Monday, January 30, 2012

Tempering Touch by William Stillman

This piece is a reaction to the new television series Touch, and, in all fairness, I must make a disclaimer: I have not seen Touch, and I do not intend to. It’s not that I have a bias about the show one way or another; I have an aversion to TV in general. Having said that, I was made aware of Touch by my publisher, New Page Books, who invited me to share my commentary about it.
What I do know of Touch is that it concerns the relationship between a widower (who lost his wife in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center) and his young son who is mute and apparently autistic; though from what I’ve read, the autism isn’t specified, it’s implied. The twist is that the boy has a measure of clairvoyance in being about to foretell of significant events in advance of them transpiring. The variance in communication between father and son—as the former grows to interpret and decode the numerical “signs” from the silent latter—is the crux of the show. It’s an unusual mix: part love story, part mystery, and part New Age. I guess the last piece is where I am struggling a bit.

I am the author of a trilogy of books that address the potential for many—not all—people on the autism spectrum to be open to receiving information on an uncommon level. The books are: Autism and the God Connection, The Soul of Autism, and The Autism Prophecies. Each book was published two years apart though all of what I’ve written was known to me at the time I was composing the very first. I did this intentionally. In addressing unconventional possibilities for some persons with autism, ranging from spiritual gifts such as the prophecy of Touch’s child protagonist to the ability to commune with animals, I realized the necessity of approaching the material with great sensitivity, care, and respect. In so doing, I also recognized the need to parcel out the knowledge that was shared with me by those individuals and their families in bite-size, digestible portions—after all, this was uncharted territory.
Let me explain using a metaphor. When the movie Jaws was being filmed, Peter Benchley, the author and shark expert, chastised director Steven Speilberg for altering the climax of Benchley’s original novel. In the book, the Great White shark simply succumbs to the cumulative effects of his battle wounds and sinks to the sea floor, dragging with him an entangled Quint, the crusty counterpart to Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab. Speilberg had other plans for dramatizing the shark’s demise with a spectacular explosion triggered by the hydraulic tank lodged in the shark’s maw. Benchley strongly suggested that audiences would find it laughable that a shark would tolerate such an obstruction in its jaws let alone try to chomp down on it; but Spielberg replied that if he had the audience with him up until that point, they’d believe him then, too. And he was right.

I wrote each of the books in my trilogy with the same thought: the great importance of approaching the subject matter with the utmost reverence at the outset so that what was revealed might be accepted as more plausible when placed in proper context. Here’s where I may take exception with Touch’s premise. Critics of my books, largely individuals who haven’t read them or haven’t read them thoroughly, have sometimes jumped to unrealistic conclusions about their content. For this very reason, when I was interviewed on the country’s most prominent paranormal radio show a couple summers ago, I was assertive in maintaining that prior to any discussion of otherworldly aptitudes, it was necessary to “ground” the discussion about autism from the perspective of some salient truths: that people with autism are intelligent beings and that the spiritual giftedness experienced by many was accessible to us all.

My reservation with Touch is that, in TV terms, it has already “jumped the shark” before it’s begun. That is, there is a danger in polarizing people with autism as hopeless individuals void of competence every bit as much as it’s inadvisable to glorify them in some outrageous manner that lacks authenticity. We’re not talking about “God’s Special Angels,” we’re talking about human beings with a variation in brain wiring that causes them to interpret the world with an alternate logic. The movie Rain Man was a disservice in giving rise to a stereotype of the autistic savant instead of acknowledging that we all possess gifts and talents regardless of who we are. I hope that Touch seeks to temper this fundamental notion fairly and with just cause instead of veering left into the uneasy and disparaging realm of sensationalism for the sake of ratings.

© 2012, William Stillman

William Stillman is an adult with Asperger’s syndrome, and the award-winning author of 10 autism and special needs parenting books. His Web site is www.williamstillman.com.

2 comments:

  1. I don't intend to watch it and have an aversion to TV as well. I also don't look to fictional programming to teach me about autism. The only place to get a true sense of autism is through active involvement in the life of someone living on the spectrum.

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  2. I've been wondering what you would think about this show and the mysterious abilities that this character is described as possessing, so I was very glad to see this commentary. Not only is it concise and well-argued, it also mirrors my own feelings. I do hope the writers and producers don't fall into the familiar stereotype of the superhuman individual, but like you, I am wary.

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