Like Stims Through The Hourglass … Soaps Tackle The Drama of Autism

DOOL logo

Days tackles autism.

I prepared the article below for another publication, and gave it to my wife to proofread. It’s an excerpt from Autism Dad about an autistic storyline on the soap opera, Days of Our Lives.

I didn’t anticipate a problem. But my wife frowned as she handed the copy back to me.

“You know the storyline has changed a lot on Days since this was first published, right?”

Ah, no. I didn’t. What changed?

“Lexie, the mother of the little boy with autism, is dead.”

What! What happened?

“Brain tumor.”

But what about her son, Theo? Is Abe raising him alone? How is Theo’s autism being handled?

“His autism doesn’t seem to be a big issue of the show anymore,” my wife said. “Lexie did appear to Theo once as a ghost, and told him she’d always be there for him, even though, you know … she’s dead. And Theo seems to be able to talk to his Mom, so maybe he’s psychic like his grandmother.”

Like sands through the hour glass … so are the Days of Our Lives.

I still think this article offers a few interesting insights into how autism is portrayed in the mass media. You be the judge.

Trouble In Salem

There’s trouble in Salem.

Elvis Junior has impregnated two women. Neither is his wife, and one just entered the witness protection program. Kate is dying of cancer, yet still makes out with her hunky doctor. And somebody stuck a knife in Trent Robbins’ back, killing him.

DOOL Carver family

Days of Our Lives’ Carver Family: Lexie, Abe, and ASD-kid, Theo.

Like sands through the hourglass, so are the Days of Our Lives. NBC’s popular daytime soap opera has been running for over forty years. Like any soap opera, Days of Our Lives (DOOL in soap speak) is ridiculous, outlandish and chock full of over-the-top melodrama. It’s the last place you’d expect to see a “realistic” storyline.

So when two characters on the show, Abe and Lexi Carver, had their toddler son, Theo, diagnosed with autism, my wife and I were skeptical about how the show would handle the storyline. Our son has autism, so we’re intimately familiar with the challenges of raising a special-needs child. There are times when our real lives make soap opera shenanigans look like child’s play.

Post-Diagnosis Blues

But we were surprised when Days chose to inject some reality into its autism storyline. Theo’s autism diagnosis has shaken Lexi and Abe’s marriage to its core. Neither one can think of anything but their son. Lexi has a breakdown in the park as she watches Theo stim and typical kids play. (“Stim” is short for “self stimulatory behavior” like spinning, hand flapping, or any bizarre, repetitive behavior. If your kid has autism, your kid stims.)

There’s a corny “Gift of the Magi” moment when Lexi realizes she has to step down from her job as hospital chief of staff to spend more time with her son. She goes home, and finds that Abe has quit his job as chief of police so that he can do the same. Corny, yes, but there’s a kernel of truth, too. When your kid is diagnosed with autism, at least one parent is going to have to give up the career they studied, trained, and worked to get, and take up a new career as “autism expert” for their kid. That’s the way it has to be.

A couple of weeks ago, Lexi and Abe spent a few panicked days after Theo wandered off. Autistic kids are a flight risk; it’s a real concern of any parent with an autistic child.

Real-Life Autism Experience

It turns out Day of Our Lives writer Dena Higley has a son with autism, and knows very well how it impacts the lives of real parents. Higley son’s was a non-verbal, stimmy toddler prone to behavioral outbursts. But years of intensive therapy paid off for the Higleys. Though her son, Connor, is still on the autistic spectrum, his symptoms have subsided, and now he’s in his sophomore year at college.

Higley wants to realistically portray the challenges of raising an autistic child, but also offer hope and progress to those with special-needs kids.

Still, my wife and I find that DOOL is not 100-percent accurate. Lexie still finds time to do her hair and make up every day, something the average “autism mom” rarely has time for. And, though Abe’s put his career as a detective on hold, he’s running for mayor of Salem. (The current mayor was assassinated, so it might not be much of a race…and so are the Days of Our Lives.)

Alison Sweeney

Autism Dad is a big fan of Sami (Alison Sweeney)!

Higley’s DOOL storyline is the first to show the challenges of autism realistically in a daytime drama. And, with autism rates at an all-time high and rising, now is the right time. I hope Higley is able to keep her storyline real. You don’t have to look far for drama when your kid has autism — there are heartaches and miracles happening every day.

That’s something “autism moms” should see. They need to see that they can still be beautiful and vivacious like Lexie. The passion they display for their children imbues them with a beauty far deeper than the clothes they wear, or the way they style their hair.

Now, if they would only bring Jack back…