I have been a lifelong Tim Burton fan, and when I say life long, I genuinely mean my entire nearly 27-year existence. It started with The Little Mermaid.
My grandmother has heard that visual stimulation was good for newborn babies, and decided that I needed a movie to watch when I was in my rocker while my mom ran around the house doing things. I wasn’t a needy baby in the slightest. I barely made a fuss over anything, unless I had an ear infection or was especially gassy (and who isn’t grumpy when they have a painful balloon of gas in their stomach), so it was easy for my mom to put me in my automated rocker in 16 minute spurts while she tried to be a functional adult. Evidently, you can get a LOT done in sixteen minutes. Who knew?
Anyway, my mom would wind up the rocker, start the VHS, and come check on me every 16 minutes to make sure I was set while she basically acted like Wonder Woman around the house. What she never happened to notice was at the start of that VHS was a mini movie preview for this weird movie, The Nightmare Before Christmas. I mean, she could hear it, but she figured I didn’t pay much attention to it and just liked the pretty colors. It’s not like I’d remember or anything.
Fast forward a bit to me being three years old. I was barely talking, but I was a calm, happy toddler. I never EVER threw a temper tantrum. I would cover my ears when kids were being loud and throwing tantrums because it bothered me. I just wanted people to be quiet and happy, evidently. One day, my mother needed to go to the grocery store and took me along. As long as there was a cookie at the front display where the kid’s carts were, I was a happy camper. If they happened to be out, I’d settle for a Reese’s peanut butter cup.
So there we were in HG Hills grocery store in the Green Hills neighborhood of Nashville, which is kind of like the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I was a happy, quiet, giggling child. And then it happened.
“JACK!!” I tried my absolute best to launch myself out of the grocery cart as we turned down an aisle. My mom was bewildered. I didn’t act like this about anyone or anything. Maybe I saw a friend from preschool? She was pretty sure there might be a Jack there, and looked around confused. No toddlers. “Sweetie, what is it?” My mom tried to calm me down, grabbing groceries as we went.
We snaked into the next aisle: “JACK!” I lunged out of the cart again. “Honey, I don’t understand what you want. Who is this Jack?” I looked at her with pleading eyes. “Jack! JACK!!” I imagine it was probably like speaking with Hodor.
This continued for several aisles. Snooty moms with their organic-before-it-was-cool children stared. Old ladies arched their eyebrows. I had become that awful child I despised.
“JAAAAAAAAACK!” I finally make it out of the cart, and my mom caught me as I grabbed hold of a black VHS box with yellow writing.
“Punky? What is this? Is this Jack?” I nodded furiously. My mom read the display. The Nightmare Before Christmas?! What was this?! It looked scary, far too scary for a young toddler. No, this had to go back. My mom tried to touch the VHS – “JACK, MOMMY.”
“Oh…okay, sweetie, if that’s what you really want…” She could see it now. She’d pop in the VHS, I’d get scared and start crying, and she’d return it home, never understanding what Jack really meant. I wouldn’t let the cashier or my mom get the tape from me. They literally had to pick me up and hold me over the scanner to get it.
We arrive home, me still holding on to the tape, eyes wide open, happily giggling “Jack! Jack! Jack!” I’m pretty sure this was the moment that my mother thought she’d raised a serial killer and that I would probably end up needing a lot of therapy, or just become an alcoholic. She sat me down in the living room, wrestled the VHS long enough to get the actual tape out of the box, handed me back the box (more like I snatched it back from her), and put in the tape.
She was so, so confused. Singing pumpkin kings? A zombie doll? This was scary! This was not at all meant for kids! Sure, it had some sweet songs, but – OH DEAR GOD THAT THING HAS AN AXE IN IT’S HEAD! My mom rushed to the phone and called my grandmother. “Come over. We need to talk. You need to see this. Now.”
My grandmother was dumbfounded when she came over. She arrived right about when Oogie Boogie split open, and I had fallen over giggling myself nearly into hiccups. I now had a new favorite movie.
Over the next few months, I learned all of Sally’s lines, all of Jack’s lines, all The Mayor’s lines, and soon everyone’s lines. Sometimes I’d act out along with the movie. I’d ALWAYS sing every lyric and say every word, however. When it came to daily life, however, I was still nearly silent. And really, that should have been one of the first signs to a diagnosis.
No, I’m not a serial killer or an alcoholic. I’m on the autism spectrum, just like Tim Burton. Neither of us are what most people think of when they hear “autism.” We had no special education classes – instead, we were in the gifted and accelerated classes. We’re “quirky,” “interesting,” or “a bit of a smartass, but really nice.” Those are all approved ways of saying “you aren’t quite neurotypical, are you?” Or, as a therapist put it, “you’re a little spectrummy, aren’t you?” While he’s technically been diagnosed with Asperger’s, that’s now become an out-of-date diagnosis and is all lumped into the autism spectrum. My specific diagnosis is SPD, or Sensory Processing Disorder, which means I basically register everything going on around me and can’t filter any of it out.
When I got my diagnosis just over a year ago, it felt right and wrong all at the same time. Right because I finally had some answers as to why I act and think the way I do, but wrong because I knew no successful adults on the spectrum. Career suggestions were laughable. There wasn’t, and still isn’t much of any kind of help for an adult on the spectrum, especially when one gets a diagnosis so much later than is typical. In a pit of anxiety and depression, I started googling successful adults on the spectrum, figuring they were few and far between, mentally setting myself up for the list to be bleak. And then, there he was – Tim Burton. Helena Bonham Carter suggested he get tested while she was researching a role for an autistic character.
The brain behind my favorite childhood movie was also not quite normal. It was almost like I’d been hearing him say my whole life “it’s okay, I know you’re different, and it’s not just okay but wonderful.” I immediately went to watch the movie again, singing along and seeing it in an entirely different light. Jack being frustrated with his communication with the rest of Halloween. Sally being so wary of change. The Mayor needing things to be a certain way and to start planning for next year’s celebration a whole year ahead. Jack delving head first into Christmas by researching it very logically and thoroughly – literally trying to dissect it, but also getting wrapped up in the emotion of awe as he kept discovering new things. No wonder I loved these characters! They approached their problems exactly like I do! Their reactions were so like mine! And in the end, they saved Christmas and Halloween. If that isn’t a success story, I don’t know what is.
Thanks, Mr. Burton, for your wonderful mind. And yes, I still know every line, so you probably shouldn’t watch with me unless you want to be really annoyed.