What 'Finding Dory' taught me about my son with autism.

My son, Tate, and I just got home from the new Pixar movie, "Finding Dory."

Dory's character is a blue tang fish. Image via iStock.


It’s been on our calendar for weeks, as are most animated films. Movies are Tate’s "thing," and we rarely miss one he shows an interest in.

I had not seen the trailer for "Finding Dory," so I only knew that it was a Pixar film and a sequel to "Finding Nemo." "Finding Nemo" was a favorite of Tate’s when he was young, so much so that he has a lot of the dialogue memorized. I knew Tate was going to love the movie, but I did not expect to be overly interested myself. I had no idea that three blue cartoon fish, a couple of clown fish, and a grumpy octopus (make that a septopus) would draw me in and cause me to feel gut-wrenching empathy and compassion.

I found myself comparing Tate and autism to Dory and her own disability.

In the movie, Dory was unable to remember the things she needed to do to be successful and to keep herself from harm. I saw myself in the caregivers who surrounded Dory and tried to keep her safe.

As a very small fish, Dory’s parents tried so hard to surround her with rules and plans to keep her safe and ultimately, lead her toward success. They taught her rhymes and songs to help her remember the safety rules, how to repeat her name and her diagnosis, and they showed her how to get back home by creating a special marked path.

Still, Dory’s mother cried and worried because it might not be enough.

Image via Lisa Smith, used with permission.

I remember all the discrete trial programs we had for Tate, such as memorizing his parents’ names and his address. Those things meant nothing to him, but he could spout them if asked. In the autism community, we have T-shirts that help our kids tell others they have autism. There are ID bracelets available. We can buy signs for our cars and even stickers to put on their bedroom windows for rescue workers to see. Some of us also have service dogs and special locks on our doors. We are extremely careful.

And we still worry, too. What if?

Dory, as a young fish, could not advocate for herself or find help once she was lost. As an adult fish, she depended on others to keep her safe. At 14 years old, Tate cannot communicate well enough to advocate for himself among strangers nor would he know who to turn to and ask for help. Through no fault of her own, Dory made tremendous mistakes at times, and she felt guilty because she could not do the things she felt she should have been able to do.

I hear Tate constantly apologizing for things he cannot do because of his autism. And while I assure him that there is no need to apologize, my heart aches for him.

Nemo is a character that didn't give up on Dory, much like Tate’s friends at school. Nemo knew Dory was capable of more than she was being given credit for. He was supportive and patient, ready to help but willing to wait to see if Dory could do it herself, similar to how Tate’s friends encourage him and know just when to step in to help.

Nemo is based on a clownfish. Image via iStock.

Dory’s caretakers were understanding and patient with her most of time, but occasionally when things were tense, someone snapped at her, making her feel like a failure. At one point in the movie, Marlin criticized Dory, and it crushed her. This scene was telling of our own lives. It rarely happens in our home, but I’m not perfect. Marlin spent a few minutes in denial that he had said anything wrong, then much longer beating himself up for what he said. Once again, I saw myself in the animated character on the screen.

Marlin underestimated Dory several times in this movie. While she had special needs, there were some things she could do well. There have been many times I have doubted Tate and he has shown me just how wrong I was. At the end of the film, we saw Marlin trying so hard to trust in Dory like Nemo does. But even after he had learned his lesson, he still followed and spied from afar to make sure Dory was safe. And Dory knew.

Dory knew that Marlin was watching and there for her if she needed him, just like I will always be there for Tate.

It is such a fine line we walk — or swim.

Researchers at Harvard University have studied the connection between spanking and kids' brain development for the first time, and their findings echo what studies have indicated for years: Spanking isn't good for children.

Comments on this article will no doubt be filled with people who a) say they were spanked and "turned out fine" or b) say that the reason kids are [fill in the blank with some societal ill] these days are because they aren't spanked. However, a growing body of research points to spanking creating more problems than it solves.

"We know that children whose families use corporal punishment are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and other mental health problems, but many people don't think about spanking as a form of violence," said Katie A. McLaughlin, director of the Stress & Development Lab in the Department of Psychology, and the senior researcher on the study which was published Friday in the journal Child Development. "In this study, we wanted to examine whether there was an impact of spanking at a neurobiological level, in terms of how the brain is developing."

You can read the entire study here, but the gist is that kids' brain activity was measured using an MRI machine as they reacted to photos of actors displaying "fearful" and "neutral" faces. What researchers found was that kids who had been spanked had similar brain neural responses to fearful faces as kids who had been abused.

"There were no regions of the brain where activation to fearful relative to neutral faces differed between children who were abused and children who were spanked," the authors wrote in a statement.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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