“Sorry, we don’t actually know what this is.” It had been only an hour since my delivery, and the doctors were speaking to my father. Not only was having a baby delivered with only one finger on each hand, shortened forearms and one toe on each foot a total shock to my parents, the doctors didn’t even have a name for it.
At only age nine, there was just something about my friend Maya’s brother, Tommy, that I found different, but couldn’t articulate. If I had known the word, perhaps, ‘quirky’ would have come to mind. Tommy was two years older that we were and was clearly smart, already having practically memorized every minor and major character in Star Wars. And, from what Maya told me, Tommy was really good in math. But Tommy never looked at me. Come to think of it, he never really looked anyone in the eye, even Maya.
“Nuts!” “Really? You’re joking, right?” It was the second week of camp, and several of the girls in my cabin and I were eating lunch at Interlochen National Music camp. Already loathing the food, I had figured out that I my best bet to satisfy my hunger would be carrots dipped in peanut butter . Only, on this particular day, I had beckoned a girl who sang in the mixed choir with me to join us. “Meg, I mean it. I really can’t sit next to you if you are going to have peanut butter. My mom warned me to be careful since I’m really allergic!” It was the first time I had met anyone allergic to nuts. I was sixteen.
With the final season of Mad Men kicking off this week, I’ve been thinking for awhile about what exactly it is about this 1960’s/early ‘70’s drama that has captivated me since the pilot episode. It’s not like I work in advertising or anything like that. But I suppose what I find most fascinating is how much has changed since then.
For starters, it seems like some of today’s most common childhood dangers and challenges were unheard of back then. People my age and older still don’t quite get the common danger of nut allergies, like the one afflicting our daughter, Savanna. Just this past week I was at work in New York City when I got a startling call from my sitter. To my dismay, a crossing guard at our elementary school handed out pink wrapped Easter chocolates to excited students, including Savanna and Charlie after school. The guard, with the best of intentions, had handed out chocolate eggs that contained nuts. With one bite Savanna began to realize she had eaten something toxic to her body. Charlie nearby realized the same and shouted, “Savanna! Spit it out! That’s a Snicker’s bar!” Thankfully, an Epi-pen was in reach and by the time I received the call, Savanna was en route to our local hospital to receive further anti-reactive drugs, including steroids.
On that most stressful train ride home to Savanna, I tried to distract myself. As I perused my Facebook feed, I saw dozens of articles inspired by Autism Week. Autism. When I was growing up, this was yet another unheard of diagnosis. There was one piece, by Deborah Copaken in particular that caught my eye. Copaken’s ex-husband was eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s after years of marriage, titled, “On the Spectrum: Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That.” Apparently, Jerry Seinfeld had also recently reflected that he was likely on the Autism spectrum: “I am very literal. When people talk to me, and they use expressions, sometimes I don’t know what they’re saying.” While at first the response to Jerry was positive, with Autism Society President Scott Badesch reacting with delight that Seinfeld could represent, “the beauty, intelligence , skill and everything else that defines so many that live with Autism Spectrum Disorder. ” Yet all over social media many reactions were the opposite, and even quite harsh. “My son has Autism, Jerry Seinfeld does not, wrote one father of an Autistic child. And then, after two weeks, Seinfeld recanted. “I don’t have Autism. I’m not on the spectrum. I was watching a play about it and thought, ‘Why am I relating to it?…that’s all I was saying.” Interestingly, Copaken, based on her own experience also reacted strongly. “No one is asking you to be the spokesperson for Asperger’s, but you should have never been bullied into recanting.”
As I sat alongside our sleeping daughter in the Emergency room bed, I couldn’t help but think how different life is now, as compared with fifty years ago. I suspect if people then had a window into the future, they would be shocked for sure that a crossing guard’s attempt to offer Easter candy would be considered not only insensitive, but even life-threatening. Sadly, the fact that so many children now are allergic to nuts is out of our control, and there is no turning back. However, there are some things well in our control, and we have the opportunity to rise to the occasion with all this new information. According to its home page, the Autism Society itself encourages us all “to ensure acceptance and inclusion that results in the true appreciation of the unique aspects of all people.”
My hope is that we learn to refrain from judging others who may have not had an opportunity to self-diagnose in the past, and allow them to explore unconditional self-acceptance on their own terms. In the years to come, when people look back on us, perhaps in the context of even a gripping show, let’s hope they see the efforts we made to bring common sense to what otherwise would look like a world gone mad.