Janey has gotten back into a favorite Barney show, a Top Twenty countdown of songs. I was watching it with her a bit this morning, and was struck by how the show strives to be very inclusive---children of all races, kids with Down Syndrome, deaf kids, blind kids, kids in wheelchairs---it's nice to see. And then I thought---why never any kids with autism?
And of course the answer is obvious. A child with autism on a kids show would be a disaster. They would not act, they would not be with the program. They would not appear to be "one of the crowd" which is always the message of kids shows---we are all the same inside. Except kids with autism. They are different inside. They would cry when they were supposed to be happy, they would laugh when the scene didn't call for it, if they were verbal, they would talk about trains or bridges or whatever else they like, not the topic at hand. They would not be automatically friends with everyone else. They just would totally disrupt the whole message.
It's an interesting problem. It creates a bit of a public relations nightmare for autism, I think. It's why you never seen fundraisers or public service ads or posters featuring actual kids with autism. One part of that is that they don't stand out enough. Just a picture of Janey doesn't broadcast anything. Sometimes, of course, she has "the look", but that's something you see more if you know autism already. Many pictures of her look completely "normal", except, if I might boast, extra beautiful. And the other reason is that kids with autism stand out too much. It seems very, very important in our society to send a certain message---that once you get to know someone, you will see they are just like you. But that doesn't work with autism. In some ways, of course, it's true, but in many ways, it is not. Janey's not going to get with the program at some point. She's never going to part of the happy Barney crowd.
So what would I like? How would I want the media to handle autism? What I'd like is probably too much to ask. It would be that they would show autism as it really is. I'd love to see a Barney episode with a Janey in it---someone perhaps thrilled by the music, dancing around to her own beat, then maybe overwhelmed by all the sound and action, crying a little, then laughing hysterically at her own internal joke, and maybe, just maybe, if she were in the mood, hugging Barney. When she wanted to, if she wanted to. I think letting people see what a child with autism is really like would go a long, long way to helping the many autistic kids out there be understood and accepted.
It won't happen. If autism ever makes it into the kids' media scene, it will be a child with very, very high functioning autism, a verbal child who is a little quirky but essentially with the theme---like you and me. Someone who can act. Can act normal enough to be on the show. Which is a sad message. We all should be accepted---except those who just somehow really aren't like the rest of us. We will just pretend they don't exist at all, because there is no way to easily include them in the big happy dance.