Autism in reel life

In just more than a week, ABC is premiering “The Good Doctor,” a show which follows a young surgeon with autism and savant syndrome joining a prestigious hospital’s surgical unit.


The show is a latest in a pattern that’s been emerging in the last few years, a stark shift in how people with autism and other disabilities are portrayed in the media, compared to old favorites such as “Forest Gump,” “I am Sam” and “Rain Man.” While those are critically acclaimed, Academy-Award winning films, it’s impossible to divorce these characters from the disability that defines them.

It’s important for [people with autism] to see characters in media that have autism, to see how it’s portrayed … to see that it’s just one of their personality traits.

But there’s a new model for writing characters with autism spectrum disorder — characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts — seen most recently in Netflix’s “Atypical” (released earlier this month) and the newest “Power Rangers” film (released in March). (If you’re wondering, the Blue Ranger mentions briefly in one scene he has autism.)

Autism is just one aspect of these well-rounded characters. They also fall in love, succeed or struggle with their school work, have friendships and, occasionally, even fight crime.

“It’s important for [people with autism] to see characters in media that have autism, to see how it’s portrayed,” said Jenna Varley, a 24-year-old from Kankakee who has lived with the label of autism her whole life. “To see that it’s just one of their personality traits.”

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Yoga boarding and the Bard

It was a hot, breezy afternoon that I found myself right on Lake Michigan at a Standup Paddleboard Yoga (SUPYoga) class. SUPYoga is sweeping the country as one of the newest fitness crazes, which involves practicing yoga on a 10- to 12-foot-long board on the water: the ocean, a lake or even a slow-moving river.

For those not familiar with paddleboarding, it’s a water sport that started in 1940s Hawaii, although navigating through water standing with a paddle can be traced back as long as man.


It was a warm, windy day when I arrived at Montrose Beach for the class. It’s a popular beach fenced by skyscrapers. The class started with a short tutorial on the sand with instructor Mary Lou Cerami. Only one in our class (not me) had ever paddleboarded before, so she demonstrated the correct way to paddle, turn, get on our boards and stand.

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Discover the tastes of traveling

Growing up in the South American capital of Quito, Ecuador, some of my favorite foods were discovered in the little restaurants next to my high school, along city parks or next to the beach.

Inexpensive, hot, delicious — South American food is a reflection of the culture that makes it. And that’s one of the best parts about traveling to new locations with unfamiliar cuisines. You can discover so much about the people of a place by their use of pepper, paprika or paneer masala.


Ecuadorian food is cooked slow, with love, and best eaten with family or friends. (Which is why these recipes make a lot — expect leftovers.) It may take all day, but the end result is well worth it.

Influenced by the large indigenous population of the country, Ecuadorian food is a lot of rice, beans, potatoes and yucca (a root similar to a potato) — plus fresh fruit and vegetables. Tomatoes and onions are incorporated into almost every meal, and it’s not dinner unless there’s a soup course first.

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Cambodia is calling

Facebook reminded me today that six years ago I took my first international trip by myself. I was 17, my family was living in Ecuador and I was coming to visit a college in the Chicago suburb of Bourbonnais.

It was a mild winter, but the snow on the ground was the first I had seen in five years. I think I slept in the winter coat I borrowed for the trip. Somehow, even with that experience, I still decided this was a good place to go to school and eventually stay.

After five years of living in “Chi-beria,” I’ve adapted to negative wind chills, multiple feet of snow and the sun setting at 4:30 p.m. from November to February.

And just about the time I’ve adapted (this winter I only used my winter coat a few days), I’m embarking on another solo international adventure: This time, I’m flying across the Pacific Ocean to the small Southeast Asian country of Cambodia.

Come Saturday about 1 a.m., I’ll be crossing the International Date Line. That’s 5 p.m., the day before, for us Chicago-landers. It’s a 22-hour total trip; the first flight is 14 hours long and the eighth-longest flight you can get out of O’Hare, according to

Which has me reflecting on how important it is to intentionally explore new places, cultures and ways of thinking.

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A forced adoption, a reunion with Mom

It was a hot day, almost reaching 100 degrees, when 17-year-old Theresa Benoit Ciaccio walked herself into St. Vincent’s Hospital for Unwed Mothers in the summer of 1945.

Now 88, the Bourbonnais resident still recalls that being pregnant and unmarried from a large Catholic family meant keeping her baby was not an option.

Ciaccio and the father of her unborn child tried to marry; they even made it to the church before her brother and father stopped the ceremony.


“We were kids, I was a kid,” Ciaccio recalled. “No job and too young, they said. I did the best I could. I didn’t have a husband so I didn’t think I could raise him.”

At seven months pregnant, she was sent to St. Vincent’s, an orphanage and hospital where girls often put their babies up for adoption in those days.

Her dad drove with her, but wouldn’t go in.

“I walked into the hospital myself with my suitcase,” Ciaccio said. “Just walked in. Kind of crazy. Kind of scary.”

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What a Manteno church is doing to help a Syrian crisis

They’ll probably never meet.
Even if they could, they don’t speak the same language, eat the same food or pray to the same God.



But for a couple dozen church members from the Manteno Church of the Nazarene, and about 60 Syrian refugees in a north Chicago neighborhood, that doesn’t really matter.

About 7 p.m. on Friday, Fadia Mabus, her 5-year-old son, Sam, of Bourbonnais, and friend, Emily Linton, of Bradley, carried trash bags filled with hand-knitted scarves and hats for refugees who are living through their first Midwest winter. Prayers still were echoing as they walked up through the halls of the Muslim Community Center in Chicago, into a room easily 70 degrees; everyone was wearing winter coats.

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Crepes, cookbooks and a movie

A recent trek through the streets of Lincoln Park yielded the discovery of La Creperie — a French hole-in-the-wall staple in that neighborhood.

It’s located in an area bursting with eclectic bars and restaurants. Still, there’s a certain magic to La Creperie. There’s a deep sense of nostalgia and culture permeating from the very walls, covered in French posters from baseboard to ceiling. The floor of the long, narrow space is original wood from when the building was a farmhouse.


And it’s crowded, but in the best, homey way. The co-owner and founder, Germain Roignant, is originally from France — and the place has all the romanticism of the country. In a low-lit corner, a couple has their first date. Around a family-style circle table, parents and their children converse in French. Waiters weave in and out of the cafe tables, greeting the regulars.

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