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Zombie Therapy: An Autism's Mom's Take on The Walking Dead

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We all wonder how we would react if the going got tough, i.e. there was a zombie invasion or something of the sort. This explains the popularity of The Walking Dead, the AMC series which just started its third season, and Cormac McCarthy's novel, The Road, which is set in a post-apocalyptic world where most survivors are cannibals. The silver lining in these doomsday scenarios is the bonds that develop among the survivors, both strangers who meet by chance and families who have stayed together.

As the mother of a teenager with autism and the author of a novel, If I Could Tell You, about families raising children with autism, I'm accustomed to looking for silver linings. This may be why I own a well-thumbed copy of The Road and am a huge fan of The Walking Dead. Autistic children's tantrums and other challenging behaviors may pale next to an invasion of flesh-eaters, but otherwise, raising a kid with autism and trying so hard to help him or her is about as tough as things get for most people in this life. So one attraction of these two works of fiction for me is that, while the worlds they present may have gone to hell, all the children left are perfectly behaved.

Case in point: Carl (Chandler Riggs), the son of the hero police officer Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) on The Walking Dead, has had to flee home with his mother and his father's best friend, seen Atlanta blown up with napalm, been told his father is dead (he then turns up alive), been shot, and seen various strangers (including an adorable little girl) whom he has come to love killed and eaten by the undead. Throughout it all, he couldn't be calmer or more polite. He's cried a bit, and he played with a gun and a zombie (this show's equivalent of tossing a couple of water balloons out a window in the world as we know it), but has he ever really acted up? Has he ever misplaced his sneakers when it was time to flee, answered his father back or told his mother that the zombie infestation is really all her fault? That's the point, some might say: He's wise beyond his years. If that's what a little zombie voodoo can do for a normal kid, how might it help one with autism? Bring on the undead, I say.

The son in The Road, known only as "The Boy," is similarly angelic. McCarthy's novel is even bleaker than The Walking Dead. It presents a vision of a world after some unnamed calamity has blocked out the sun, causing the earth to grow colder and killing all plant life. The surviving humans have eaten all the animals, and the people left survive by eating each other, except for the hero, The Man, and his son, The Boy. The Boy's mother took her own life out of desperation. The Man and The Boy walk the burned-out highways in total isolation, eating whatever canned food they can scavenge, and keeping away from the roving gangs of killers. McCarthy is masterful in his depiction of the love between the two, and the writing (although easy to parody) is extraordinarily evocative. (A movie version, starring Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron, is not nearly as compelling as the book.) But for anyone who's ever spent any time around an actual kid, The Boy is shockingly compliant. He never whines and virtually never complains. The word he uses most often is "OK." He's actually quite a good conversationalist, though, asking The Man interesting questions, such as, "If you're on the lookout all the time does that mean you're scared all the time?" He disobeys his father only once that I recall, when he refuses to flee on his own from some bad guys so that his father can distract them and sacrifice himself. Is facing the end of humanity and living under a freezing cloud all the time a fair trade for having an utterly attentive, perfectly behaved kid? Hmmm... it's a tough choice. The bad news is: No one's making me the offer.

In all seriousness, though, I got into The Road the minute I read the first line: "When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him." Both The Walking Dead and The Road paint pictures of a world that feels to me like a metaphor for the lives of parents and their children with autism: Walking along together, searching for food (therapies that help and a cure) in unlikely places, and drawing the energy to go on and a feeling of grace from our love for each other. As the father thinks to himself in The Road: "He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke."

Who are the zombies and cannibals in my families-with-autism metaphor? They are the special-education bureaucrats who make most of our lives much more miserable than they need to be, and the cold strangers who give our kids fish eyes whenever their public behavior seems odd.

So I'll re-read The Road every now and then and will be looking forward to every episode of The Walking Dead, living vicariously through the dedicated parents and envying them their calm, relaxed kids.