When I first saw the trailer for ABC’s Speechless, it was shortly after my son was diagnosed with autism, and I was prepared to self-righteously hate it. It conjured the first and only memory I have of my child being mocked: As my son head-butted the side of a car-shaped grocery cart, an older boy in line behind us did the same. Declan thought he was being included in a game. I knew he was being excluded from one.
This is the sort of tone I feared Speechless might strike—one that generated humor by merely playing at inclusion. The 30-minute sitcom features JJ DiMeo, a 16-year-old boy who is rendered speechless by cerebral palsy, and the other DiMeos as they grapple with life as a special needs family in Newport Beach, California. Its premise reads like it should be a drama a la Parenthood. From the get-go, however, it promised to move against the sentimental current that drives most other shows about kids with special needs.
Based solely on the trailer, Speechless seemed uncomfortably irreverent to me, siphoning humor from the special needs community. As I’ve continued to watch it, though, I’ve realized this careful irreverence actually enables Speechless not only to depict the challenges of a special needs family holistically but also to raise broader questions about metaphorical voicelessness and privilege. To accomplish this, the show’s creators tap into the vestiges of a fading form of humor—namely, humor as a form of grace. This unexpected tone won me over as a viewer and empowered me to find a similar grace in my own life.
By the time I hate-watched one episode of Speechless, the sticker shock of my son’s diagnosis had worn off. We were still walking through the heavy moments ...1
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