Autism has been classified as a severely devastating developmental disorder that can be diagnosed in any child regardless of social class, race, cultural or ethnic background. It is a chronic disability whose presentation can spill-over negative effects to entire family. Autistic individuals, therefore, become a source of chronic stress to the family because members have to adjust their needs to suit those of the disabled individuals. The 2008 film The Black Balloon directed by Elisa Down depicts challenges faced by families living with autistic children. The main question that the film raises is whether families can cope with such challenges and win in the end by being unified with love in the face of adversities. As the title suggests, Charlie is like a black balloon whose opaqueness hinders one from seeing inner contents. On a normal day, Charlie is just a calm boy lost in his world as he carries on with his repetitive motor behavior. However, when agitated, he becomes overwhelmingly uncontrollable.
As depicted in film, the presence of an autistic child strains family members emotionally. They are likely to feel resentment, guilt, blame, rejection, frustration, anxiety and so on. However, it is imperative to mention that coping strategies that each family adopts will determine whether the source of chronic success makes or breaks them. Perhaps, this notion is what motivated the director of The Black Balloon to explore this sensitive issue in the movie that is filled with humor than pity. In this movie, each of the family members has his/her strategy to deal with this chronic stress. Nonetheless, this essay will focus on how well Simon (Charlie’s father) deals with his son’s condition. In addition, from the wider perspective, family resilience strategies and behavior exhibited by Mollison’s family will be explored to determine how these physiological factors impact on their health.
Background information about autism
Over the recent years, the number of children being diagnosed with autism has been on the rise although researchers tend to dispute whether it is due to the improvement of diagnostic equipments or actual increase of autism prevalence (ABS 2009). Autism inhibits every aspect of an individual psychological development ranging from behavior, language development and social interactions (Altiere & von Kluge 2009 p.142). The above indicates that despite advancement in age, such individuals will hardly attain self efficacy and have to remain under the care of their family members (Orsmond, Krauss & Seltzer 2004, p. 247). Needless to say, each stage along the developmental milestone of an autistic child attracts its share of challenges to the family (White, Keonig & Scahill 2007, p. 1860). Correspondingly, The Black Balloon film portrays that the presence of such a child implies that normal functioning of this social institution can never be the same because all domains of family life ranging from siblings relationship, family routines, marital relationship and family social practices are greatly impacted (White, Keonig & Scahill 2007, p. 1863). Quite often, emotional and financial demands placed on the family while meeting the needs of such complications can bring constant marital and siblings’ conflicts because such families have no time to create healthy bonds (Shattuck et al. 2007, p. 1739). In extreme circumstances, the bond that holds parents together might wear out with time leading to either depression, withdrawals of one parent from the responsibility and eventually, divorce might be inevitable (Altiere & von Kluge 2009, p.143).
Characteristics of autism as depicted in ‘The Black Balloon’
Due to its popularity and increasing prevalence, most film makers have taken considerable leap towards representation of autistic condition. The motivation behind most of the films is to create awareness among the public about this condition (ABC 2009). In addition, film makers have also been interested in mirroring what goes on in the cocoon of autistic individuals, perhaps with an aim of attracting public appreciation and empathy. However, The Black Balloon is not deviating from this norm. It critically depicts the daily struggles that Mollison’s family has to undergo while dealing with Charlie who is autistic. According to Barkway ( 2009, p. 166), presence of an autistic child in a family is a constant source of stress and without tactical resilience and effective coping strategies the institution might be at the risk of failure. Mollison’s family is no exception as the presence of Charlie impacts on the family set up since each member is compelled to forego some personal interests to focus on Charlie’s welfare. Nonetheless, before presenting a comparison between family resilience strategies depicted in the film and evidence in empirical literature, it is important to present the characteristics of autism as depicted in the film to determine whether the director has succeeded or failed in her representation.
Autistic individuals exhibit limitation in their understating of non-verbal behaviors and this greatly inhibits their social interactions (Shattuck et al. 2007, p. 1733). The ability to read facial expressions as well as their response to social cues is hindered in these children regardless of advancement in age (Smith & O’Relly 2008, p. 103). From The Black Balloon movie Simon does not respond to non-verbal cues and when it’s time to take his medicine Thomas has to drag him literary towards the chair. In addition, his social behavior deviates from the norm and he carries on with his queer mannerism oblivious of the stress he is causing to family members. His lack of interest in the people around him concurs with DSM-IV criterion that autistic children have reduced interest in people and this situation incapacitate their ability to develop adequate relations either with their peers or family members (Smith & O’Relly 2008, p. 112).
Secondly, autistic individuals exhibit numerous communication deficiencies. Most importantly, language development is usually absent in more than 40% of autistic individuals and Charlie falls under this bracket (Barkway 2009, p. 142). Charlie’s attempts to mime his mother’s speech end up failing miserably. However, he seems to understand what others are saying though he cannot respond verbally and instead uses sign language. For instance, when he is told to open his mouth, he complies.
Activities and interests
Autistic children are likely to develop repetitive motor behavior such as hand-flapping, tapping, body-rocking and vocalizations (ABS 2009). From the movie, Charlie portrays repeated vocalizations as well as tapping motor behavior. It is imperative to mention that, researchers in this field offer differing opinions about the ability of this repetitive behavior to stabilize or improve along the various development stages (Seltzer et al. 2007, p. 1745). Prior findings by researchers like (Piven et al. 1996) as cited in Seltzer et al. (2007, p. 1746) indicated that motor behaviors were likely to remain the same across an individuals life as compared to social interaction and communication abilities. However, recent research carried out by Seltzer et al. (2007, pp. 1735-1747) within 4.5 years presents contrasting findings that indeed repetitive motor behavior improved over time, however, the effect of confounding factor of the effect of medication and intervention factors could not be overruled.
Besides, this repetitive motor behavior, autistic children are known to exhibit one pattern of behavior and any attempt by the family to vary his/her surroundings might be met with resistance and aggressiveness (Barkway 2009, p. 142). In addition, their interaction and relationship with toys are abnormal and most tend focus on specifics parts of play objects.
Development changes in Autistic Children in relation to Lifespan Theory
Generally, the developmental process of an individual is very complex often filled numerous uncertainties along the way. Lifespan theories attempt to describe the patterns of physical, emotional changes in a normal individual along the developmental path. According to Shattuck et al. (2007, p. 1735) individuals are faced with numerous tasks, challenges and opportunities along the developmental path and these factors are capable of shaping an individuals future health. In addition, lifespan theories underscore that environmental contexts presented to an individual not only impact on developmental trajectory but also the results (Shattuck et al. 2007, p. 1738). According to Greenberg, Seltzer and Hong (2001, p. 236), cognitive theory of development of lifespan development is usually adopted in autism diagnostic to differentiate between a normal child and autistic child. Several researches have outlined that cognitive and other changes occur during the lifecycle of a normal person right from birth to death (Shattuck et al. 2007, p. 1738). However, right from birth an autistic child deviates from the normal process either by exhibiting delayed transition or underdevelopment of some cognitive processes. For instance, autistic children are unable portray positive recognition of affected directed to them by parents/caregivers and more often than not this withdrawn behavior causes considerable stress to their parents (Greenberg, Seltzer, & Hong 2001, p. 236).
On the same note, as autistic children enter adolescent stage new challenges arise and the parents are in a dilemma whether to send their child to main stream or special schools (Greenberg, Seltzer, & Hong (2001, p. 239). For instance, the Mollison’s have enrolled Charlie to a special school. According to Altiere and von Kluge (2009, p.147) unlike the normal children who learn how to be self reliant, autistic children do not achieve this milestone due to cognitive underdevelopment, hence; they continue to place both physical and emotional demands on their parents. For instance, Charlie is not capable of bathing himself and the mother has to do it for him.
In addition, siblings find it a damaging experience having to take care of their autistic sibling (Shattuck et al. 2007, p. 1741). This is evident in The Black Balloon film whereby Thomas finds it disgusting and embarrassing while compelled to take care of Charlie. This delegation of roles is common in many families with disabled children whereby normal siblings are required to handle complex roles which are otherwise reserved for a later stage of development. This often results to tension because the normal children are unable to understand why most of their attention is directed towards the abnormal child. From the film, it is evident that Maggie’s (Charlie’s mother) freedom is limited since she is the only one who seems to get it right with Charlie. This situation compels her to ignore her health risk condition that requires her to take complete rest because any minute she leaves Charlie with Thomas or Simon chaos always arises. According to Greenberg, Seltzer and Hong (2001, p. 236) this is not new because even with normal children mothers are always under mental and physical stress while taking care of their children and they always put their needs after those of family members.
The Impact of the Autistic Child on the Family
The idea behind the making of The Black Balloon movie was to contextualize the impact of autistic children to their family health. According to Louds et al. (2007, p. 401) the demands of taking care of an autistic child causes considerable stress on the family and the fact that prognosis is poor imply that the stress factor is lifetime. Research has shown that the lack of self efficacy skills in the autistic child can attract debilitating impact on the family bond and social relationships. Furthermore, the realization that their autistic children are failures can impact negatively on the psychological health of the parents and siblings and sometimes mothers have been found to suffer from depressive symptoms (Shattuck et al. 2007, p. 1740). Similarly, siblings can develop resentment and hatred towards the disordered individual owing to the fact that most of the attention is directed towards this child (Altiere & von Kluge 2009, p.143). For instance, in the initial stages Thomas is unable to understand why his mother is always so attentive to Charlie needs or why he is never punished for wrong doing like when he smashes the birthday cake on the wall. Thomas resentment reaches a boiling point when Charlie ruins the birthday party in presence of his girlfriend whereby he revenges by breaking Charlie’s video game. An ensuing fight erupts between the two and during this episode Thomas confesses that he hated his brother.
Seltzer et al. (2001, p. 267-293) highlight that parent of autistic children are susceptible to constant worry, fear and often get frustrated whenever they are unable to cope with these children nature of ignoring social interaction rules. For instance, when Charlie ruins Thomas birthday party in front of Jackie (Thomas girlfriend) the mother had to apologize on his behalf. The above notion implies that effective coping strategies are needed to promote coherence of the family structure otherwise resultant stress from taking care of an autistic child might impact negatively on family members’ health (Altiere & von Kluge 2009, p.143).
Family resilience theory
According to Barkway (2009, pp. 232-250) family resilience theory is a recent concept that focuses on the path adopted by families in the face of looming stress. Coping strategies are very crucial since they determine whether a family is likely to recover from stress-producing situation without disintegration. This concept is very interesting because it sheds light on why some families can cope well with stress than others (Altiere & von Kluge 2009, p.143). The film under analysis portrays this concept very clearly since despite the chronic and consist stress that Charlie brings to Mollison’s family they always end up bouncing back on their the right track and by so doing this family remains united.
Furthermore, family resilience theory seeks to identity the elements that promote high level of resilience and this elements are treated as ideal of which other families can emulate incase they are faced with a similar situation. According to ABS (2009), families should adopt a constructive approach to resilience which underscore that an individual is capable of remaining healthy if he/she can have positive negotiations with the environment context that brings stress by remaining optimistic amidst adversaries.
On the same note, family resilience is very significant in the face of adversity because resultant stress can bring forth serious social health problems if an individual is unable to withstand and bounce back from crisis. Research has shown that the behavior of autistic children is always unpredictable; therefore, family members must exercise flexibility to be able to deal with uncertain behavior (Baker, Seltzer & Greenberg 2011, p. 606). For instance, from the film Charlie behavior varies from time to time whereby at times he is very calm and responsive while at other times he becomes uncontrolled like during the supermarket saga.
Analysis of Simon strategies towards resilience
Empirical researches have identified and highlighted various strategies that are commonly employed by parents to minimize the debilitating effects of bringing up an autistic child. According to Orsmond, Krauss and Seltzer (2004, p. 242) parents should strive to gain exhaustive knowledge about autism and use this knowledge to devise ways to manage abnormal behaviors. In The Black Balloon Simon seems to have developed resilience pretty well such that even when Charles throws a fit in the supermarket he does not seem perturbed despite the glaring stares from the public. Simon seems to have acquired the right knowledge and skill to deal with Charlie as well as maintain healthy relationship within his family. According Baker, Seltzer and Greenberg (2011 p. 602) autistic children need to be taught that self-mutilation or aggressive behavior is bad and Simon exercises his authority as a father when Charlie misbehaves. However, his authoritative style impacts negatively on the relationship between Charlie and Thomas such that Thomas feels hatred when he is forced to ride in the same bus with Charlie. Perhaps, his authoritarian character as a parent emanates from the fact that he is a military man where discipline is of high essence.
According to Baker, Seltzer and Greenberg (2011, p. 604) it is role of the parent to ensure that the autistic child maintains healthy relationship other siblings. This is lacking in Mollison’s family until towards the end when an outsider Jackie assists Thomas to come to terms with his brother’s condition. On this note, Simon has failed in his role as a father because he does not take time to understand the psychological turmoil that Thomas is going through because of his Charlie condition; instead he ends up placing too much responsibility to Thomas which further aggravates his resentment. Baker, Seltzer and Greenberg (2011, p. 604) explain that parents should assist normal children in the family to come to terms with their abnormal siblings condition to reduce frustrations and other negative emotions and by so doing they assist in promoting overall health wellbeing in these children. For instance, is evident that Thomas is yet to understand why his brother cannot be self reliant whereby after being scorned by his mother for leaving Charlie his won, he tells his mother that Charlie is not his responsibility. Maggie takes this time to explain why Charlie behaves the way he does. On the other hand, Simon seems indifferent to his son’s condition and life in general such that when Thomas asks him whether he wishes Charlie was normal he quotes his wife philosophy rather than supplying his own opinion. However, Simons turns out to be a responsible father when Maggie is hospitalized where he juggles between his work and household chores.
Adolescent stage and resilience
On the contrary, Thomas’s parents are not entirely to blame for the fact that Thomas is embarrassed by his brother’s condition. Instead, his situation can be understood by analyzing and comparing his behavior from that of his peers in the same adolescent stage of development. In their teenage years, individuals are often struggling with identity crisis which is often characterized by wide range of emotional instability as teenagers try to establish their identity among their peers (Baker, Seltzer & Greenberg 2011 p. 603). The fact that Thomas has just joined a new school demands that he adjusts his emotions accordingly to develop a shield against the negative reception from his classmates. For this reason, he harbors constant worries about what his already no so friendly peers would think of him when they learn his brother has autism. He goes to an extent of locking Charlie in the bedroom when Jackie come visiting for the first time to avoid embarrassment arising Charlie unruly behavior. Similarly, he is embarrassed by his father’s explicit intimacy behavior towards Maggie as well as Simon’s remarks to Jackie during the cricket game. Such frustrations can impact negatively on psychological health of an adolescent. Closely related to this is the role of peer relationship in promoting an individual psychological health (Orsmond, Krauss & Seltzer 2004 p. 242). From the film it is evident that healthy peer relationships yield positive health benefits whereby the relationship between Thomas and Jackie changes Thomas attitudes towards his brother. According to Baker, Seltzer and Greenberg (2011 p. 601-609) peer influence promotes either negative or positive behavior depending on the input.
In a nutshell, family routines are never the same once an autistic child is a reality in a family. Owing to this, some families would be embarrassed to participate in family and community activities and instead opt for isolation. Moreover, although some families may be brave enough to expose their autistic children to the world, negative reception by some community members as evident in The Black Balloon is indeed injurious. Eventually, the family might decide to remain isolated and by so doing end up losing the much needed social support. However, developing resilience is the way to go to preserve family unity amidst such adversaries.
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