When I kicked back last week to savor the Netflix special “Amy Schumer: Growing,” I was hoping to inhabit her world for a while and purposely escape mine. Although my love for my son Zack borders on reverential, this had been a rough few weeks.
Zack has profound autism, and at age 18, he’s also developed great physical strength and some language skills that manifest in unpredictable ways. Such as unleashing his enthusiasm at restarting Special Olympics swim practice by excitedly drumming his fists against the interior walls of our house until they crumbled. And recently I took him to a crowded meditation sanctuary — because it was his sole birthday request — where he pierced the quietude with the pronouncement: “This is meditation — BE! QUIET!”
Seeking a brief getaway from my own life in Schumer’s stand-up, she suddenly caught me off-guard. I already knew that the titular character of “Growing” was married and pregnant, and that she would have her own trademark heretical take on both institutions.
But in a rare moment of solemnity, Schumer began, “I knew from the beginning that my husband’s brain was a little different than mine . . . ” She then paused and regrouped, “I have to start this over because I really want to get this right because I love him very much.”
She revealed that her husband, Chris Fischer, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder while he and Schumer were dating.
I sat up rigidly at attention. Zack was diagnosed at 19 months, and my life has never been the same in ways both wonderful and heartbreaking.
“Once he was diagnosed, it dawned on me how funny it was because all of the characteristics that make it clear that he's on the spectrum are all of the reasons that I fell madly in love with him,” Schumer said.
She continued: “That’s the truth. He says whatever is on his mind. He keeps it so real. He doesn’t care about social norms or what you expect him to say or do."
I sat frozen, listening. Having seen so many myopic depictions of autism in the entertainment industry, from celebrities dubiously staking claim to being on the spectrum, to fairy-tale endings for severely autistic protagonists in films, I was shocked by the earnestness of Schumer’s disclosure.
“But he can also make me feel more beautiful than anyone has my whole life,” she gushed. She said Fischer “can’t lie” because of his disorder, exclaiming to a cheering audience, “Is that the dream man!?”
And with this I was again gulping for air, only this time with tears coursing down my cheeks, so deeply moved was I by her revelations that I felt both her husband, and others on the spectrum, were finally acknowledged, accurately described and understood.
Schumer nailed a fundamental point often overlooked in our competitive culture: What a person with autism will not do is lie, cheat, engage in misogyny, bigotry or denigrate others to make themselves feel superior. While depictions of autism in TV and film seek in part to demystify the disorder, they, too, often migrate to the “genius” savant stereotype (e.g., “Rain Man,” “The Accountant,” “The Good Doctor”), which occurs so rarely in the population as to further alienate the vast majority of parents whose children reside somewhere in the middle, such as Zack.
Using only a few striking vignettes, Schumer hit much closer to reality. Schumer — never more brilliant than when she’s subverting norms — describes an incident in which, while strolling with Fischer, she fell down. Where “10 out of 10” typical folks would have rushed to assist, Fischer stood frozen, mouth agape, offering only shock. Sounds familiar.
Schumer describes Fischer’s unflinchingly honesty about her sartorial choices, so relatable to those of us who have dared to ask an autistic person for an opinion on our appearance, only to be reminded by those unburdened by the rules of diplomacy that yes, as a matter of fact, you do look crappy in that dress, try again.
By the end, Schumer’s graceful candor breathes life into the portrait of an incurable and at times inscrutable disability, which is occurring in one of every 59 children.
One point struck me as key — that Schumer and Fischer first learned of his diagnosis while dating, during that courtship phase where both parties are trying to impress the other by putting their best feet forward. It’s refreshing to hear Schumer describe her confusion at some of his peculiar reactions slowly giving way to comprehension upon learning his diagnosis.
As Schumer explains in interviews, she spoke up about her husband’s autism to subvert the stigma, sharing that both she and Fischer sought counseling to help them navigate the now clearer terrain that explains why his brain works differently than hers. No judgment. Just curiosity, discovery, then compatibility.
In “Growing,” Schumer states humbly that she wants to get it right. In a single swoop, she destigmatized the broad spectrum disorder simply by exposing it in such sensitive way during a live show watched by the masses. Her dialogue brings dignity to a conversation too often mangled by political correctness or false aspirations of fairy-tale endings.
Schumer has acknowledged that while Fischer resides at the end of the spectrum known as higher-functioning autism, she says the tools they have gained through counseling to assist with understanding each other are relevant for all on the spectrum. She’s right.
Schumer’s candor showed that others on the spectrum can also have healthy, loving relationships, in which they are wholly embraced and understood for who they are.
Without aiming for it, Schumer even went a step further — by disclosing her passionate love and fantastic sex life with Fischer, she cast the straightforwardness of autism as not only relatable, but desirable, especially in a lifelong partner.
It’s comforting that Schumer unexpectedly has a foot in my world. From one mother to another about-to-be, thank you. May the road rise up to meet you, your princely husband, and your beautiful child. And whatever you do, please keep talking.
Whitney Ellenby is the author of “Autism Uncensored: Pulling Back the Curtain,” founder of the charitable venture Autism Ambassadors and a former U.S. Justice Department disability rights attorney.