9 July 2004

Yesterday, late in the afternoon, just before dinnertime, we were walking down Broadway in Santa Monica. Heading toward the Third Street Promenade, a walking-only street that Damian rightly identifies as an outdoor mall, though one with a certain amount of charm: street musicians and ivy-covered dinosaur fountains amidst the Victoria’s Secret/ Borders/ Brookstones.

Damian was slightly ahead of us, flying a frog and chattering away, a running game unfolding in his head. We turned the corner onto the Promenade. Damian neared the first fountain, drawn to the splash of water and the possibility of a coin toss or two. We slowed to watch. A blonde woman approached us. Holding a clipboard. She introduced herself and her agency. She was a talent scout, looking for children for commercial work and maybe some sitcoms. Would we consider bringing our son in on Sunday for a screen test?


She liked his bubbly chatter, liked his energy and high affect, liked his independence, found him cute. She thought he was a good candidate, said she has an eye for the kids who won’t clam up when they get on camera.

Well. Um.

We chatted a bit with her. She gave us a card, urged us to check out their website. Said we’d need to bring the card on Sunday; this is by invitation only, it’s not a cattle call. We promised to think about it and maybe come.

But. Well. Y’see.

There’s this part of me that would love to say “Yes!” and “Of course my son is adorable, delightful and thoroughly charming, how wise of you to spot that and of course he’d be perfect for television.” And maybe he’d enjoy it. He does love being the center of attention. Does pretend sometimes to be staging a show or performing a CD (his word for it. it’s really more of an impromptu rock concert). He might like this.

But. There’s this little problem.

It’s a common fantasy, isn’t it? Someone approaches you, your kid is so great, would be perfect. You go to the audition, your kid nails it. Your kid is on TV. You can tell all your friends. Your parents tune in that night with proud smiles. “That’s my grandson.” Your kid gets special treatment. He’s an actor. The world sees how unbearably cute your kid is. And hey, his very own salary pays for his college education. No more money worries. Life is great.

Well, except for the minor inconveniences of interrupted school time and loss of contact with classrooms filled with classmates, that commonality, that emotional education. Replaced with an undoubtedly artificial environment that’s hard for many adults to master gracefully. But hey. Your child’s a star, who can beat that? And if you only accept an occasional commercial gig, no recurring appearances on sitcoms, he could still attend regular school. That works, right?

Except. Did I mention? Problem.

Damian is – or should I say was? – autistic. He still bears some of the markers, still struggles with some of the issues. It still colors his response to the world, though now more often in ways you wouldn’t recognize as such.

This makes a simple offer like “Bring your child to audition for us” far more complex. Far more difficult. Can he handle it?

Let’s say he does, let’s say he’s up that day. He smiles at the camera and talks in a big voice and acts playful and delightful. Which he well might. He often does. Let’s say that’s what happens on Sunday. And they love him and sign him and send him on a commercial audition. For the sake of argument, let’s say he aces that too. Then it comes time to shoot the commercial. Two dozen people bustling about on a sound stage in the middle of nowhere. Damian holds my hand as he walks into the faux kitchen and sits at the table and spaces out, shutting out the world, or – more likely – he scrunches up in his chair like a turtle looking for a nonexistent shell. And now it’s time for the cameras to roll and for him to say his one line. Maybe he’s memorized this line, knows it perfectly, but now everyone’s waiting and the lights are so bright and he’s physiologically disorganized and it comes out in an unintelligible squeak or maybe he mumbles the words and hesitates and looks away and down, anywhere but at the camera or the actors pretending to be his family for the day. And we all go home, sad and guilty because we pushed a child with uneven skill sets to do something he may not be ready to handle and why? Just because it sounds glamorous? Because it might be fun? Because it might be brag-worthy?

Not worth it.


I think it could be good for him. A chance to do something challenging but with a big emotional reward (people praise kids extravagantly on set – and if they didn’t, I’d smack ‘em around till they did). A chance to get that feedback, that confidence builder. A chance to try something new. And he emotes well. He’s often hyper-dramatic and certainly conscious of how he comes off. In some ways he’s perfect for this.

But he’s a special needs child. How can he also be a child actor? I know what our floor time supervisor would say. On paper, it’s a very bad idea. And to do it, to go ahead with this, is in a way to pretend he’s a typically developing child who can handle this, who is more or less predictable or at any rate, who can reliably talk in a firm, strong voice and control his body’s response to his emotional state. It’s tempting because it’s such an unusual thing to be offered and because… well… because I think we all might get a kick out of it. That doesn’t make it right.

On the other hand, are we prejudging him because of his diagnosis, assuming he’s not up for this and therefore not giving him the chance at something kind of cool? Are we putting him into a box because of his label, not letting him rise to the occasion? Treating him as less able than he may in fact be? Should we at least try this on for size? See if he can handle the initial audition? If he can’t, then he will have let us know. If he can, well, we can take it a step at a time. If we do. If we go. If we take that gamble.

Damian, by the way, seems to feel ambivalent about it himself. But then, he’s six. He changes his mind about things on a daily basis.

We shouldn't really go to the audition this Sunday anyway. I leave for my week of work in Irvine on Monday. Damian wouldn’t be able to focus terribly well the day before Mommy leaves, I suspect, plus we don't need the distraction right now. But I may call and ask if we can come in another time. And if they say yes, we put off the decision until later. It’s a tricky one. I still don’t know how to feel about it.

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