When ALL MY CHILDREN tackles an issue, they call in the big guns, the professionals. Those in the know. With sensitive stories including Bianca’s eating disorder and Erica’s substance abuse to their credit, the show’s writing team was determined to treat the story of Lily and her autism with dignity, intelligence and accuracy. They had their work cut out for them. Autistic characters are rarely, if ever, seen on a television series or in a movie. Though when they are, they are memorable. Today many people immediately think of the Dustin Hoffman‘s character in the 1988 film Rain Man when they hear the word autistic and wrongly believe all people with autism are like him.
AMC contacted Cure Autism Now (CAN), an organization of parents, clinicians and leading scientists committed, as their Web site states, to “accelerating the pace of biomedical research in autism…to encourage innovative approaches toward identifying the causes, prevention, treatment and a cure for autism and related disorders.”
CAN’s director of development Elizabeth Kilpatrick remembers the first time AMC called. “They were introducing a character with autism into the show and wanted to have someone review scripts for accuracy and to make sure there were no sensitivity issues that they weren’t aware of. They have done a great job with how they’ve represented Lily. I’ve given them some comments along the way about how they may want to rephrase some of the things she’s saying or things that I know are sensitive issues with parents, but they’ve just done a really great job on their own.”
Walt Willey (Jackson), who plays Lily’s adoptive father, applauds AMC for their courage. “They’re excelling at it. It’s very difficult to write a character with a spectrum disorder. Lily may be the most difficult character that they’ve ever had to write here, because autism affects each person differently.”
Willey speaks from the heart; his 9-year-old son Chance has been diagnosed with sensory integration disorder which falls under the autistic spectrum disorder umbrella. “There are certain doctors Chance has seen who feel comfortable saying that he is a very high-functioning autistic. I can speak far better about sensory integration disorder than autism. Autism is such a huge subject.”
Willey has been on AMC long enough to appreciate the show’s impact on issues, and on its ability to educate the public through an entertaining and thought provoking storyline. “They’re writing it generally enough that it’s catching people’s attention. But they’re writing it specifically enough that it’s not this amorphous mental condition. For Lily it’s about the color red and about having things in order. She does have what used to be a savant quality.”
Part of the critical success of the story comes from the casting of 14-year-old Leven Rambin as Lily. “She’s doing a really good job, she truly is,” Willey says proudly.
Rambin describes Lily’s struggles being in Lily’s skin. “She’s really uncomfortable with being there and being around all these people that she doesn’t know. You never know when she’s going to just go off. Sometimes autistic children have something that just ticks them off and pushes their buttons and makes them really uncomfortable. And since they’re so socially inadequate, they don’t know what to do with their frustration. They can’t express it and they freak out. And they chose red for Lily, it really, really hurts her.”
AMC wisely shows how Lily has grown and developed her own coping skills when she’s triggered by the color red. “She tries to calm herself, with counting and the repetitive patterns,” Rambin adds. “It helps her to think of one thing, calm down, take a breath. It’s like doing relaxation or something if you were in a stressful situation.”
AMC plans to continue the story of Lily’s autism and how it affects those around her. Willey has become involved with CAN, Kid Foundation, which specializes in researching sensory integration disorder, and NAAR, which is the National Alliance for Autism Research.
For more information or to get involved, go to www.cureautismnow.org.