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Video: ‘Days’ takes on autism

updated 6/24/2008 12:15:47 PM ET 2008-06-24T16:15:47

The trials and triumphs of a real-life autistic child are being mirrored in a summer plotline on the much-loved NBC soap opera “Days of Our Lives.” The serial’s head writer, Dena Higley — who raised an autistic child — wrote a dramatic story arc in which DOOL characters Abe and Lexie Carver must confront powerful feelings when their son Theo is diagnosed with the disorder.

“We’re telling the profound and life-altering story of a child with autism from his parents’ point of view,” Higley explained. “Their pain, their struggle — and ultimately, their ability to find life-affirming hope in the midst of learning how to live day to day with this disability.”

Higley and show staff have partnered with the advocacy group Autism Speaks to ensure the storyline contains realism and sensitivity. But Higley needs little coaching. She and husband Mark found out their son Connor suffered from autism — a brain disorder thwarting a person’s ability to communicate, and often marked by extreme behavior — at age 3, the same age at which fictional Theo is diagnosed.

The show aims to not only make a compelling storyline that viewers of the 42-year-old soap will be keen to follow, but also to raise awareness of the common but complex disorder that afflicts one in 150 children in the U.S.

Says NBC’s senior vice president of daytime and drama programming Bruce Evans: “We are hopeful that this storyline will serve as a resource for our viewers, many of whom have already been touched by this critical issue.”

Drawn from life
Higley told TODAY’s Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb the storyline she’s written for Abe and Lexie — played by veteran DOOL cast members James Reynolds and Renee Jones — echoes the struggles she and husband Mark went through in finding their equilibrium through Connor’s challenging condition.

“I pulled out actual dialogue my husband and I had and put it on paper,” Higley said. “You take a position — if you don’t feel your husband is intense enough, you get overly intense. If you’re a husband and you feel like your wife is getting a little too crazy, you dial it down. So nobody’s feeling what they want to feel.

“That’s the story that we’re telling.”

This is far from the first time daytime drama has addressed a real-life social issue. In 1983, “All My Children” broke ground by introducing one of daytime’s first openly gay characters. An interracial couple got married onscreen on “General Hospital” in 1987, and an AIDS patient had a romance storyline on AMC in the late ’80s.

More social issues surfaced on soaps in the ’90s, including drug addiction (Susan Lucci’s character on AMC), alcoholism (“The Young and the Restless”), cancer, homophobia, racism and more. But Higley’s DOOL storyline may be an unprecedented opportunity to present the challenges of autism realistically in daytime drama.

For actress Jones, 49, portraying on camera what is essentially Higley’s real life has been an eye-opening, educational experience — she admitted she “didn’t know anything about autism” going into the story arc. But through talking with Higley and Autism Speaks founders Suzanne and Bob Wright, she found her acting voice.

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“I didn’t realize the emotional toll that it takes on a family,” Jones said. “As an actor, to get in there and feel all those feelings — you have the fear, you have the frustration, the overwhelming grief and devastation.”

A welcome opportunity
As for Reynolds, one of Hollywood’s most active volunteers in charitable works, the 62-year-old actor relishes the opportunity to showcase a widespread family dilemma through his acting on “Days.”

“There are a lot of things that mask the symptoms,” Reynolds told Gifford and Kotb. “You can think he’s just a little off or a little slow.” He adds that the important message is that “there are ways of treating this and going through life with it.”

Indeed, Higley’s son Connor has thrived despite the disorder. A football and track team member, Connor recently graduated from high school, earned a black belt in tae kwon do, and is heading off to college in the fall. And he has blended in with a family that includes his 18-year-old biological sister and adopted siblings from Vietnam and Ethiopia.

“We have a mixed bag, and Connor fits right in,” Higley said on TODAY. “He’s a wonderful, brave, fabulous kid. We don’t cut him any slack and we expect the best out of him.”

Jones adds that for viewers of “Days of Our Lives” who have autistic children, the storyline that begins June 24 will be an opportunity “to have what they’re going through validated in some way.”

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