So anyway, the Oprah Winfrey Network (available on most cable/satellite TV lineups, at least here in the US) has a reality show.
It sheds light on the lives of a family that includes an autistic boy, aged 18, who was diagnosed as autistic at age three.
Generally speaking, it’s a step in a positive direction to start talking openly about the autism spectrum and profile the people who live on it.
However, I’m gravely concerned about this show. This concern is borne out of several thoughts.
Thought 1 – It follows the textbook outlook of the medical, pathological perception of autism, which adds yet one more card to the “Autism Is Bad” pile.
Having just recovered from hits sustained through movies like “Vaxxed” and “The Accountant”, here comes the next round, another instance in which a negative view of autism is driven home to the general public, and yet another reinforcement of the unwanted stereotype.
The good news is, this show busts a couple of stereotypes; the young man is not self-injurious and he does speak (as opposed to the universally nonverbal stereotype). But the sound bite chosen for the preview trailer was “I don’t want to have autism anymore.”
Why, oh why couldn’t the network profile a family with a member living well (or at least satisfactorily) on the autism spectrum? We do exist, ya know.
Thought 2 – The “real press” so far–the loudest megaphone–has not been given to the autistic person themselves; it’s been handed over to the mother, who harbors a negative perception of autism. Ableist, pathology-laden language abounds.
If that preview trailer wasn’t damaging enough, the person chosen for the highest profile interview was his mother, a neurotypical who was absolutely devastated when her son was diagnosed as autistic. Her world shattered.
I certainly don’t begrudge anyone their opinion or perspective, nor would I seek to silence or stifle their voice. The mother (and indeed, any over-stressed parent) is entitled to their opinion, and the expression thereof (so long as it’s not damaging to the child or children involved). It’s just that it would be nice not to have to be constantly bombarded with negative messages hollered through high-buck megaphones. All this does is reinforce the negativity that already swarms around a hot-button issue.
If she (and some of the other parents of autistic children) feels this negatively toward–and is this vocal about–her son’s neurotype, what kind of message does that send him? It’s not like he chose to be born this way. It’s not like he did something wrong. It’s also an inseparable part of who he is; it cannot be disconnected from the essence of his being. Therefore, a lament or disparaging word about his autism is a lament or disparaging word against him. It’s something that, at the present moment, cannot be changed.
Of all the people they could have chosen to feature for a reality show, couldn’t they have selected a family in which autism isn’t such an enemy?
Or at the very least, could they not have profiled a more positive, progressive person’s/family’s viewpoint alongside the family they chose?
Thought 3 – The links at the bottom of the entities that conducted the interview link to the Usual Suspects–Autism Speaks/$peaks and Cure Autism Now. While I understand and respect that not all autistic people are happy with their spectrum designation, the majority of the Asperger’s/autistic people I’ve met are more than content with ourselves as we are, spectrum status and all. In fact, most of the people I know actually view their neurotype as a potential advantage, and during a significant portion of the time.
Could they not have included a more positive, less damaging source of information than A$ and CAN? What about ASAN, the Autism Self-Advocacy Network? What about Learn From Autistics? What about The Thinking Person’s Guide To Autism? Or even a link to Steve Silberman’s TED Talk or ‘Neurotribes‘ book?
With so many excellent, credible, insightful resources of information out there, it’s utterly disappointing–and ridiculous–that two of the most archaic, negative, outdated, and offensive sources would be chosen over all of the available options. Sources not even supported by the vast majority of autistic people ourselves.
I’ve decided to write a respectful, logical letter to the Oprah Winfrey Network about this show. My goal is to provide a counterpoint to offset the stereotypical, negative portrayal of the autism spectrum and the people on it. Perhaps the genuine reality is that they simply don’t know anything different. But the problem is that this ignorance, combined with a gigantic budget, equals the perpetuation of less-than-accurate propaganda. After all, the press is only truly free if you own one. I’m fortunate to have access to blogging, so that I can grab a megaphone of my own when necessary. But it’s highly unlikely that any of the people involved in this show will ever see this blog, or any other of the long list of amazing Asperger’s/autism-related blogs out there. Because after all, in order to find them, you have to run the internet search in the first place. I have the feeling that nobody involved with that show is doing that. So that’s where my letter will come in – to offer an alternate viewpoint that they might otherwise not see.
Wish me luck 😉