Tag Archives: Anna Deavere Smith

Where’s Autism in the Aspen Ideas?

Over the past four days at the Aspen Ideas Festival I watched Lu Chuan‘s movie, City of Life and Death, about the massacre of the people of Nanjing,  heard the wonderfully inspirational Jane Shaw talk about Our Moral Imagination, saw a film clip of Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home, a documentary about migrant workers trying to get home to see their families and Louie Psihoyos‘ latest, yet to be named, documentary about  “an unlikely team of activists who come together to solve humanities biggest problem… ”  I have heard about the evolving interface between mankind and machines, the evolution of design and why theatre and the arts matter.

The most interesting sessions have been those that talk about either values or the arts.  Leigh Hafrey’s discussion What is “Values-Based Leadership?” and Jane Shaw’s Our Moral Imagination as well as  Elaine Pagels, Who Wrote the Book of Revelation – and Why Do People Still Read it?   and Theater That Matters with Anna Deavere Smith, Julie Taymor, Gregory Mosher, and Oskar Eustis were all provocative and interesting.

As much as I have enjoyed this year’s festival, I was saddened to see there was not a single presentation that had anything to do with autism.  In fact the word “autism” was only spoken once in the many sessions I attended and that was in reply to a question asked during the presentation by NPR entitled, “A Fish Tale”: Is Lying Okay?  The NPR journalist who covers neurology, Jon Hamilton said, “People with autism have a terrible time lying, which is why they have trouble in society.”  There were some mutterings of surprise in the audience and then everyone moved on.  In fact the conclusion of that presentation seemed to be that lying is necessary and therefore part of our evolution as a species, which seemed like an amazingly bad idea.  It makes me all the more hopeful that Henry Markram’s Intense World Theory for Autism is correct.

Enjoy this photo montage of the highlights.  When I began taking photographs of Pervez Musharraf, I was actually followed by two secret service, lending a cloak and dagger feel to the whole adventure!

Pervez Musharraf

Barbra Streisand

Katie Couric

Jane Shaw – Dean of Grace Cathedral

Louie Psihoyos – Director of Academy Award Winning Documenary, The Cove

Emma (my favorite “important person”).


Career, Parenting, Autism and Cultivating a Moral Imagination

I’m attending the Aspen Ideas Festival from early in the morning until late at night.  Richard and I have joked that the Aspen Ideas Festival is summer camp for adults, minus the swimming, boating or water skiing activities.  As I am there almost constantly, Emma really misses me.  “Go with Mommy?” Emma asked yesterday morning as I got ready to attend a 7:45AM session on “Our Moral Imagination” with Jane Shaw, introduced by Anna Deavere Smith (I’m giving myself a shameless plug now) who was wearing Ariane Zurcher Designs 18 Kt gold earrings with Australian pearls.

For the Aspen Ideas Festival I am wearing my journalist’s hat.  “Come with me and Granma, Em.  She’s going to drop me off.  Do you want to come?”

“Yes, Granma and Mommy and me, go together,” Emma said, pointing to each of us.

“Right, but I have to go to work, so I’m going to get dropped off and then you and Granma will come back up to the ranch, okay?”

“Yes,” Emma said, but she looked sad.  “Mommy has to work,” Emma added.

I love working.  I’m lucky to have writing and design both of which I love.  My ambition is something I have only recently allowed myself to really appreciate or even recognize.  For years I felt the pull of guilt when I went off to work, and while I still do at times feel that familiar tug, I no longer condemn myself for loving what I do.  Loving work does not take away from the love I feel for my children.  It isn’t either/or.  It’s not as though enjoying a career means I do not enjoy and want to also be with my children.

I spent yesterday going to a number of sessions, the first beginning with the inspirational Jane Shaw who is a British Anglican priest and scholar as well as Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.  She spoke about empathy and asked, “Can we really command someone to love?”  Jane suggested art and poetry are doorways into another’s soul.  I immediately thought of nonverbal Autistic, Amy Sequenzia’s poem, Happy To Be Myself.  Jane spoke about empathy which she described as “a deep responsiveness to that which is different from us.”  I thought of my Autistic friend Ib, whose compassion and empathy is a lesson all humans would do well to learn.  And I thought of Emma.  I thought of my journey from trying desperately to find something that would change Emma’s brain to responding to the little girl who is right in front of me.   A journey that has taken me from striving, to being.

Throughout the day, Jackie texted me photos of Emma.

Emma goes bungee jumping

Emma on top of Aspen Mountain (notice the pose!)

Emma goes bowling

Even when I’m working, I carry both my children in my mind.  I think about them, I wonder what they’re doing.  I hope they’re okay.

“How are we motivated to think about what it’s like to be another person?” Jane asked early in her presentation.  I thought about how for me, it began with tremendous pain, which led me to search, find and finally listen to Autistic adults.

This photograph looking west to the ski area known as Buttermilk, with Highlands to the left was taken from our ranch road when I took Emma out on the 4-wheeler last night.  Or as Emma calls it, “Emma’s red 4-wheeler.”  And she’s right.  It is hers.

On Engagement

Last Sunday I was interviewed by an NYU graduate student in the award winning actress and performer Anna Deavere Smith’s class, On Engagement.  The class covers the various forms in which we engage with one another.

One of the students asked me how I would like to see others engage with me when I am with Emma and also how to engage with Emma.

“Without judgement, for starters,” I answered.

Other people, but especially other parents can be extremely critical when confronted with a nine-year old who has fallen to the ground, screaming as though they were a two-year old having a “meltdown.”  Trust me, we aren’t talking about your typical meltdown.  I’ve been the mother of a toddler having a meltdown.  There is a vast difference between Emma’s upset and a two-year old who has been told they cannot stay at the park for another hour.  For one thing Emma is no longer two years old, for another, even a two-year old is not apt to punch themselves in the face or bite themselves so hard you can see a perfect imprint of their teeth on their arm.  Many people witnessing such a scene make the assumption the parent has done something horrendous to cause such a display.  So there’s blame, added to the guilt the parent may already feel.  There’s also something else people do not often speak of and that is contempt.  Contempt for the parent and the child.  People use nicer words such as impatience or irritation, but both Richard and I have been on the receiving end of those stares, those under-the-breath mutterings or outright shouting at us – “Can’t you keep your kid quiet?”  or “Why can’t you control her?”  (These are the more polite versions of some of the things people have said to us.)  Those comments are full of contempt.

As far as engaging Emma – my wish would be for people to treat her with respect and assume she can understand them.  This is tricky because it is easy to think she doesn’t understand, to talk about her as though she weren’t there, to ignore her.  I have spoken to others about Emma while she was in the room and now regret it.  My oldest brother is amazing when it comes to engaging Emma.  He talks to her, asks her questions and even though she will often ignore him, he continues.  He doesn’t allow her nonverbal response to deter him.  And she adores him.  Absolutely adores him.  Emma talks about him, asks about him and excitedly anticipates seeing him again.

The last question asked was if I could make up a Utopian world, what would it be.  I loved that question.

It would be a world where we greeted one another as we would a favorite family member.  A world where we approached each other with love and not preconceived notions of who and what that person was because of the way they looked, sounded, their nationality, race or political views.  A place where we embraced our commonalities and not our differences.  I know, it all sounds annoyingly pollyannaish and simplistic, even corny, but what if each of us tried, just for one day to do this?  What if we tried to put our judgements aside?

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   www.Emma’s Hope Book.com

Dedication to a Rock Star

Ariane arrived in Aspen Saturday with Nic and Emma. I’ve been here for a week already, attending the Literary Festival. Ariane’s mom Paula Zurcher (who I adore!) lives here and we come out about four times a year because we love to see her but also to some extent, because travel anywhere else is too difficult. Emma only eats about nine different food items and she only likes to do physically oriented pleasure activities like swimming and skiing. While I think it’s pretty safe to say that Nic wouldn’t hold up too well on a four hour tour of the Louvre, he would at least enjoy other sightseeing activities and have the thrill of visiting faraway places he’s read about or heard about.

No sightseeing for Emma. Unless the sight is a roller coaster or a water slide, which we fortunately have close by in Glenwood Springs, where Nic and Emma went yesterday. Ariane arrived here in time for the reopening of the newly renovated Paepke Auditorium, named after Ariane’s grandfather Walter Paepke, who founded the Aspen Institute,  Aspen Music Festival and Aspen Design Conference, which is now known as the AIGA – the professional association for design. He was a true visionary, a man who accrued his wealth making cardboard boxes, yet had the audacity to run ads for his company that featured art by Herbert Bayer and sayings by Lao-Tzu  — not one word about boxes.

The auditorium opening was amazing, particulary due to the hugely talented Anna Deveare-Smith who performed a reprise of her impression of Paula and her sister Toni DuBrul having lunch with her, which is profound and poignant and one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.  She ends her brilliant performance with a story told to her by the Paepcke daughters.  Elizabeth Paepcke, their mother, planted a young sapling in her backyard.  Afterward she said, “It will be beautiful in 50 years.”  At the time she was in her 70’s and when it was pointed out that she would not be around to witness that she replied, “I know.  But others will.”

Paula and Ariane would never mention any of this family history stuff on this blog, but there is a legacy to be celebrated that is inspirational and it impacts Emma as much, if not more, as any of us.  After all Emma is the great grand-daughter of those two powerhouses.

Claudia Cunningham is a dear friend of ours who has been incredibly supportive to all of us – the children adore her and when she stays with us in New York, it’s pajama party time. She and I always talk about our firm, no intractable belief that Emma is going to be a huge rock star (and maybe already is). We don’t say this in a half-kidding tone. We mean it. Emma is a natural born performer. She loves an audience, she has an incredible pitch-perfect voice, a set of pipes that can blow the doors off a taxi cab, a gift for the grand gesture and the big finish. And she is staggeringly beautiful.

Why not? Why shouldn’t she be a rock star? She was raised on Gwen Stefani. She loves singing and performing more than anything – even a carousel ride or an all day trip to the water park, and that’s saying something. Should we not dream big dreams for her? Are we over-reaching, not being practical, have our heads in the clouds, our feet off the ground? Are we kidding ourselves? Are we in denial?

Hey, if a business man from Chicago can turn his father’s lumber company into The Container Corporation of America and then go on to create the Aspen Institute, why can’t a beautiful, talented eight year old autistic girl grow up to be a rock star?  She certainly has a head start by having the ambition and vision in her genes.

Here’s to you Emma! You are awesome. And when you read this ten years from now in the back of your limo heading to a sold out show at Madison Square Garden you will always know we believed in you – and never settled for anything less than encouraging your dreams and fueling your heart’s desire every step of the way.

Rock on!