William Christopher didn't just draw on acting technique for the compassion and faith that marked his role of Father Mulcahy in "M*A*S*H."
He drew on the struggle in his own life that required all the faith and compassion he and his wife, Barbara, could muster: raising an autistic child.Ned Christopher was 3 years old when his dad landed the job on the show that revolutionized series television. He was a beautiful child; blond, sturdy and fiercely independent.
By the time he was 2, Ned insisted on dressing himself, raging when he couldn't get his underpants on right. He hated to be cuddled, stiffening like a board when anyone tried to hold him. But he loved to bury his hands in people's hair.
He was obsessed with flags, always carrying a fistful of miniature flags with him. He could look at a book of flags and say, "That's Yugoslavia! That's Botswana! That's Manitoba!" For this passionate child, everything was an exclamation.
He toddled around his parent's garden calling out the names of plants. "Tomato!" and "Eggplant!" was impressive for a 2-year-old. "Pittosporum!" and "Ligustrum texanum!" was stunning.
Yet he couldn't say his own name.
The Christophers were puzzled, but they weren't panicked. Clearly, he was bright, they told themselves. It's just that he was somehow different.
As the glorious decade of M*A*S*H rolled along, going from Emmy award to Emmy award, the Christophers' life took a lonelier road.
Ned fell farther and farther behind children his own age. The bewildered Christophers spent years going from one specialist to another, trying to find out why. One said he was hopelessly retarded. Another said he was a little slow but would soon catch up. It was years before doctors discovered Ned was autistic.
Autism is neurological damage often accompanied by mental retardation. It causes difficulty with communication, behavior and the ability to relate to people.
One specialist urged the Christophers to give their adopted son away. When you adopted Ned, the specialist said, you just reached into the barrel and pulled out a bad apple. Why don't you put the apple back.
"It was nice that Ned and M*A*S*H happened together in a way," Christopher said in a telephone interview with the Deseret News. "It made the difficult thing we faced with Ned a little easier."
The Christophers have written a book, "Mixed Blessings," about their struggle to raise Ned. The book is just arriving in bookstores.
The May issue of Ladies' Home Journal recounts the Christophers' tale, and Reader's Digest will publish a condensed version of "Mixed Blessings."
Christopher will be at the tabernacle on Temple Square May 6 at 8 p.m. to tell his story as part of the National Barrier Awareness Observance hosted by Salt Lake City.
It is a hopeful story. "We don't despair," he said. "One of the reasons we wrote the book is because people ought not despair if they have handicapped people in their families.
`We've had a wonderful life. We want people to know that we've had our burden, but we've had a wonderful life."