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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Bell’

Holly’s Gift to the Autism Community

April 26, 2011 19 comments

This is a guest post by Peter Bell, the executive vice president for programs and services at Autism Speaks. He oversees the foundation’s government relations and family services activities and also serves as an advisor to the science division.

Peter Bell, Debra McElwain, Jason McElwain, Holly Robinson Peete, Zev Glassenberg, and Justin Kanew


For many of us in the autism community, April has become our holiday season. This year, one of the many gifts we received was extensive autism coverage on the popular CBS day time show “The Talk.” It’s probably no secret who played Santa Claus for us behind the scenes. It was none other than Holly Robinson Peete, co-host of “The Talk,” co-founder of the HollyRod Foundation and Autism Speaks Board Member. Holly and her husband former NFL star Rodney Peete  are also the proud parents of four beautiful children including RJ who is 13 years old and has autism. “Santa Holly” started planning the autism series months in advance which is obvious when you see all the segments they produced for the show’s Autism Awareness Month.

Holly and her co-hosts kicked off the month on April 1st with a beautiful video about the Peete family’s personal journey with autism. After an emotional chat with her fellow cast members, Holly invited me to talk about what families can do following a diagnosis. We discussed the basics of autism, what it is, what causes it, and what resources are available to families including Autism Speaks’ 100 Day Kit. At the show’s conclusion, audience members were given special blue t-shirts from “The Talk” and many were brought up on stage. After Holly and co-host Julie Chen urged President Obama to light up the White House blue, the ladies of “The Talk” did a countdown which culminated in transforming the set to blue in honor of Autism Speaks Light It Up Blue initiative.

The second installment of “The Talk’s” Autism Awareness Month took place on April 8th and featured an Autism Daddy Roundtable with “Criminal Minds” star Joe Mantegna and Holly’s husband Rodney Peete. The conversation about a dad’s perspective on autism continued with Jimmie Smith, a single father from Baton Rouge who raising two children on his own. He described coming to terms with his son’s autism diagnosis. Although mothers are most often the parent who takes primary responsibility for caring for a child with autism, Holly wanted to shine a light on the important role that fathers can and should take, a view not often portrayed.

On April 15th, Holly introduced us to two amazing teenagers who have overcome the challenges of autism to show the world their remarkable talents. Carly Fleischmann shared her remarkable story that captured the world’s attention when, after never speaking a word, she found her “voice” through the keypad of her computer. We then met 19 year-old Winfred Cooper and his father who shared Winifred’s incredible story accomplishing a 67 yard touchdown in high school football game. The show’s autism segment ended with pediatrician Ricki Robinson, MD offering real and practical solutions about transitioning through the teen years. Dr. Robinson is the author of Autism Solutions: How to Create a Healthy and Meaningful Life for Your Child and serves as a member of the Autism Speaks Scientific Review Panel.

The fourth and final autism segment took place on April 22nd.  “Amazing Race” teammates Zev Glassenberg and Justin Kanew joined Holly and Julie to chat about doing another season as well as the triumphs and challenges they faced with Zev having Asperger’s Syndrome. The next segment featured YouTube sensation Jason McElwain (J-Mac) who shared his inspirational story from 2006 when a high school basketball game changed his life forever. Accompanied by his mom Debra, Jason talked about his life today and his hopes for the future as an adult with autism. Finally, Holly and Leah invited me back to talk about the services adults will need and what society can do to help people with autism and their families lead more fulfilling lives. This afforded me the opportunity to highlight the recently introduced Autism Speaks Transition Tool Kit.

Perhaps the best segment of the month is one that most people haven’t seen. After the third show featuring the amazing teens with autism, Holly shared her gratitude with the studio audience while the cameras were still rolling. Throughout her “autism journey,” Holly has always taken a strong stand for autism. She genuinely believes in those who live with autism and wants to shine a bright light on their special talents and skills. She believes in listening to people with autism and helping their families care for them as best as possible. In addition to being remarkably talented, Holly is one of the most compassionate and generous celebrities in Hollywood. On behalf of the autism community, thank you “Santa Holly” for giving us the greatest gifts we could ever ask for – believing in our children and advocating for their futures.

Holly Robinson Peete and Peter Bell

A Conversation with Peter Bell, Executive Vice President of Autism Speaks, and John Robison, Author of Be Different

April 11, 2011 2 comments

This is a conversation with Peter Bell, Executive Vice President of Autism Speaks, and John Robison, Author of Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian with Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families & Teachers
(Crown Archetype, March 22, 2011)
_______________________________________________________________________________

Peter Bell: Be Different has a lot of wonderful advice and insights for young people who struggle to fit in. But for those with more severe forms of autism, “being different” may not be their greatest challenge. Does your advice change at all for kids and families who are living with challenges of classic autism?

John Robison: Be Different is written for people with Asperger’s and what I call “other geeks and misfits.” The principal difference between those folks and others with traditional autism is that they do not have the severe language challenges.  The “verbal but socially impaired” population this book speaks to represents the largest group of young people in special needs education today.

There are millions of young people who we might say, “look and sound normal,” yet they struggle to fit in. Until now, no book has spoken to that huge audience. I hope to change that with Be Different. Individuals with severe language impairment may well share the challenges described in this book, but the language and communication issues will be of overriding concern.

PB: If you had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome earlier in life, how do you think your childhood and adolescence would have been different? Do you think your parents or teachers would have treated you differently?

JR: I hope so! Certainly one of the basic tenants of special education is that we recognize the differences in our kids and develop individualized education plans to bring them along. In my day, my differences were dismissed as defiance or laziness. That led to failure in school and low self-esteem that haunts me to this day.

If my teachers had known about Asperger’s, I might have been assigned a guide to keep me focused and moving through school. I might have been given study materials that were actually appropriate for my skill level. With changes like that, I’m sure I could have graduated high school and gone on to complete college. Who knows where life would have led me then?

PB: You’ve met my teenage son, Tyler, a few times, and you two seem to have a strong connection. He was immediately drawn to you, and you showed a wonderful desire to connect with him. In fact, you were decidedly social with him. Do you find yourself drawn to other autistics in a different way than “nypicals?”

JR: Yes, I do. I don’t know how to explain that except to say some of us autistic people recognize our own kind at a very elemental level. When you think of sorting out people by similarity you probably imagine grouping people by height, or race, or even hair or eye color. What people like Tyler and I see in each other is immeasurably more subtle than those superficial traits, and we seem to match each other up instinctively.

I connect with many autistic people, and they with me. It happens enough that there’s no denying the reality of the phenomena, but I can’t explain exactly what we sense in each other or why we find it comforting.

PB: My wife, Liz, has commented that your gaits (how you walk) are pretty similar, but your “autisms” are very different. Why do you think that is the case?

JR: Scientists believe there are many biological and environmental paths into autism. In the next few years we may end up identifying over a thousand genetic variations that are implicated in autistic disability. All those variations lead to a similar set of differences within the brain and the communication and behavioral challenges we observe.

Those brain differences may have innumerable external manifestations. Our distinctive walk may be one of them. Some scientific studies have shown autistic people have uniquely different patterns of speech and characteristic “nonstandard” facial expressions or eye movements. More and more of those characteristics are discovered every day, and the “gait of autism” may one day be a diagnostic feature.

That deep-rooted commonality is one reason I think this book’s appeal is so universal to people with neurological differences. The only caveat to that is that profound speech challenges will always take precedence over the social behavior that is Be Different’s focus.

PB: You mentioned at one point in your book that “language came to me naturally, . . .  wisdom was really tough to obtain.” Interestingly, I think the opposite is true of my son with autism—at times he seems to have wisdom beyond his years but his language is severely impaired. What do you make of this difference?

JR: That is the great puzzle of autism. It’s a mystery why many people with Asperger’s share my gift of exceptional clarity of speech combined with profound social disability, and others with traditional autism may have no speech at all. It almost seems opposite, and I can’t explain it except to say autism touches each of us differently.

Tyler’s inability to hold a normal conversation means he has a lot of time to reflect inwardly, to think about the world around him. I have written about how my own social isolation helped me develop the reasoning power that got me where I am today. Given that situation it’s no surprise he seems wise; he has a lot of time to watch and ponder, freed from the constraints of speaking whatever comes to mind from moment to moment. He’s a thoughtful person; it’s just that his language challenges prevent us from hearing and sharing those thoughts much of the time. My situation is opposite. My childhood command of language was so good that people expected matching wisdom, far beyond my years, and it just wasn’t there.

PB: You mention that “Autism in its many forms is not a disease.” However, we know from historical experience that autism can be caused by infections (for example, maternal rubella or influenza during pregnancy) or other environmental factors (for example, thalidomide or valproic acid use). Research also shows that about one-third of the current population of children with autism have a regressive form. Although the terms “disease” and “disorder” are fairly synonymous and generally mean deviations from accepted or “normal” physiological or psychological functioning, is it possible that some forms of autism could be “abnormal” rather than just different?

JR: Sure. I use “difference” rather than “disease” because the latter word suggests a temporary condition, which autism is not. Some diseases can be cured; others kill you.  Autism is neither curable nor lethal.

The other consideration is that autism—being a brain disorder—becomes woven into our very being. Our autistic differences shape the way our brain wires itself as we develop and live in response to life’s events. Even if one could magically remove the underlying autistic difference, the “different brain wiring” would necessarily remain. That’s why I don’t think talk of a cure is realistic, while at the same time I work very hard to promote the development of tools, treatments, and therapies to remediate the specific components of autistic disability.

As promising as the future may be, at this moment, those of us with autism must make our best life the way we are today. That is the essential message of Be Different.

PB: Thank you for your description of how predictability is a critical condition for many on the autism spectrum. We think that this may explain why Tyler is fearful of dogs and other domestic pets while at the same time being fascinated by them. He is much calmer with animals on a leash than those that are running free, a distinguishing feature that he figured out himself. Do you think the predictability issue explains his behavior?

JR: I know routine and predictability are really important to lots of autistic people, me included. I believe anxiety is one of our dominant emotions, and in the case of an animal, that anxiety is going to be markedly reduced if the animal in question is under control in some fashion.

Several stories in Be Different show how I addressed those issues in my own life.

PB: Have you started thinking about book number three yet? If so, what do you plan to cover?

JR: My third book is tentatively titled Raising Cubby. It’s a tale of fatherhood, Asperger’s, chemistry, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. I hope it proves to be an entertaining and enlightening book.


The Talk Lights It Up Blue on April 1

April 3, 2011 4 comments

 

On Friday April 1, the set of the popular CBS daytime talk show “The Talk” provided a unique and special venue to Light It Up Blue for World Autism Awareness Day. To kick off the show’s four segments on autism during April, co-host and Autism Speaks board member Holly Robinson Peete shared a beautiful video about her family’s personal journey with autism featuring her 13-year-old son RJ. After an emotional chat with her fellow cast members, Holly welcomed Autism Speaks Executive Vice President Peter Bell to talk about what families can do following a diagnosis. They discussed the basics of autism, what it is, what causes it, and what resources are available to families including Autism Speaks’ 100 Day Kit. 

At the show’s conclusion, audience members were given blue “The Talk” t-shirts and many were brought up on stage. After Holly and co-host Julie Chen urged President Obama to light up the White House blue, the ladies of “The Talk” did a countdown which culminated in transforming the set from red to blue in honor of Autism Speaks Light It Up Blue initiative.

On Friday, April 8 the next autism segment will highlight fathers including Holly’s husband, former NFL player Rodney Peete and actor Joe Mantegna, start of the CBS hit show “Criminal Minds.” The following Friday (April 15), the segment will showcase special teens with autism who have overcome challenges. A final segment on April 22 will focus on the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Bell will return as a guest along with former high school basketball phenom Jason McElwain who is now 22.

Autism Speaks thanks Holly and the producers of “The Talk” for devoting so much of their time to covering these important topics for the autism community.

Light It Up Blue is TOMORROW

March 31, 2011 11 comments

The countdown is on to April 1st! World Autism Awareness Month is in reach and we are so excited to Light It Up Blue! Every day, leading up to the big day we’ll post highlights, a special interview and much more!

Tune in for CBS’s The Talk

CBS’s popular talk show “The Talk” will feature the first of four weekly segments about autism on Friday’s show. Holly Robinson Peete, co-founder of the Holly Rod Foundation, Autism Speaks Board member, and co-host of “The Talk” will share her personal story about when her son RJ was diagnosed with autism. Peter Bell will join her!

Who’s Lighting It Up Blue?

Autism Speaks would like to thank the Empire State Building for the special lighting on the evening of April 1, 2010 in celebration of the third annual United Nations World Autism Awareness Day on April 2. Learn more about the Empire State Building at www.esbnyc.com. The Empire State Building design is a trademark of ESBC and is used with permission.
Visit www.lightitupblue.org to get pledge your support and get involved!

 

 

Community Spotlight

 

Today’s virtual interview is with Lisa G. from Little Egg Harbor, N.J.

Autism Speaks: What are you Lighting Up Blue?
Lisa G.: My House!

AS: Why are you lighting your home blue?
LG: My daughter has Aspergers and I want to show my support for her and everyone else afflicted and affected by autism.  I also want to share my support with my neighborhood/community. I am working on getting every home on my block to “Light it Up Blue” by offering them free blue light bulbs!

AS: How did you go about lighting up your block?
LG: I purchased my bulbs at Home Depot and am searching for blue Christmas lights to wrap around my porch and front of my home.

Are you lighting up blue too? Take this quick and easy survey to tell us how!

RSVP to Light It Up Blue!

Tune in To “The Talk” Friday, April 1

March 31, 2011 3 comments

CBS’s popular talk show “The Talk” will feature the first of four weekly segments about autism on Friday’s show. April 1 is not only the eve of World Autism Awareness Day, but it is also the first day of Autism Awareness Month. Holly Robinson Peete, co-founder of the Holly Rod Foundation, Autism Speaks Board member, and co-host of “The Talk” will share her personal story about when her son RJ was diagnosed with autism. Autism Speaks Executive Vice President Peter Bell will then join  Holly to discuss autism and what families can do after a diagnosis as well as talk about World Autism Awareness Day and the Light It Up Blue initiative.

Read a release from CBS describing the whole series here.

Check your local listings for the time near you!

 

Holly Robinson Peete and Peter Bell

An Advocacy Call to the Nation

October 13, 2010 13 comments

This post is written by Peter Bell, executive vice president for programs and services for Autism Speaks. He oversees the foundation’s government relations and family services activities and also serves as an advisor to the science division. Peter and his family reside in New Jersey, his oldest son Tyler has autism.

At Autism Speaks, our goal is to change the future for all who struggle with autism spectrum disorders. To accomplish this mission, we have devoted much of our advocacy efforts over the last several years to ending the routine discrimination against people with autism by health insurers. To date, twenty-three states have enacted legislation requiring health plans to cover medically necessary, evidence-based autism treatments. Currently, the State of New York sits on the brink of passing what could become one of the most comprehensive state laws passed thus far.

For several years, families, legislators and advocacy organizations in New York have been working diligently towards the passage of meaningful autism insurance reform legislation. S7000B is the product of this mutual effort. Passed unanimously by both the New York Assembly and the New York Senate, this legislation would at long last require coverage of evidence-based treatments like speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy and applied behavior analysis. S7000B also insures that coverage for behavioral therapy cannot be denied because it is deemed educational or habilitative in nature. Just as important, the bill has no annual monetary coverage limitations or limits based upon age. It also contains provisions to ensure that existing services covered under health insurance as well as services provided through an individualized family service plan, an individual education plan or an individualized service plan are continued.

If you don’t live in New York, you may be wondering what this legislation has to do with you. Although this bill originates in New York, advocacy from stakeholders all across the country is critical. Here’s why:

If you happen to live in one of the twenty-three states that have enacted an autism insurance bill, then you know the impact this legislation can have on the families that now or soon will benefit. They will no longer need to worry about using all their financial resources to pay for evidence-based therapies that their children with autism need.

If you live in one of the twenty-six states that have not yet passed autism insurance reform, then you know the heartbreak a family faces when they receive denial after denial from their insurance company for treatments their child needs to live a full life, join their peers in school, and interact with their siblings.  And, if you have a health plan that is not covered by state law (if, for example, your employer has a self-funded or ERISA plan), then your help is needed most of all. Enactment of autism insurance reform in New York will mean that our community is one step closer to being able to make the case for reform at the federal level. Federal autism insurance reform will ensure that every family in America will get the insurance coverage for autism therapies that they need and deserve.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to ending the discrimination families living with the challenges of autism face when dealing with health plans.  As one New York father pointed out to me recently, individuals with autism are simply looking for equality. He went on to emphasize how this piece of legislation would require coverage for evidenced based treatments, equality in its truest sense.  He spoke from an extremely personal place, sharing how last year he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  His course of treatment, which was evidence-based, was covered by his health insurance and because of this treatment, he is doing well.  He went on to ask the obvious question:  why his beautiful nine year-old son with autism was not afforded the same opportunity?

It’s time for this discrimination to stop.  You can help by emailing Governor David Paterson and urging him to sign S.7000B into law. He needs to hear from you – as a member of the nationwide community of families and loved ones of individuals with autism – even if you do not live in New York. Please take two minutes to make a difference today.

Please help us today in New York to create a better tomorrow for families in all states. Thank you.

 

“Honey, an ABC News Film Crew is Coming on Monday …”

August 18, 2010 14 comments

This post is written by Liz Bell, mother of Tyler Bell, who was recently featured in an ABC World News Today segment on preparing adolescents with autism for adulthood. Liz is married to Peter Bell, Autism Speaks Executive Vice President of Programs and Services.  They have two other children, Derek and Avery. Liz is a member of the Autism Speaks Family Services Committee and was the primary author of the School Community Tool Kit. In addition, she serves on the Parent Advisory Committee for the Autism Speaks Transition Tool Kit which is under development and scheduled to be launched this fall. Liz is also a representative on the New Jersey Governor’s Council for Medical Research and Treatment for Autism.

Great, we might share the intense teaching and planning required in making the future of a young man with autism a little less uncertain. We can highlight the variable needs of this growing tide of soon-to-be adults with autism.

But “yikes!” How will my 17-year-old son behave in front of complete strangers with a camera in his face all day? What if this complicated message gets garbled, highlighting the challenges but not the gifts, the needs but not the opportunities?

Thankfully, Tyler greeted that camera with a grin on his face, and followed the flow of a familiar daily schedule in his hard working, innocent way. The ABC team turned eight hours of filming into a three-minute segment that helps to profile the needs of young people like Tyler, and hopefully initiates consideration of their place in the world. Now online, the story has sparked a conversation, which is a great thing.

But we need to keep talking. Some online comments outline the variable needs of the autism population – from college graduates who have trouble keeping a job to complex children with no language and few functional skills. We need options for all individuals on this broad spectrum. Other comments offer traditional ‘solutions.’ He can get Medicaid, sign up for get SSI, set up a special needs trust. True, these programs may provide some money, until it runs out, but how do you maximize its ability to provide a meaningful life, to establish supports that will take over once we are gone? You can place him in a sheltered workshop or a group home. Perhaps an option for the handful of individuals for whom there is space and funding, but this old model of isolated care won’t accommodate all of our kids…or be what they want. And that is the part of the conversation that we really need to move forward. How do we create the systems, opportunities and community mindset that will allow all individuals with autism the right to be safe, but also engaged, fulfilled and happy?

During that day of filming, while the rest of us were self conscious, for Tyler the camera was superfluous. But the cameraman was not, quickly noticing that, despite how hard it clearly is for Tyler to learn, he exhibits pride in accomplishment. For him, competence breeds confidence, so we teach him skills that make him feel useful and valued. We strive to fulfill his needs for humor, exercise, beauty, and joy. We want to develop a future that will allow Tyler to grow, not just to be taken care of, and to flourish.

Visioning this is a lot of responsibility for a parent, so we employed group brainstorming in a MAPS session, expertly facilitated by Dave Hasbury of Neighbours, Inc., where we explored Tyler’s strengths, likes, and possible opportunities, to keep us working in what we hope to be the right direction. We are heartened by a team of people who now have a shared perspective of where he might go.

But it is still mostly up to us to make it happen. We learn as we go. We build on strengths and we layer on, tiny step by tiny step, experiences and skills that help to create more independence, more joy. We immerse Tyler in the world and build a community that better understands him. We look to what motivates Tyler, and find ways to use his gifts to provide meaningful contributions to society and a sense of belonging. We reach out for help.

Last year, we asked the friendly owners of our local Rita’s Water Ice store if Tyler might have a volunteer job. We explained that job sampling is a big factor in strategizing for Tyler’s future. Since they had already opened their hearts to Tyler as a frequent customer, they gave him a Rita’s hat and the chance for us to work with him, as he worked for them. This year, it’s a paid job – just an hour or so a week, but an opportunity to punch a clock, have a boss and be ‘professional.’ Does he do the same work as the other teenagers there? No, but they value his smile, the fact that he joins them in dancing when they are so moved, and that he doesn’t pull out his phone to text in the middle of his shift. Yes, these are gifts, as is the perspective of Tyler’s Rita’s bosses, who recognize and celebrate his contributions.

And so Tyler earns a paycheck, the most important predictor of paid work after graduation. But he doesn’t work for that – it’s his favorite Cotton Candy water ice that compensates him for a job well done. And his pride.

After the filming, the rest of our family decided that we aren’t cut out for reality TV – life is complicated enough without having to turn off a mic to use the bathroom. But we would like to continue to be part of this conversation, in visioning meaningful lives for all families living with autism. After all, our children have a right to an amazing future.

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Tune In – ABC World News Tonight

August 16, 2010 8 comments

In a story scheduled to air tonight, ABC World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer will feature Autism Speaks Executive Vice President of Programs and Services Peter Bell and his family in a segment on preparing adolescents with autism for life as adults. ABC recently spent the day following Peter and his wife Liz at home as they build a transition program for their 17 -year-old son Tyler, who has autism. The segment will highlight the challenges many families face in preparing their children for adulthood when educational entitlements go away and services are limited and opportunities are few. For more information on what Autism Speaks and other organizations are doing to improve the outlook for adults with autism, please visit Advancing Future for Adults with Autism.

Click here to find the viewing time in your area.

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Inspiring Futures for Adults with Autism

June 14, 2010 10 comments

The documentarian Tom Murray, left, with his brother Chris in "Dad's in Heaven With Nixon."Photo credit: NYT.com

This guest post is by Peter Bell, executive vice president for programs and services at Autism Speaks. Peter and his wife, Liz, reside in New Jersey with their three children. Their eldest son, Tyler, has autism.

From the moment my wife and I heard the words “your son has autism,” we knew our lives as a family would never be the same. The concerns and challenges that come with raising a child with autism are many. But the one concern that always lingers, and intensifies when our kids become teenagers, is: what does the future hold for our child?

Our son Tyler is now 17 and we are immersed in planning his future. As we navigate our way through his “transition,” it’s becoming abundantly clear that Tyler’s future, including the ability to maximize his potential and give him a life of dignity, rests largely on our shoulders. There’s no manual to guide us. There’s no pot of money to help us find him a job, establish a home or help integrate him into the community. And we have found very few examples of adults living with autism at Tyler’s level of functioning who are thriving, leading a life of independence and purpose that are making us look forward to the future. Instead we forge ahead like pioneers heading into new territory determined to find him a better life.

A recent documentary, however, has helped reduce our anxiety and inspired cautious optimism about Tyler’s future and what lies before us. “Dad’s in Heaven with Nixon” is an 86-minute film that first premiered on the Showtime Network in early April and is scheduled to re-air on Father’s Day (June 20) at 3 p.m. ET. If you want an inspiring glimpse of what autism might look like as our children reach adulthood, then this movie is a must-see.

You may already be asking, “What does a film about Nixon have to do with autism?” In reality, nothing. The film chronicles the life of a family from New York City who has been living with autism for almost 50 years. The second youngest of five children, Chris Murray was born at a time when the prevailing medical belief was “refrigerator mothers” caused the emotional damage to their children that presented as autism. But in this case, his mother Janice was warm and caring like most moms. She did have a premonition during her pregnancy that things were going to be different with Chris. Unfortunately her instincts were correct and Chris suffered from oxygen deprivation during what turned out to be a very traumatic birth. It wasn’t until years later that he was diagnosed with autism. Through the use of beautifully restored home movies and the insightful narration of filmmaker Tom Murray (the eldest Murray child), we recognize that autism in the 1960’s was pretty much the same as it is today, despite altered hairstyles and fashions of the supporting cast.

Fast forward to present day, Chris is now a 50-year-old man living a purposeful and rewarding life in New Haven, Connecticut. In the early 1980’s he attended Chapel Haven, a transitional residential program serving adults with cognitive disabilities. He graduated from that program well over 25 years ago and he now lives on his own and works two jobs: one at a local hospital and the other at a health food store. During his free time, he is an accomplished artist. His paintings, mostly of buildings and landmarks from his native New York City, are in high demand by art collectors and aficionados, including Gloria Vanderbilt. Although he could easily make a living selling his artwork to the rich and famous, he prefers to work his two jobs and lead a simple life. He is happy and content, safe, living his life mostly on his own. He creates art not for fame or profit, but for the experience of the art itself. Mission accomplished in our book.

Another prominent message of this film, one that will probably resonate with many families in our community, is that autism is just one part of the fabric that shapes the dynamics of a family. Every family has a story, and in the case of the Murrays, we learn that the experiences and attitudes of other family members, in both current and previous generations, have had a profound effect on the lives of everyone in that family. It was not only Chris’ autism that provided a challenge for the Murray family, but the additional layer of mental illness and the devastating damage with accompanying resilience in some, that make this film so riveting.

Which brings us back to the title – “Dad’s in Heaven with Nixon”. Without giving it away, the title comes from a comment Chris makes on camera and a perspective and simplicity that would seem odd to most people – but maybe not so strange to those who share life with a loved one with autism. While talking with his brother Tom many years after his father’s death, Chris shares his insights into death and heaven, concepts that are hard for anyone to grasp, but especially difficult for those on the spectrum. At a time when your heart begins to feel heavy and your eyes want to well up, Chris magically lightens up the moment with his priceless comment. At this instance, it all makes perfect sense.

With Father’s Day right around the corner (Showtime also did a showing on Mother’s Day), here’s an uplifting and hopeful film that all families with a loved one affected by autism should take the time to see. If you’re like me, this is a film that’ll stick with you. And I hope you share the sense of hope, optimism, and, perhaps most important of all, awe at the power of love, that my family experienced.

As Janice Murray poignantly says towards the end of the film: “Love really can make miracles happen.” Now that’s inspiring.

Visit the film’s website and join the conversation on its Facebook page.

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Tune In – Team Braverman on NBC’s”Parenthood”

May 12, 2010 14 comments

Tune in to NBC’s “Parenthood” next Tuesday, May 18 at 10 p.m./9 Central. The all-new episode, Team Braverman, features members of the family participating in a Walk Now for Autism Speaks event.

Peter Bell,  Autism Speaks’ Executive Vice President, was on set in Los Angeles and penned a blog post about his experience. Earlier this season, we spoke with Jason Katims, the show’s writer and executive producer. He tells how having a 13-year-old son with Asperger Syndrome inspired one of the show’s main storylines.

Check your local listings for show information.

UPDATE: Watch the entire episode here on Hulu. Also, the episode is being re-broadcast on Saturday, May 22 at 8 p.m. EDT. Check your local listings for show information.

Watch “The More You Know” PSA starring the cast of “Parenthood,” which aired after the episode.

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