By Shaun C. Brown
The Netflix show Atypical follows Sam Gardner (Keir Gilchrist), a high school student with autism, as well as his parents, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Doug (Michael Rapaport), and his sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine). Though his family had previously decided that Sam would live at home after graduation, keeping his job at the local store while taking a few classes a semester at a local college, Sam decides through participation in a peer group at school that he may want to move away for college. Although his parents (more so his mother) have some apprehension about his decision, they support him. In order to practice sleeping somewhere else, Sam decides to spend a night at his friend Zahid’s (Nik Dodani) house.
Zahid and his parents seek to make Sam feel comfortable in his visit. They make his favorite meal, butter noodles, and Zahid tries to make Sam comfortable—putting a cover on the mattress that won’t make noise, borrowing an air freshener, and setting up appropriate lighting. Despite this, in the middle of the night, Sam is bothered by all the strange noises—a cat clock, a space heater, the sound the air freshener makes, and a movie playing on Zahid’s laptop. Even though Zahid promised to drive Sam home if he becomes uncomfortable, Sam leaves Zahid’s house in the middle of the night.
While nervously walking back home, a police car sees Sam and pulls over. While the officer tells Sam to stop walking, Sam continues to walk and recites the names of different species of Antarctic penguins to calm himself down, a common practice for him. The officer assumes that Sam is on drugs.
Meanwhile Zahid wakes up and realizes that Sam is missing. He runs out of the house to look for Sam only to find the police officer talking to Sam. While Zahid tries to explain the situation, the officer makes Zahid and Sam both get on the ground and he brings them to the police station. After Sam and Zahid sit for a time, the officer returns:
Officer: I ran your IDs and I’m going to let you go. Just don’t go wandering around at night looking like an addict.
Zahid: Dude, he has autism. What went down, that is on you.
Officer: You know, you charged an officer, so I wouldn’t press my luck.
Zahid: Loud and clear. Let’s go Sam.
On the same night, Elsa and Doug reconnect with some old friends whose son, Arlo, bullied Sam at school. The husband tells Doug that the reason why they quit hanging out is that their kids were uncomfortable around Sam. He justifies this by saying, “He was a little off back then…. He was always yelling and making a scene. It was hard to deal with.” He also says that making Arlo spend time with Sam would be “punishment.” This angers Doug, and he and Elsa leave.
Later, Doug finds out about Sam’s apprehension. He goes to the police station to talk to the officer, who happens to be a friend of his. When Doug mentions to the officer that he heard he had picked up a kid with autism on the street the week before, the officer responds, “Yeah, that was weird man. He was super messed up.” Doug informs the officer that Sam is his son and explains that Sam acted the way he did because he gets uncomfortable in unfamiliar situations, and that there were other ways that he should have handled the matter. While the officer tries to explain his side of the story, Doug reminds him that this time he didn’t get it right. The officer offers to put Sam’s picture on the bulletin board in the station so if a similar situation happens again, they will know who Sam is and give Doug a call.
Doug is not satisfied with this solution. Instead, he decides, because of his work as an EMT and his experience as a parent of a child with autism, to develop a class for first responders on how to relate to people with autism. He seeks to draw on his own life and his relationship with Sam to be an example to others.
Such incidents not only occur on television shows or movies. In 2016, a 23-year old man with autism wondered out of the home where he lives, bringing a toy truck with him. A worker from the home, Charles Kinsey, went out to find him. A police officer came upon the scene and ordered the two men to get on the ground. Kinsey laid on the ground and tried to instruct the man with autism, sitting in the road playing with his truck, to lay down on the ground as well. He attempted to explain the situation to the cop. The cop ignored Kinsey’s explanation and fired his weapon, hitting Kinsey.
Not all situations like this lead to injuries like bullet wounds. And it is not only first responders like police officers who have problematic encounters with people with autism or with a disability. Thomas Reynolds begins his book, Vulnerable Communion, with this story about a church his family attended:
One day a number of concerned mothers met with the minister to express their frustration and anger over the unseemly conduct of a particular boy in Sunday school. They did not want their children exposed to this child and feared what he represented. For it seemed that this boy was modeling “bad behavior”—verbal outbursts that sometimes involved profanity, a lack of sensitivity to other children’s personal space (occasionally biting them when irritated or provoked) and an unpredictably violent imagination when playing with toys. No Sunday school is equipped to handle problems of this magnitude. So upon expressing their indignation, the mothers requested that the minister call the child’s parents and ask that he not return to Sunday school.
The child in question was Reynolds’ seven year old son, Chris, who at the time had been diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome. Reynolds says, “Later, he would also be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.”Reynolds is gracious in response to the parents who raised these complaints to their minister.He also notes that some other parents in the church sought to better understand his family’s situation and be of help. This experience, however, led them, at least for a time, to not only stop attending this church, but to stop attending any church altogether.
Churches also need better training in order to avoid situations that hurt children, like Sam and Chris, their families, or those who care for them. The church needs exemplars that demonstrate what it looks like to support and live life with those with autism or those with physical or intellectual disabilities.
Jean Vanier has spent decades living with people with disabilities. Vanier left a position as a philosophy professor at St. Michael’s College in Toronto to start the first L’Arche home in Trosly-Breuil, France in 1964. L’Arche has welcomed people who have often been excluded, including those with disabilities, the residents, and even those who come to live with them, the assistants. Vanier says, “Many have come to our communities to be with people with disabilities, and they are transformed by their relationships.” Vanier says that while he initially invited Raphael and Philippe to live with him in order to help them, he came to realize that they cared for him as well. His life exemplifies an important and needed shift from doing things for those with disabilities to living life in community with those with disabilities. He says, “I’m not interested in doing a good job. I am interested in an ecclesial vision for community and in living in a gospel-based community with people with disabilities. We are brothers and sisters together, and Jesus is calling us from a pyramidal society to become a body.”
Stanley Hauerwas discusses this in a recently published essay, “Why Jean Vanier Matters: An Exemplary Exploration.” Hauerwas identifies himself as an anti-foundationalist, meaning that there is no place to discuss theological or ethical reflection but in the middle. We reflect upon these issues from where we are situated. He says further, “What must be acknowledged is that ethical reflection is rooted in a particular politics and the mode of argument will often be in the form of unacknowledged narratives. Narratives are often constituted by determinative exemplification.”
Exemplification, as Hauerwas notes, is connected to the ethics of Aristotle. One can, according to Aristotle, only know what it means to be virtuous by seeing people of virtue. Hauerwas goes on to argue that because of Jean Vanier’s willingness to live his life in friendship to those with disabilities makes him “a master of practical reason.” Therefore, if we want to know how we should think and relate to those with disabilities, we should look to Vanier, apprenticing ourselves to him. Vanier serves as “the exemplification of the craft of being with the mentally disabled [sic].”
Hauerwas goes on to argue, in dialogue with Hans Reinders, that Vanier is not our only teacher or exemplar. The core members and the assistants within L’Arche demonstrate to us how we should live our lives with people with one another.Elsewhere, Hauerwas argues that the church needs L’Arche, for L’Arche demonstrates to the church what it looks like to live patiently. This patience is needed in order to make peace in the world. In addition, L’Arche teaches the church how to live faithfully in community with one another.Because of this, Hauerwas argues that Vanier not only shows us what it looks like to live with people with disabilities, but provides an “exemplification of what … Christianity ought to look like.”
Shaun C. Brown is a Residential Direct Support Professional for Heritage Christian Services, an agency in New York state that serves individuals with disabilities. He recently defended his PhD Dissertation, “The Israel of God: Scripture, Ecclesiology, and Ecumenism in the Theology of George Lindbeck,” at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He will co-edit, with Amanda MacInnis Hackney, Theology and Star Trek in the Theology and Pop Culture Series.
I am differentiating autism and disabilities here because while autism is a disorder (thus the longer term autism spectrum disorder), not all individuals on the autism spectrum are identified as having an intellectual disability. Statistics vary widely on the percentage of those on the autism spectrum who have a disability.
For example, he says, “Do my wife and I fault the concerned mothers who confronted the Methodist minister? No, for we too have been concerned about our children hanging around the wrong crowd and being harmed or influenced by unruly behavior” (11).
Hauewas and Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World, 45. Hauerwas also argues that in addition to the church needing L’Arche, that L’Arche needs the church. He calls L’Arche to recognize that while they have a deep communal life, this does not mean that “they don’t need to worship God with other Christians who are not at L’Arche” (57). He says, “L’Arche needs the wider church because its members need to leave L’Arche to worship God elsewhere, in another place, with all the time and bother that may require” (57–58).