Television's favorite animated family has caused my own clan to bond, in more ways than one.
Courtesy of FOX
Some siblings show their love with a high five, an inside joke, or a punch in the shoulder. My brother Daniel, an adult on the autism spectrum, has his own way of showing his affection: letting me choose the episode of The Simpsons to watch half an hour before dinner.
"You already watched 'Kamp Krusty' this morning," I remind him. "Can I pick this episode?" "Yes," he says, a hint of mistrust in his voice, though his face relaxes slightly when I choose a disc from the same season. Including mandatory Simpsons breaks in a daily routine sounds like every fan's dream, but in our house, it's a necessity. If there's one rule we live by, it's doing whatever we can to make Daniel's life easier, which includes scheduling his day around the misadventures of our favorite family.
Like many autistic people, Daniel has limited verbal and communication skills. Most of our interactions with him involve a lot of echolalia, as he repeats our words back to us to demonstrate comprehension ("Did you have a good day?" "Have a good day. Yes."). He also has many anxieties that he can't express through words, though we can see it in the way he carries his body: when he fidgets his fingers, or darts his nervous eyes around the room.
His anxiety is eased whenever there is regular order in his schedule: going to work, taking a bath, eating dinner with family. Weekends are more difficult—longer days with less structured time—and we fill them with long walks, swimming at the YMCA, and church, with its blessed foundation of routine, prayers, and songs.
My mother was the one who encouraged regular church attendance for Daniel, and coincidentally, was also the one to cement the role of The Simpsons in our lives. She first watched the show to prove to nine-year-old me that she was right to ban it because of Bart's bad influence. After watching "A Streetcar Named Marge," she became a fan instead, and waiting for new episodes every Sunday became as much of a family tradition as church.
Mom and Dad watched the show for its literary and 1970s cultural references, while my brother Luke and I enjoyed the absurdity and rapid-fire jokes. I'm not sure what about The Simpsons specifically appeals to Daniel, as he lacks the language to tell us. It could be the bright colors and the animation. It might be the broad physical humor and silly sound effects—I still remember him giggling for a minute straight while watching Homer twiddle his thumbs and sing to himself.
Whatever makes him a fan, he doesn't go a day without watching at least one episode. As my father Michael puts it, "The Simpsons provides some measure of order for Daniel. Surely the producers of the long-running show could not have predicted that an autistic young man would use their 22-minute episodes to know when dinner is to be served. 'One more Simpsons' is a common statement in our house."
The show has become such a necessity that we ordered a second copy of season four to be delivered, rush shipping, to our annual vacation spot in upstate New York when we realized we left it back at our house. Daniel would need the comforting familiarity of "Kamp Krusty" and the other episodes on disc one to ease his anxiety over our vacation's breaks in his routine. But far more than a schedule-filler, The Simpsons is a way for us to connect with him.
Daniel knows the words to every original song on the show, including all of the clothing items listed in "See My Vest," and we can trust him to fill in the blanks when we sing it together on our Sunday walks. When Luke and I engage in lengthy quote-offs at the dinner table, Daniel will pop in with a quiet "Lisa needs braces" in response to a call of "Dental plan!" We know we can get a sly grin out of him when we imitate Homer; he's not even afraid to give his own "D'oh!" every once in a while.
I wonder if the show speaks to him because it's a story about a family: five weirdos who have silly arguments, get into ridiculous situations, and at the end of the day still love each other. Maybe he sees us in these strange animated creatures, art reflecting life and life reflecting art. Daniel is the middle child. If we were Simpsons characters, he'd be the Lisa in terms of birth order. But he's really the Maggie of our clan: He's the smallest of the group, he says very little, and there's a lot going on behind those watchful eyes, including love for his family.
So when we let him watch an extra Simpsons before dinner, it's not just so we can enjoy the show ourselves—we do it for him.