Autism and the Cute Factor (#190)

“Bright forward-facing eyes set low on a big round face……. cuteness [emphasizes] rounded over sculptured, soft over refined, clumsy over quick”: Sounds like Charlie with his saucer-big brown eyes and big round head (he’s been wearing adult-size hats since he was 5), especially when he smiles.
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This definition of The Cute Factor is from today’s New York Times. Other aspects of “cuteness”–in panda bears, penguins, manatees, babies–are “a pair of big round ears, floppy limbs and a side-to-side, teeter-totter gait.” Well. Charlie does have rather prominent ears (though you can’t hide much with a buzz cut), something of the rag doll in how he moves his body, and a distinctive walk (so the neurologist said once, not unkindly). As for being “clumsy over quick,” while Charlie is a champion bike rider and a fluid swimmer, he still sometimes stumbles over his own feet when traipsing on a neighbor’s lawn.

The “other-wordly beauty” (in the words of psychologist Uta Frith) of many children with autism has something of the status of an urban legend in Autismland. Gary J. Heffner, an autism grandparent, refers to Bernard Rimland’s description of autistic children as “usually exceptionally healthy and attractive, quite often precocious and alert in appearance” from Infantile Autism (1964) in pondering “what could be going on in the body of such a normal looking child to cause such a pervasive and devastating reaction to the world around them?” As I have heard some people say, “it’s a good thing X child is so cute or how else would you put with when he does Y.”

When I walk into a room of kids with autism, I do want to embrace each child but I like to think it is not because they’re good-looking–it’s because in each of them, poking at flashcards, fiddling with a Lego, screaming, I see Charlie. One of Charlie’s old teachers used to say that his face would “light up like a Christmas tree” when a high school volunteer came into the room: To me, that is when Charlie is at his most beautiful, when his face is bright with joy at seeing a person he likes and loves or happiness when he knows he’s done right.

This happened today after dinner when I said to Charlie “help Mom make your bed.” He helped me pull the sheet taut over his mattress and put the pillow at one end. He smiled his secret smile: Did it.


Charlie smiled that smile when, this morning, I said “school today!” The bus driver asked me to drive him because of the weather (don’t ask! I’ve contacted those in charge); Charlie smiled on hearing Dell’Amore Non Si Sa and the Cute Factor was in overdrive in my backseat, with an 8 1/2 year old, fleece hat pulled almost over his eyes, in such delight on hearing opera.

As the Times says, “Beauty attracts admiration and demands a pedestal; cuteness attracts affection and demands a lap.”

Charlie had a happy day back at school and got to work with a new teaching assistant and the speech therapist. He was extra-over-stimulated–stomping and verbally stimming–on and off during his home ABA session; his therapist had him ask to listen to songs and Charlie, sitting on his big blue pillow, was calmer. He munched on a bowl of chicken while I made him oven French fries and ended his day making a nest of pillows and blankets in his room. “Mommy! Tel’dubbees trwee!”

“I want to hear Teletubbies Tree,” I modelled.

“Hear Tel’ dubbees trwee.” A few minutes later, Charlie was giggling hysterically: “Help fix!” He was shuffling a ripped-off page from a lullaby songbook given to him by my sister when he was a baby. “Hon, put the page back in the book.” I had to make my request twice, after which I asked for the book and put it back on the piano, as Charlie gathered up his blanket and rabbit while singing “Little April Showers.” And took himself to bed: “Goo’ night! [little grin, screwed up eyes.] Goo’ night. Wuv oo.”

“I love you, sweetheart,” I said. And I would if Charlie did not, could not say it (as once he could not); if Charlie were still knocking his head on hard and soft surfaces; if Charlie did none of the things I just wrote about; if Charlie were not a brown-eyed handsome boy.

And I’d work just as hard and keep on reading and keep asking questions and keep asking others for help as we’ve done for these past seven years. Seeing Charlie’s smile and, yes, cute face is its own reward but being Charlie’s mother is a humbling experience that has made me richer than I could ever have imagined.

“Cute cuts through all layers of meaning and says, Let’s not worry about complexities, just love me,” as the Times quotes Dr. Denis Dutton, a philosopher of art in New Zealand. Today’s kid twirling paper ripped from a book is “cute” but what about tomorrow’s teenager, or 40-year-old? Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder, a disability, that demands that we cut through every layer of ignorance, every “that’s all that we can do” and the resigned shake of the head, every roll of bureaucratic red tape, so we can get what we need for our children, to give them the best chance possible to be all that they can be: Cute, yes, beautiful, yes, thoroughly lovable, of course—and very, very capable of learning and living lives of meaning and accomplishment.

And that is the beautiful, the good life, we want for Charlie and for all kids on the autism spectrum.

Comments
7 Responses to “Autism and the Cute Factor (#190)”
  1. Lisa says:

    “Cute, yes, beautiful, yes, thoroughly lovable, of course—and very, very capable of learning and living lives of meaning and accomplishment.

    And that is the beautiful, the good life, we want for Charlie and for all kids on the autism spectrum.”

    Beautifully written, Kristina. Best to you, Jim and Charlie in ’06 and beyond.

    best,
    Lisa

  2. K.C.'sMommy says:

    K.C. has very prominent ears and not so long ago I can remember a doctor thinking he thought K.C. had Fragile X as his features that were similar.
    I keep K.C.’s hair cut short too mostly because he can’t pull it and he is heavy and sweats alot. His doctor let me know that we could have his “ears fixed” when he is 8 years old but I am gonna keep his floppy little ears because I think they are kinda cute. Yikes I am going on and on about ears, sorry! Great post Kristina!

  3. Christine says:

    If I haven’t already told you how much your writing about Charlie means to me, let me say it now. I always take such inspiration and hope from your words! You have a way of writing beautifully about life. Or maybe you just have a beautiful life and manage to capture it so well for the rest of us!

  4. gretchen says:

    Re: wanting to embrace each child in the room– sometimes I think I should use my experiences with Henry to work with disabled children. But then I realize that just because of Henry, I could not “work” with children like him. Rather I would want to mother them. Last year, at Henry’s old daycare/preschool there was a younger boy, new to the school. One of the aides was trying to take him back to her office to do some work. He was crying and screaming in a way that was so familiar to me, and I just picked him up and did that side-to-side rock that moms do. He calmed right down, and I just wanted to keep hugging him. But I had to give him back so they could get on with teaching.

  5. MommyGuilt says:

    Oh yes, our children are most definitely the perfect candidates for the cuteness factor. I agree with you, though, that I don’t like when people say, “Oh, they’re so lucky they’re cute, cuz I don’t know how the parents would put up with them otherwise.” It really does annoyme. I, of course, tell my two NT teenagers that about them all they time, but they KNOW that I’m joking.

    Our kids are cute because they are, not because they’re on the spectrum, not to keep us mothers from eating our young, but because they are. Because we love them. Because we appreciate them.

  6. Suzanne says:

    Your posts are always so thought provoking. Daniel definitely has a “proud of self” cute smile as well. Something his sister doesn’t really have. Definitely cute.

  7. Eileen says:

    I always feel that people expect children with Autism or any disability to look different and they are surprised when they are just as cute as the next child, maybe even cuter. I always get, “But he’s so handsome”. As if he can’t be Autistic if he’s handsome.

    Anyway, great post as always! Charlie is definitely cute with that bright shining face of his!!!

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