An Open Letter to the Media: On “Severe” Autism and Inspiration Porn8 min read

Recently, a high school senior named Jack graduated– and this made international news.

Most high school seniors graduate from high school.  So, what made this particular senior’s graduation so significant?  Well, it wasn’t Jack personally who made headlines, nor the fact that he graduated.  What made headlines was that a whole gymnasium of people accommodated this person by not assaulting him with ableism.

And, that’s actually newsworthy.  It shouldn’t be, but it is.

The senior is autistic, and like many of us, he has difficulty with loud noise.  Clapping can be extra difficult because of the sharpness of the sound.  It’s physically painful.  To me, specifically, it is much more difficult to be in a room with someone who does a single loud clap than it would be for them to slap me in the face.

After it happens, I am reeling.  I have to have an internal conversation with myself that the other person wasn’t intentionally being aggressive or trying to hurt me.  I have to tell myself not to cover my ears or wince or “act rude” by expressing how unsettling it is.

Because the norm is ableism.

People aren’t intentionally ableist, at least not most of the time.  In this case, they just don’t understand what it is like to have such a dramatically different– and intense— sensory experience.  If you were in a room with someone who set off an air horn, unexpectedly, you’d feel assaulted.

Same thing.  Exactly the same.

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What is as intrusive and painful as an air horn to someone without that particular sensory sensitivity, a clap can be just as jarring for someone with sensory processing disorder and/or autism.  An auditorium full of applause can be downright unbearable.

Asking for people to observe some basic kindnesses should be the norm.  At events that are perfunctory, like graduations, where autistic people and others with sensory sensitivity are required to attend, a few basic kindnesses could make a world of difference.  After all, as much as 20% of the population (one out of every five people) have sensory sensitivity.

So back to Jack.  Jack graduated from high school, and that’s all that was said about him personally.  That, plus the fact that he “has a severe form of autism.”

“Severe”

By what measures, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, BBC, etc., is Jack’s autism “severe”?

Because his sensory sensitivity to sound is severe?  Or because it’s so sensitive that he has to cover his ears in anticipation of being assaulted from thousands of people at once in different directions?

Or really, is it because he doesn’t tolerate the pain while hiding it?

Because autistic people understand sensory assaults, whether or not you can tell they’re autistic.  Autistic people also know the feeling of scorn from people who act like autistics are weird or “have a severe form of autism” for not hiding their autistic traits or asking for basic needs to be met.

Would you like to know how that feels?

It’s like the feeling being under the watchful eyes of fifty thousand people who can’t get past how “special” you are to see you as a human being.

Inspiration Porn: The Basics

So, what is inspiration porn, exactly?

Well, let’s condense a big topic into a few points that should be easy enough to identify, understand, and then, most importantly– NOT practice in journalism.

1.  Featuring Disabled People Doing Everyday Tasks

If a disabled person is doing something that most people do, like communicating, attending an event, or– say– graduating from high school, then it’s not newsworthy.

A few months ago, there was a daughter who was signing for her father at a concert.  This became national news, and everyone talked about how touching it was.  Here’s that footage.

But this is a daughter and a father communicating.  They’re using language like everyone else does when they communicate.  To film them…  creepy.

Two people communicating in their language is normal.

Again, for the people in the back: people communicating in their language is

NORMAL

Let’s imagine how cringe-worthy this scenario is in another context:

Marissa and Maya are meeting after work to have a chat over a glass of wine.

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They are speaking Spanish in Nebraska.  An amazed patron who has never seen two real-life people speaking Spanish films it and puts it on YouTube.

It becomes a national story.  Women had a glass of wine and– communicated.  Stop the presses.

See?  It’s weird, right?

Was an autistic person graduating what was newsworthy?  Because most autistic people graduate.  Was a woman signing to her deaf father in their everyday, normal communication?  Because that is not unique to them.  That’s their daily life.

Not being the majority does not mean that someone is fair game for being exoticized.  A disabled person sighting is not like bigfoot, and footage of their interactions in life does not make for ethical clickbait.

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Please put your cameras away.

2.  Making a Hero out of an Abled Person for Being Kind to a Disabled Person

Is a story sensational because someone abled did something decent for a disabled person?  Like not clapping for someone with sensory processing disorder because clapping is painful to that person?  Helping someone up the stairs in a place where no ramp exists?  Making egg-, peanut-, and gluten-free dessert options for people with severe food allergies?

Those things are accommodations that are reasonable things decent people do for others.  Telling the story of the abled “hero” dehumanizes the disabled person.  They’re not a cat stuck in a tree waiting for a square-jawed, well-muscled firefighter to whisk them to safety.  They’re simply existing and having basic needs that society doesn’t always meet.

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Again, imagine an alternate scenario: In a predominantly-Christian neighborhood, a news story featuring a gaggle of people accepting and accommodating for a Jewish family at a community cook-out by serving a Kosher option.

Would it be acceptable to create a narrative of the touching heroics of the majority without even addressing the Jewish neighbor, but instead showing him eating his dinner with the chefs standing triumphantly around him like benevolent philanthropists?

Again, it’s backwards, right?  It isn’t news to “other” human beings so much that they stop being a person and start representing a “cause.”  So why is it okay to report this way when a disabled person is featured?

It’s not.  It’s really not.

3.  Telling a Story Without the Perspective of the Disabled Person

If you find yourself reporting on an event, like Jack’s graduation, then first obtain the disabled person’s informed consent.

But most importantly, ask them what they want readers or viewers to know– about them as an individual, about how others can be more accepting, or about how people can stop doing the thing that makes life unnecessarily difficult.

4.  Infantilizing Adults

Jack was treated like the “acceptable autistic.”  Characterizing him as having a “severe form of autism” was the way to say, “He’s more helpless and needy than the other people in the class who have to do favors for him.  Look how nice they are for protecting his sensitive ears.”

Because let’s face it.  Hearing, “severe form of autism” causes people to sympathize.  They hear, “Not like us.”  If there was nothing observable about him to indicate he was disabled, would it have made national news?

Jack garnered a lot of sympathy because “severe form of autism” does evince a degree of compassion from most people; however, “severe” autism isn’t a thing.  Autistic people all have various struggles, and some are intense while others aren’t.

Intellectual disability is a thing.  Sensory processing disorder is a thing.  But no disability is a “thing” that reduces a person’s humanity so much that they’re not worthy of being given a voice in their own story.

It’s implicitly infantilizing to not have Jack represent himself in any way.

How to Cover the Stories

The graduation was newsworthy.

The principal delivered a lovely, humanizing speech before Jack received his diploma.  He normalized disability and asked the crowd to care about Jack’s sensory sensitivities and clap silently, like a “golf clap,” so that Jack can enjoy his graduation.

The principal reminded everyone about the deeply-held value of compassion.  He didn’t mention autism.  He just said that Jack had a hard time with loud noise, and for him, everyone would do something different.

Disabled people should be featured in all forms of media, but not as wretches, waifs, trophies to someone abled’s kindness, nor as adult children.

ABLED HERO

Disabled people should be featured as normal people in that they are fully-human, age-appropriate, thinking, autonomous, self-representing individuals speaking on behalf of themselves.

Even if someone has a speech impediment, intellectual disability, or is non-speaking, they are still equally worthy of being respected and of having their opinions and needs honored– not their disability exploited.

Did Jack have the opportunity to consent to this being news?  If he didn’t, then you’ve failed Jack.  You’ve failed disabled people in neglecting to consult disability advocates on how to tell the story.

The truth is, there were several autistic people in that auditorium.  Some didn’t know they were autistic.  Some didn’t feel safe enough to ask for accommodations.  Some were so disillusioned by their bullies that they didn’t want to forebear a show of kindness for the cameras.

And if you’re thinking that I’m too negative, that I’m not like those people, then you’ve proven my point.  If you can only extend compassion to someone who seems “obvious” and the right brand of childishly-innocent, the you’re only interested in using disabled people to bolster your own ego and up your ratings.

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Disabled people are not click-bait.

Experts are allowed to be experts, but the media norm is that disabled people are not allowed to be experts on themselves.  They’re not “disabled” enough if they aren’t obvious because most people are only willing to be compassionate towards the disabled if they can see them as a charity case.

Because a disabled person asking you to stop staring, tone it down, and turn off the damn camera isn’t going to pluck anyone’s heart strings.  But it should make them feel something: recognition of another’s autonomy and right to live as a human and not a circus attraction.

Someone advocating for the self is not inspiration porn.

Publish the heartwarming story, but let disabled people tell their own perspective.  Represent the diversity of disability, and mostly– the autonomy of disabled people.   Watch the language you use to discuss disability.  Consult disability advocates to know what to say to avoid dehumanizing language and coverage.

Show disabled people doing everyday tasks without making the story about disability.  Normalize disabled people, because having a disability is, well, pretty damn unremarkable.  Lots of humans are disabled.

It’s perfectly normal.  Please portray it that way, and ask others to do the same.

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Terra Vance

Admin, Founder at The Aspergian
Terra Vance is an industrial and organizational psychology consultant and the proprietor of Acumen Consulting, LLC.She specializes in diversity, inclusion, multiculturalism, and poverty dynamics. She is a founder and administrator at The Aspergian.Her passions are in the intersections of social justice, equality, literature, Truth, and science.To contact Terra via email, click here.
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6 Comments

  1. Terra – are you ready to sign up to be the “Miss Manners” to help with this?  Just like Dear Abby…we need to normalize non-able-ism (ugh). 

    Asking or expecting non-able-ism without teaching it daily is…probably doomed.

    We need a book, newspaper column, YouTube channel to teach better culture…  Probably more than one…

    Etiquette books, a non-able-ist Robert’s Rules of Order…. 

    I’ll buy the first copy.

  2. I saw that story 4 different places and I was so angry at the way it was portrayed: “this poor autistic kid managed to graduate high school and just look at how his whole class went out of their way not to be awful to him!”

    Thank you for this.

  3. I just watched a video on Facebook that shared a similar sentiment in relation to “abled hero.”  I found their Youtube post of it: https://youtu.be/j-kDsBrHAYs
    It’s called A Day in the Life.

  4. “A disabled person sighting is not like bigfoot, and footage of their interactions in life does not make for ethical clickbait.”  This line was hilarious.  Thank you for such a relatable piece!

  5. Well said!  I’d add a fifth inspiration porn: the “Super heroing” of Autistics.

    It’s like the “Wow!!”  story you see of an Autistic kid who graduates university at 13.  Or the savant Autistics can tell you the weather two hundred years ago or multiply two six digit numbers in 3 seconds.  Or in entertainment, those like Shaun Murphy of the Good Doctor series, who use their super power to save.

  6. Am I not the only one who buys into the “Superpower” stereotype of Autistics, but I take it so far that I view them(and me) as superhuman,and therefore “have the right to be above everyone else”?

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