“The Black Balloon” Movie: Health Sociology and Health Psychology

Introduction

The 2008 Australian film The black balloon raises an important problem of caring for an autistic child in modern community, depicting chronic stress experienced by all the members of the Mollisson’s family while raising an autistic teenager, Charlie. Showing the daily routine of the family in which a young boy with intellectual impairment is raised, this movie reveals the social problems of the lack of social support and deficits in the health care system. Lacking understanding of the special needs of his son, Simon, the head of the family, is unable to establish contact with his autistic child, find appropriate coping strategies for overcoming his depression and anxiety, and decrease his son’s physical and social incapacities. This paper will discuss the case of Simon as the father of an autistic teenager, the ineffectiveness of repression as a coping strategy, and the deficits in the health care system which should be eliminated for supporting families raising children with autism and other intellectual impairments.

Autism as a predictor of parent’s stress

Using a broad definition of health, physiological, environmental and social factors need to be taken into account for tracking a person’s condition and personal development. In that regard, Charlie’s autism has become an important predictor of chronic stress in Simon which affected his psychological and physiological health.

Parenting a child with autism is a burden which inevitably affects well-being of the whole family. Applying Kohlberg’ theory of moral development, it can be stated that Simon faces a moral dilemma of treating his autistic son and the chosen solution affects his personal development significantly. Simon, as a military man under forty years of age, speaking to a small Teddy bear and shifting the responsibility for his decisions upon a toy, obviously exhibits signs of deviant behavior. Simon consults his Teddy bear when his wife asks him to make a decision and pretends to talk with a toy and listen to its advice (The black balloon 2008). These behavioral patterns can be regarded as a psychological response to a stressful factor of having a child with disability and the corresponding social pressures. According to Morrison et al (2008), stress can become an important predictor of not only psychological, but also physiological changes in individuals experiencing chronic stress (p. 345). In that regard, Simon’s behavior can be explained with his stress of having an autistic child. Therefore, Skinner’s theory of human development allows establishing cause-and-effect relations between the child’s disability and his father’s unusual behavior.

According to Erikson’s theory, Simon who is in his forties and at the second stage of his adulthood, selects between the two virtues, including those of generativity and stagnation. Taking into account the fact that raising an autistic child is stressful and unsatisfactory for him, he is closer to stagnation. Simon does not make any progress and his childish behavior can be regarded as signs of his degradation (Barkway, 2009, p. 47). His unwillingness to take the responsibility for his words and decisions in certain situations can be explained with his intention to shift the main burden upon his wife and lack of his maturity. Charlie’s disability as the main cause of Simon’s stress, according to Erikson’s theory, preconditioned Simon’s choice of stagnation instead of generativity.

Having a child with autism is an influential predictor of stress in both parents though the main burden is traditionally put upon mothers. Hastings and Beck (2004) stated that parents of children having intellectual disabilities report much higher levels of stress and mental health problems, including those of depression and increased anxiety, as compared to parents whose children do not have any intellectual disabilities (p. 1338). On the one hand, children with autism require much more attention and care. On the other hand, parents can be embarrassed of going out with their autistic children which can lead to their social isolation. Though Simon, the character of the movie under consideration, is not embarrassed of going out with Charlie, and the spectators can see them in a supermarket and other public places, most of neighbors do not show empathy and understanding towards the Mollisson which results in the lack of their social interaction. Charlie’s behavior in a supermarket when the young boy falls on the floor with his hysterics inevitably embarrasses his father who loses control over the situation (The black balloon 2008). Another example of a stressful situation in the film is the Department of Community Services visiting Mollisson’s house after their neighbor complains. Losing his nerve, Simon shouts at his neighbor though his behavior does not evoke any empathy in the woman. Therefore, the examples from the film demonstrate that having an autistic son was stressful for Simon. Simon adapts to the stressful situation through expressing his indignation in a rather rude form and using strength when he cannot see another way out (in the supermarket and at home when he cannot control his son’s behavior).

Comparing the level of responsibility taken by Simon and his wife Maggie, it can be stated that Maggie’s behavior is in certain aspects was more mature. Lee (2009) concluded that mothers of autistic children have demonstrated better adaptive skills than their male counterparts (p. 96). Comparing Simon’s and Maggie’s behavior, it can be stated that the main burden of caring for Charlie is put upon Maggie’s shoulders which can be explained with her better adaptive coping skills which however does not imply lower level of psychological distress. Meadan, Halle & Ebata (2010) noted that the research of stress in fathers of autistic children is rather limited, but existing evidence shows higher levels of depression and anxiety in mothers (p. 23). Simon’s behavior can be regarded as an additional stressful factor for Maggie because even being pregnant with her third baby, she is afraid of leaving her two sons upon her infantile husband. However, Maggie’s pregnancy stimulates Simon’s maturation and improves his coping strategies when he takes the responsibility and makes a decision to direct his wife into a hospital and take care of his children and their household by himself. It is significant that Simon even brings his Teddy bear Rex which has been an excuse of his immature decisions previously to the hospital and leaves the toy there. This conscious decision can be regarded as a symbol of Simon’s forced maturation. According to Erikson’s theory, at this moment of his life, Simon accepts the extreme of generativity instead of stagnation and could even start enjoying raising his children (Barkway, 2009, p. 46)

Having an autistic son was a cause of chronic stress in Simon who was hiding behind a toy Rex, looking for an excuse for his decisions and unable to explain his moral choices until the moment of his wife’s pregnancy fostering Simon’s maturation. Then, Simon cares for his wife and her well-being and decides to take the responsibility for his sons, sending the pregnant wife to the hospital. In the frames of Skinner’s theory, parenting an autistic child is an important influential factor affecting Simon’s behavior and condition. According to Freud’s theory of personal development the roots for this immature behavior can be found in Simon’s childhood which is however hidden from spectators.

The chosen coping strategy and parenting style

After appraising the importance of certain stressful factors, an individual proceeds to select the most appropriate coping strategies. Analyzing Simon’s behavior, it can be stated that he selected repression as a coping mechanism for a stressful situation of having an autistic son.

The evidence of repression as a chosen coping strategy can be found on Simon’s dialog about Charlie and his condition with his younger son Tom (The black balloon 2008). When Tom asks whether his father dreams of Charlie is normal, Simon answers that he has abandoned such dreams. Simon confesses that he tries to avoid such thoughts and has already accepted the fact that Charlie is his own. This position as a coping strategy can be referred to as repression which is traditionally characterized with denial or minimization of significance of stress and avoidance of thinking of possible consequences (Morrison et al., 2008). Comparing his position to Maggie’s reasoning, Simon admits that his wife is certain that having an autistic child can be explained with the fact that their family is strong enough for caring for an autistic child. Therefore, as opposed to Simon, Maggie selects rationalization as a coping strategy and tries to find logical explanation for their grief. Simon hides from the existing problem and makes attempts to repress his stress which however results in his increased anxiety and pessimism. Neither Simon nor his wife put any faith upon Charlie’s chances to develop his speaking skills in the future. It is only Tom who makes attempts to speak with his brother and teach him usual language. Regardless of repression as a chosen coping strategy and intention to deny the problem and hide from it, Simon remains a caring father and husband which can be seen from numerous episodes of the film (Morrison et al. 2008).

Unable to make decisions and take the responsibility for them in certain situations, Simon still can be recognized as a mature personality and the head of his family who can be relied upon in critical situations. As opposed to Maggie who takes too much responsibility and expectation on Thomas in caring for Charlie, he does not overburden his younger son and is a rather caring parent for Tom as well. On the one hand, he has obvious difficulties with adapting to Charlie’s condition and loses his nerve in the most stressful situations which are inadmissible with children having autism. On the other hand, in contrast to Maggie, he does not shift too much responsibility to Thomas and finds time for communicating with Thomas whose needs are neglected by Maggie. An episode in which he conducts a driving lesson for Thomas demonstrates his care for his younger son and Simon’s support in his socialization process. Therefore, Simon is responsive and controlling with Thomas and implements an authoritative parenting style which is recognized as the most effective parenting method. On the other hand, Simon cannot find an appropriate approach to his autistic son Charlie. There is no personal rapport established between them which can be explained with the lack of attention from the father’s side. Charlie does not response to Simon’s comments and requests and father is unable to care for his autistic child.

Selecting repression as a coping strategy for the stressful situation of having an autistic child, Simon implements an authoritative parenting style with his younger son Thomas, but cannot adapt to the needs of his autistic son Charlie.

Simon’s personal development and traits

Simon’s personal development and psychological well-being are dependent upon a number of complex and interrelated factors, including those of his childhood history, professional experience, social status, personal traits and family environment. Though he selects repression as a coping strategy for his stress and tries to avoid the responsibility in certain situations, in other instances he is shown as a strong man, a caring husband and father. Therefore, a balanced approach is required for evaluating various aspects of Simon’s personality and tracking the causes and effects of Simons’ emotional reactions and behaviors in their complexity.

The representation of Simon’s character in the movie under consideration demonstrates how controversial a human personality can be under different circumstances. On the one hand, Simon’s emotional responses to a stressful situation of caring for an autistic child are typical for a man of his age. On the other hand, he is not afraid of going out with Charlie in public even though the behavior of his autistic son is rather embarrassing. Rutgers, Ijzerdoon and Bakermans-Kranenburg (2007) admitted that there are common stress patterns applied by most parents caring for autistic children, including those of embarrassment and avoidance of going out with their children in public which results in isolation of the whole family (p. 860). Therefore, going out with Charlie in public is uncommon for parents having children with intellectual disabilities. However, due to the fact that Simon cannot control the behavior of his autistic son, going out in public places is inevitably embarrassing and stressful for both of them. Additionally, the application of this uncommon stress pattern and going out in public can be explained with repression as the coping strategy chosen by Simon. Therefore, going out with Charlie can be rather dangerous for a young boy, but his father prefers to hide from the problem and avoids thinking of possible consequences.

Simon accepts the fact that Charlie is his son, but cannot accept his specific condition. Discussing his son’s participation in the school show, Simon calls him and other autistic children underdeveloped and demonstrates the lack of his understanding of the importance of Charlie’s socialization. This episode demonstrates the lack of Simon’s involvement into the process of upbringing of his autistic son and the lack of his empathy towards Charlie. Therefore, accepting Charlie as an inseparable part of his family, Simon is unable to show tolerance towards his autistic child. Arguing with his neighbors about their attitude, Simon mostly tries to protect his dignity and the dignity of his family, but lacks empathy towards his child himself. This situation demonstrates that Simon chooses an adaptive coping strategy and acts according to the situation and sometimes even impulsively.

The family environment and Simon’s relations with his wife and Maggie’s position have impact upon Simon’s coping strategies as well. As it can be seen from the situation with Maggie’s pregnancy and hospitalization, Simon shifts his responsibility for caring of his autistic child upon his wife only until he has such an opportunity. Therefore, Maggie takes the main burden of caring of Charlie and Simon does not object it. However, at the critical moment when Maggie is pregnant and badly needs rest, Simon readily takes the responsibility for their children and acts as a caring husband. Applying Erikson’s theory, it can be stated that Simon accepts another extreme of his developmental stage and makes progress in his personal development. Bringing his Teddy bear to the hospital and giving it to his wife, Simon demonstrates his maturation. However, in one of the final episodes of the movie, Simon uses his toy Rex as an excuse for not doing some of his household chores.

Implications for health care practice

Simon’s case as depicted in the movie The black balloon, shows a number of social problems of present day community, including those of the lack of social support and knowledge on the most effective coping strategies in parents caring for autistic children.

According to the 2004 data of Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 89% of autistic children in Australia attend mainstream schools, and about a half of their parents report the lack of social support in raising their children with special needs. Analyzing the scenes from the movie, it can be stated that Charlie attends a special school and there is even a separate school bus for children having autism. However, the contact with other children is inevitable. In one of the scenes, children’s humiliation leads to a serious conflict which could not be solved without the teachers’ intrusion. Therefore, there is a separate class and even bus for autistic children in the film, but children with intellectual impairment still contact children from mainstream school and are humiliated by nondisabled students.

Increasing parents’ awareness of the special needs of their children and existing strategies which can be used for coping with their stress could be beneficial for parents caring for children with intellectual disabilities. Tehee, Honan & Hevey (2009) noted that providing parents with information concerning the existing support services can be beneficial for improving their access to services and reducing the levels of their stress (p. 41). Additionally, parents’ needs may change when their autistic children enter different stages of their personal development. As it can be seen from the movie under consideration, Charlie’s growing sexual awareness has become another cause of parents’ embarrassment. In certain situations Simon feels helpless and does not know how to control his son’s behavior. Therefore, increasing parents’ awareness of the specific needs of their children and improving their access to social services is the first and one of the most important health care implications of Simon’s case.

Selecting the most effective stress coping strategies is another important step in reducing the stress in parents raising autistic children. Lyons, Leon, Roecker -Phelps & Dunleavy (2010) noted that task-oriented approaches are much more effective for decreasing children’s incapacities and reducing parents’ stress as compared to emotions-oriented coping strategies (p. 523). The examples from the movie under consideration demonstrate that the emotions-oriented coping strategies implemented by the Mollison’s appeared to be ineffective for decreasing Charlie’s incapacity and reducing the parents’ stress.

Analyzing Simon’s case and detecting the main deficits in health care system as depicted in the movie under analysis, it can be stated that the main health care implications include improving parents’ access to social services and enhancing their awareness of the most effective stress coping strategies.

Conclusion

Along with producing long-lasting emotional effects upon spectators, the movie under consideration presents a rather realistic picture of the daily routine in a family raising an autistic teenager. Along with evoking empathy towards not only Charlie, but all the members of his family, this film can be used for establishing the cause and effect relations between the main roots of Simon’s psychological stress, the chosen coping strategy and following difficulties. The film provides valuable insights into the daily routine of a family raising an autistic child in modern Australian community and can be used for detecting the existing deficits in health care system and social services and developing measures which could be taken for decreasing Charlie’s incapacities and reducing the stress experienced by his caregivers.

References

Barkway, P (ed.) 2009, Psychology for health professionals, Elsevier, Australia.

Hastings, R & Beck, A 2004, ‘Practitioner review: Stress intervention for parents of children with intellectual disabilities’, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 45, no. 8, pp. 1338-1349.

Lee, G 2009, ‘Parents of children with high functioning autism: How well do they cope and adjust?’ Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, vol. 21, pp. 93 –114.

Lyons, A, Leon, S, Roecker Phelps, C & Dunleavy, A 2010, ‘The impact of child symptom severity on stress among parents of children with ASD: The moderating role of coping styles’, Journal of Child and Family Studies, vol. 19, pp. 516 – 524.

Meadan, H, Halle, J & Ebata, A 2010, ‘Families with children who have autism spectrum disorders: Stress and support’, Exceptional Children, vol. 77, no. 1, pp. 7 – 36

Morrison, V, Bennett, P, Butow, P, Mullan, B, & White, K 2008, Introduction to health psychology in Australia, Pearson, Frenchs Forest NSW Australia.

‘Most children with disabilities attend mainstream schools’, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Web.

Rutgers, A, Ijzerdoon, M & Bakermans-Kranenburg, M 2007, ‘Autism, attachment and parenting: A comparison of children with autism spectrum disorder, mental retardation, language disorder, and non-clinical children’, Journal of Abnormal Child Development, vol. 35, pp. 859 – 870.

Tehee, E, Honan, R & Hevey, D 2009, ‘Factors contributing to stress in parents of individuals with autistic spectrum disorders’, Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, vol. 22, pp. 34-42.

The black balloon 2008, motion picture, Neo Classics Film, Icon Entertainment International.

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