The overwhelming popular and critical reception for the film Rain Man, which received eight Academy Award nominations, has helped to focus national attention on autism. In psychiatry, autism is defined as a pervasive developmental neurological disorder, characterized by impaired communication, excessive rigidity and emotional detachment.
Although the character Raymond, portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, is autistic, he is also an idiot savant, which most autistic persons are not. But the film, however well done, is a work of fiction. There are many families that must cope with the realities of autism each day. Such is the family of William and Barbara Christopher and their sons John and Ned. Mr. Christopher is perhaps better known to the public as “Father Mulcahy” in the immensely successful television series “M*A*S*H.” In a new book, Mixed Blessings, due for May release, the Christophers have written about the extraordinary challenge of raising their autistic son, Ned. Alan Alda says that theirs is “A book that brings you right into the center of their hopes, confusion, love, exasperation and grit. This book is alive . . . Bill and Barbara’s strength is contagious . . . their humanity is healing.” Mike Farrell comments: “A faithful and heartfelt rendition of their experiences . . . People are in sore need today of (such) examples of the true meaning of parenthood.” And R. Wayne Gilpin, President of the Autism Society of America, writes that Mixed Blessings is “Rich in caring, concern, and grace.”
Editor Roger Bishop interviewed William and Barbara Christopher last December. The edited excerpts from a long conversation about their important new book appear below.
RB: For whatever else it may be Mixed Blessings I saw as a story of the parents’ love for their two sons and of the parents’ extraordinary patience, persistence and intelligence in dealing with the physical disability of one child. Are there other things that you would like to say describing this book?
BC: I think you have said it very well. We think of it as a family story too. Only one family member has autism, the rest of us fortunately do not, and the kinds of challenges that we faced as a family are certainly parallel to any challenge that you meet as a family. And almost every family has some challenge.
RB: Early in the book you say that Ned’s teachers say that he’s the smartest boy they have had in their class, but then you receive a note from the Christian Nursery School expressing some concern about his behavior. The note in part says, “We would like to have some professional advice so that we can help him . . . we’re worried about Ned and we know you are too.” I think there are other parents that might find themselves in a similar situation. Would you talk a bit about this first visit to the psychologist?
WC: When the Christian Nursery School expressed their concerns to us, we thought it was time maybe to ask some questions, and we felt very good about their raising him.
BC: One of the things that happens, I think, is that you have your doubts, and you’ve talked to the pediatrician and he is very reassuring, and that makes you feel very good and you think, “Well . . . I don’t know a lot about children, I guess he’s O.K. He’s not much like John, but trust the pediatrician, he’s fine.” And then the next thing happens that makes you feel uneasy. So when the teacher finally says, “We know you are worried about him too,” I think I felt very devastated. On the other hand, it was almost a relief.
WC: Yes, we were in a partnership with these people. Neither one of us has the answers quite, but their suggesting get a little help, and then we can proceed. That sounds smart—that sounds like the way to go. We never thought going to get that little help would open up something much bigger.
RB: Toward the end of the book, there is a quote from a leading biologist in the study of autism and she says, “Autism is no longer a diagnosis, it is a description.” Would you elaborate on what you learned about autism?
BC: Well it is a pervasive, life long neurological disorder which is incurable. It affects the person afflicted with varying degrees of problems of all kinds—language disability, communication, socialization, and sensory organization. And these basic neurological problems manifest themselves sin different ways in different autistic people—there’s the full range of intelligence, there are retarded autistic people, and there are genius autistic people. I think when Mary Coleman said that about autism no longer being a diagnosis what she meant was after you get this label of autism, there are many subgroups—there are many variations on the theme and there are many approaches. I know that Ned would be called autistic and some kid over here, who’s very different, would also be called autistic. It’s very hard to generalize.
Many autistic people don’t socialize at all. Ned has always had certain people in his life that he really had affection for and an interest in. Some autistic children I’ve met have a real stone wall. Others progress into what is very close to a normal life and normal ability to relate.
RB: It’s understandable certainly, from what you’ve said here and from reading the book, that the general public would be quite confused about what autism is.
WC: We hope we drew a clear picture of what Ned was like because we don’t think of ourselves really as being expert in autism, but we did feel we had an interesting story in Ned. It’s hard I think for us as parents now after having written the book to know whether the book is going to make people say, “Yeah, I know what that kid is like.” I hope people do know what he’s like from reading because I’ve read other books and I sometimes wanted to know clearly just what the boy being described was like.
RB: May I ask where the idea for the book originated?
BC: Abingdon Press came to us and asked if we would be interested. Bill had received an award from an organization called Religion in the Media, and Abingdon was also receiving an award at that same banquet. They heard Bill speak and he mentioned his interest in the handicapped. Shortly thereafter they contacted us to see if we would be interested in writing about our experiences raising an autistic child. Bill’s first reaction was, “No, let’s not. That sounds like a lot of work.”
WC: To write a few sharp anecdotes or to sketch out something—that wouldn’t be so hard, but to sit down and have a book that really we could say, “this is what it was like,” that seemed formidable. But we soon discovered these letters that Barbara had written. They allow things to be in the book that really couldn’t have been written into the book. The letters can say things that we couldn’t even begin to say—not just because of the fact that the letters brought back forgotten things, but they also say things that we might find very awkward to put down, even if we could remember them.
RB: From a reader’s standpoint, I felt that the letters added a lot because you get some sense of your family life—other things that are going on.
WC: That’s the kind of thing we never would’ve been able to write in. Also the interesting thing is that the letters express feelings that we were having at the time, which in retrospect we—it was sometimes hard to believe we had those feelings.
BC: One of those things that struck often when we started working on the book and going through all our diaries (they’re not real diaries, they’re calendars) and going through the letters was the fact that we were so busy. We were constantly doing things, and while Ned was a big focus in our life, he wasn’t the only thing.
RB: Although the book should be helpful to so many people—parents certainly—all kinds of parents, it would seem to me the writing of the book and the reliving of these experiences would have been somewhat difficult. Was that true or did you have another reaction to that experience?
BC: I think I was both things, but certainly there were moments when—especially when I would uncover a letter I had completely forgotten about. One that comes to mind is the letter I wrote to the institutes when we were writing to see whether Ned would be a candidate for their program, and I outlined all the things we’d been through, and I remember reading that letter and just falling apart and thinking “how awful.” But at the same timeI think there was a kind of interest in looking at our own life this closely quite apart from problems or dealing with autism or Bill’s career. Just taking your own life, looking at it hard over a 20 year period and trying to organize it to make it intelligible to someone else was a very interesting process.
WC: There were a few things that we found in the book that were painful to relive. I was thinking of some of the negative experiences like when Ned first went away and he lived in a group home and the experience was not good. We kind of had to hold back—we didn’t want to make a tirade.
BC: We didn’t feel we were out to settle scores.
RB: Well, the book certainly reflects, what I think we could generally call—maybe you would choose another term—an emotional roller coaster as you try one approach, then you try another approach, and you talk with professionals in the field who are apparently giving you their very best judgement on these things and often they’re wrong. But it does seem to me that you’re very generous with the way that you do treat the different people regardless of how they work out.
BC: Well, you know people don’t go into this field unless they really want to help, and the professionals we encountered weren’t alone in not having the answers.
WC: I think one thing that is true—some might be critical of professionals in that there is some attitude that they feel they ought to have answers, and if they don’t, sometimes they kind of invent or fake it a little bit to make the parents feel this professional does know what they’re talking about instead of coming out and saying, “I don’t think I know either.”
BC: Of course we didn’t want to hear that. The last thing we wanted to hear was, “Well, I don’t know anymore than you do.”
RB: One of the parts that I so much enjoyed was a happy family experience when you went to England and you visited the Jane Austen places. You quote from her: “It is well to have as many holds on happiness as possible.” I was contrasting that with the Washington trip that you described later on which didn’t work out nearly as well.
BC: No. That really was a very low point. And of course the abuse of medication is a serious problem with children like Ned, and children with various skinds of mental handicaps, because it seems to be such an easy solution, and it’s almost always the double edge.
WC: What you end up with these kids is the unpredictability. With kids like Ned or kids in special education, the professionals and the parents learn that they have to make allowances for these very big swings. Especially autistic people who have days or cycles almost of months where they operate very well, and then they will operate not nearly so well, and you can’t despair saying, “Oh, what’s happening? Is his brain deteriorating?” In autism you learn to begin to expect these swings and if you’re using medication, it’s just that much more complicated because you don’t know what you’re going to get.
RB: We don’t have time of course to go into all the different schools and approaches, but I was particularly fascinated by the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia. This program demanded a lot of Ned, but also required an incredible amount of your time and effort. Would you talk just a little bit about that?
BC: It is hard to talk jut a little bit about the Institutes. It was a very all encompassing program which kept us busy from the early morning until late at night, and to many people it seems overwhelming, but the thing that is really hard to do with a child like that is nothing. Ned doesn’t do “nothing” very well. A normal child finds all kinds of things to get interested in and starts to develop friends an d alife of his own. In the years before we were doing the Institutes’ program, it was driving Ned to school and driving him from therapy to therapy. I was busy all the time and I didn’t have a sense of success. So when we began the Institutes’ program, we were so inspired by these wonderful people in Philadelphia and we saw immediate progress—so we were working terribly hard but it was terribly interesting. It was the most interesting time in my life, and Bill at the same time was working on “M*A*S*H” and coming home and helping with the program. It was very exciting.
I don’t think we could have done it forever—it was too intense for that. They don’t have the answers necessarily for all the problems, but they have an approach that works for many children to help them—not cure them, but help them. We gained a lot of confidence in ourselves through working in such a direct partnership with professionals.
RB: For those who know you, Mr. Christopher, as Father Mulcahy from the “M*A*S*H” program, have enjoyed that through the years. In the book you get some sense of your work on that program, but was the experience with Ned such that it affected your portrayal of Father Mulcahy in the program or not?
WC: I really felt totally free of anything like my home as I worked. One thing I think an actor does, I’m sure, is if you’re working and your life seems to be making sense around you, it may send you off to the studio in high spirits, and you may attack your work with vigor and all. I always felt we had a pretty positive way of working with Ned. And if anything, I think the fact that Barbara and I were such a wonderful partnership all through our marriage has sort of reinforced my ability to give myself to my work. We developed a clear path—way of living with Ned and brining him along—if anything it made me clearer in my mind to devote myself to my work. I didn’t feel that I was at the studio sitting there wringing my hands about what was going on and unhappiness at home—that just wasn’t part of it. So I didn’t feel I had to write about that.