Recently, I started watching ABC’s comedic sitcom Speechless. Speechless, set in Orange County, California, is about the many adventures of the DiMeo family (Jimmy, the dad; Maya, the mom; and their children JJ, who has Cerebral Palsy, Ray, and Dylan). Each episode focuses on the ups and downs that are part of the daily life, of a special needs family. Like the DiMeo family, I live in Orange County, and come from a family of five, with a special needs child: Dad, Mom, Joe (older brother), John (younger brother with autism), and me.
The more I watched Speechless, the more I found common experiences between the DiMeo family and my family. Though my younger brother John has autism, and JJ and Cerebral Palsy our families face many of the same challenges. For example, in the first episode, “Pilot”, the DiMeo’s change schools with the hope of getting JJ an Aide, so he could be apart of the main school population. To help John integrate with the school population, our family also faced the challenge of getting John an Aide. Eventually, John was able to get two aides. And, like JJ’s aide Kenneth, John’s Aids Crystal and Eric helped them excel in school, both socially and academically.
Jimmy and Dad are each the sole breadwinners, of each family. They take on this responsibility so their wives can focus on helping the children, especially their special needs sons. Other ways that they contribute to the household include, including giving rides, and advice. Maya and Mom are passionate about helping her kids. They will go to any length to help provide their children with the support each one needs. And, if you try to cross them, or hurt their kids, watch out.
JJ and John are very intelligent. Each has a keen sense of humor. Yet, despite the limitations, JJ’s and John’s disabilities puts on them, they want to experience life like any other young man. Ray and Joe are scientific inclined young men, trying to establish themselves as individuals. Though they spend much of their time establishing themselves, they do their best to help their special needs brothers. Dylan and I have a close bond with our special needs brothers. We are both sisters, who are fiercely protective of our special needs brothers. But, our special needs brothers, do their best to help us, in their own ways.
Growing up in a special needs family, there were many times that I felt like a freak. I was made to fell that I should be ashamed of having a special needs brother. When my family and I would go out, and John would usually have a meltdown. People would stare at us, as though we were bad people. Their comments varied from, “What a spoiled brat”, “Those irresponsible parents”, or even accusations of our ethnicity being to blame for John’s “bad” behavior. At school, there were times where kids would taunt John so badly, he would have meltdowns. While some kids, were cruel enough to beat John up, because they saw him as an easy target, due to his autism. It breaks my heart to think about how ignorant and at times scary, some people’s treatment of special needs children can be.
As much as I would have loved to have a program like Speechless around when I was in grade school, feeling as though no one else was going through the same struggles as my family, I’m truly grateful Speechless is on television now. Today, with 1 in 66 kids being diagnosed yearly with autism (Center for Disease Control), 1 in 5 people in America have a disability (US Census), and 13% of children/youths in public schools are receiving special education (National Center for Educational Statistics), we need television programs like Speechless. Unlike many television programs, that show the special needs character as either pitiful or the butt of cliché disability jokes, Speechless is able to take a comedic look at the challenges facing special needs families, while being genuinely heartwarming. But most importantly, Speechless is helping to normalize special needs families. It shows a special needs family going through the same basic challenges faced by every television family.
My family and I are grateful to Speechless show creator Scott Silveri, the show’s writers, and the actors who portray the DiMeo’s and Kenneth. Together, they have beautifully orchestrated the special needs family experience, for television. And, for what feels like first time, for special needs families, like mine, our stories have finally become a part of mainstream television.
Thank you, Speechless.