Popular culture getting in touch with autism

eScienceCommons | April 12, 2012

Joseph Cubells, MD, PhD, discusses how parents and family members of autistic children can communicate and show affection by embracing the child's interests.

As the rate of autism diagnosis increases, so does the appearance of characters with autistic traits in mainstream movies and books, such as 9-year-old Oskar Schell in “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” The latest example is “Touch,” a Fox TV series featuring Jake, a non-verbal 10-year-old boy who doesn’t like to be touched. Jake’s father, played by Kiefer Sutherland, struggles to somehow connect with his son, and discovers that his son has special gifts.

Although it’s a dramatized version of life with autism, the series demonstrates the value of embracing a child’s interests, even if they do not involve an extraordinary talent, says Joseph Cubells, director of medical and adult services at the Emory Autism Center.

“The very act of standing back and allowing a child to develop something they enjoy doing, and to simply and quietly take joy in what a child enjoys, can be a profound expression of love and affection,” Cubells says.

Parents of a child who does not even want to make eye contact must be extremely patient and creative to find a way to express their bond, he says.

“Don’t lose faith in your connection to that child because it’s there and it’s real,” Cubells says. “I don’t want this to sound syrupy and sugar coat it, because the fact is, raising a child with autism can be just terribly difficult.”

When a family becomes too focused on trying to force a child to be a certain way, it’s a recipe for disaster, he says, urging parents to try to make it clear that they want to be a part of their child’s world and to find ways to make that world a better place.

“That sense of never giving up hope is a very important thing,” he adds.