by Michael John Carley
(Disclaimer: Michael John Carley is on the Board of Directors of NEXT for Autism, the organization that creates the “Night of Too Many Stars” program, and this article is about an incident that occurred on the show. The HBO program, that airs once every two years, aids NEXT for Autism, as well as the service organizations and projects that are the grantees of NEXT for Autism.)
Ok. So I’m a Board member. But I’m probably no different than you who, when watching Saturday’s “Night of Too Many Stars,” either on TV or sitting in the audience, were suddenly concerned when an incident—one of the risks of live TV—occurred regarding one of the stars. In a segment wherein Carly Fleischmann was to interview Stephen Colbert, something went wrong.
As Colbert was in mid-response to Fleischmann’s first witticism, fellow spectrumite Fleischmann suddenly left her chair, crouched on the ground, and then began to walk away from the set. After a pause, it was clear the segment would not happen as planned, and the lights switched onto the band in the corner of the stage. The music was cued while the audience wondered what had happened.
Fleischmann, if you don’t know her, is a non-verbal wundergirl who defies pre-conceived stigmas surrounding non-verbal autism (if not also facilitated communication) by having a successful internet talk show—brilliantly named “Speechless,” I might add—in which she’s interviewed an increasing number of celebrities such as Whitney Cummings and Channing Tatum. I liken her as the “It Girl”-next step after (also non-verbal) Amanda Baggs’ groundbreaking writing. They teach us, as do miserably unhappy spectrumites who can recite dictionaries...that the ability to verbally communicate is a terrible measuring stick for autistic happiness.
When I asked Carly what happened, she said that the incident actually originated with her dual diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and not her autism. As viewers will remember, one of the first segments of the evening involved Howie Mandel, Jon Stewart, and a lot of confetti being blown all over the stage. Well, as luck would have it, bits of paper on the floor is a trigger for Fleischmann’s OCD.
“The side stage curtain drew and I saw confetti all over the floor. I worked hard at walking past it and I tried willing myself to sit at the desk. If you don’t have OCD you don’t know what the feeling is like to fight against something that is so powerful. It feels, for me, like a knife is being jabbed into my side repeatedly, and if I don’t do what I need to do the pain gets worse. I was able to get my first question out but as I was listening to my first question my eyes started to wander and my anxiety and OCD got the better of me. I tried to grab myself by holding onto the microphone that was on my desk. It was too overwhelming and I lost control. The next thing I remember I was walking around the desk picking up confetti. For that moment, my dream of showing everyone that people with challenges can do anything, was shattered, and it felt worse than my OCD. I felt like I let down the world.”
As for the helplessness I personally felt in the audience, I whispered to my buddy, Mike; “she has to get back out.”
At the after-party later on, I would find out from some of the folks who had gotten her off stage…that they had handled things perfectly. Eventually, smiling, Fleischmann and Colbert came back out to talk about what had happened (seated in the audience, away from the paper that still littered the stage), and therein Colbert promised her a raindate for another interview.
“I was shocked at how kind and how nice he was to give me a second chance.”
A long time ago I did 15 years of NYC theatre. Live performances are special because they contain the unknown, and my hope in future Board conversations is to not let us at NEXT for Autism become scared off by what happened—I hope we’re live again in 2019. It’s fun, and it shows guts.
But I also hope that viewers will not think too much of what happened. Folks were understandably torn in how they interpreted what happened to Carly; conflicted about steering our capabilities—no matter where we are on the spectrum—within the context of challenges, or the context of potential—of what we can’t do vs. what we can do. The answer will always be “both,” no matter how much this offends our very human need to compartmentalize, or our desire to dumb the complexities down.
Is Carly ok? Well, having blown a few opportunities myself, with some very comical spectrum behavior (in college, when I said no to megabucks from LA studios, and blew a phone interview with Ken Burns—maybe I’ll relay in another column…), I can promise you that incidents like this, for us, will never not suck.
But I had this dairy farmer grandfather who, like a lot of males, would say that winning or losing the (figurative or literal) fight isn’t the issue: it’s how quickly you get off the mat when you lose, and whether or not you can see the positives.
“When Michelle and Robert (Smigel) contacted me I thought my dreams have now come true. On November 17th, for the first time, I walked into Madison Square Garden. I wasn’t sure what to expect, it was the first rehearsal I have ever done for a live show. The crew and team were treating me as if I was a celebrity. It was unbelievable how caring and understanding they were of my needs. The night finally arrived and I was walking through the hallway with my blackout glasses on. Adam Sandler saw me in the hallway and said, “have fun out there.” At that moment I knew I loved Hollywood. I felt ready and I felt alive…I have been trying to show Hollywood that it’s OK to think outside the box. That having someone with challenges host a talk show is groundbreaking. I have and at the same time control enough to let them share with me their own challenges…(Howard Stern) said in an interview that he used to lock himself in his hotel room after every show and try to think how he could have done it better. I think that sums up, what I was doing in New York before my interview with Stephen. I basically locked myself in the hotel room and for three days straight started preparing. Making sure every question and every response was going to show how smart and funny someone with autism can be.”
And just so everyone knows…while I was talking to the support people at the after-party (as well as whatever donors I could thank)? Carly, at the same party, was talking with Howie Mandel.
“He apologized for the confetti and he told me that he was picking up the confetti as well. He said OCD is a hard challenge to overcome in Hollywood but (Mandel then referenced a celebrity who also has OCD and this person) has done it and I can do it too. I couldn’t believe that one of the biggest comedians of all time said that I could do well in Hollywood. Especially after, the night I had. He sat with me for 10 minutes and convinced me that I will have more chances in life. He said every celebrity has to go through their paces.
That grandfather I just referenced was that rare breed of person who was tough as nails, and yet also supremely happy. He smiled all the time.
Folks? I think she’s ok—Still kicking herself probably, but she’s also young, with many more chances coming.
And I think my grandfather would have loved Carly Fleischmann.
Michael John Carley is the Founder of GRASP, a School Consultant, and the author of “Asperger’s From the Inside-Out” (Penguin/Perigee 2008), “Unemployed on the Autism Spectrum,” (Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2016), and the upcoming “’The Book of Happy, Positive, and Confident Sex for Adults on the Autism Spectrum…and Beyond!” He also writes the more local Huffington Post column, “Autism Without Fear—Green Bay Edition.” For more information on Michael John, you can go to www.michaeljohncarley.com. To subscribe to his columns and newsletter, please click here, fill out the contact form, and check off the box at the bottom that reads, “Yes. Please include me on the event mailing list.”