in making this movie is to make people with mental disabilities accessible, make people know who they are and feel comfortable with them,'” Peter Farrelly is quoted as saying.

It’s a truism that humor leavens our lives with autism, makes it bearable, helps us to see the sweet and silly in our children and their challenges. (He has what in his mouth? Remember the time it was XXXXX hahahahaha.) Sometimes it gets so bad, you just have to laugh or—well, tears make it a lot harder to clean up some of the messy messes Jim and I have found at our feet.

But people laughing at our children because of the funny things they do; because of the things that get labeled “autistic”; because of the things that are so painful to us?

The Farrelly brothers’ The Ringer comes with the “active endorsement of the Special Olympics,” whose president and chairman, Tim Shriver, notes that “‘ I haven’t gotten a lot of hate mail in this job….That may change.'”

Twice in the past week, I’ve heard 8-year-olds use the word “pinhead” as an insult (perhaps it is “the new” way to say “retard”?). Charlie is macrocephalic but my ears still burned, even as I caught myself wondering, am I too sensitive? too PC? but what if there were a child with Down’s or her or his parent nearby? How would I feel if someone lobbied “melonhead” at Charlie or a simple “GROSS”?
After the sentimentalizing portrayals of autistic persons in films like Mercury Rising and Rainman, a little irreverence can get some real dialogue going about who our kids are, what they can do, what stereotypes society fastens onto them. I hope that we can get beyond Hollywood portrayals of kids with autism as being savants with special powers, or blessings who show us the true meaning of humanity. I hope we can have a movie that is the Autism Reality Show, starring the likes of Charlie eating snow, sitting and attending in school, riding his sled like a boogie board. Today, Charlie said “yes” to several more sled rides and took himself up the slippery slope, successfully avoiding sledders whizzing down when we called out “Charlie, move out of the way!”

Jim and I had to laugh: How beautiful and how funny is our life with our boy.

Watch out, Mr. Farrelly and Mr. Farrelly. I’m calling my babysitter so I can catch your movie soon as it starts showing, and so I’ll know what sort of mail to send to Mr. Shriver.

3 Responses to “There’s Something About Charlie (#167)”
  1. Eileen says:

    I think there is a big difference between laughing along with someone that you know and love than poking fun like it seems might be the case in some of these movies. I will be going to see this one for sure.

    My husband grew up with a cousin who has cerebral palsy. He is 35 years old and non-verbal. Most likely he is Autistic, but not an official diagnosis. Brian, his brothers, and cousins were all very protective and sensitive to the word “retard” being used among them.

    FYI: They have the Joke Master Junior at Bed Bath & Beyond. I just bought one so Andrew can have his own.

  2. Anonymous says:

    wow. thanks for the heads-up. i’ll be watching for that opening like a hawk. i’ll be right behind you, pen poised above my letter to Mr. Shriver.

    i love the new site! i changed your link right away!

  3. Flikka says:

    My Mum works with intellectually disabled children so it was never acceptable to use retard, spastic or any of the variations of these words as an insult. Amazing how it sticks because I’m in my 30’s now and still physically cringe to hear these words used in a derogatory way.

    I will also be interested to see how the Farelly bros treat this film, although I must say I liked their sensitive treatment of obesity in Shallow Hal.

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