Why Some “Good Deed” Stories Can Do More Harm Than Good

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Another day, another “feel-good” story. But what if these stories actually do more harm than good? Before you judge me for being cynical, let me explain.

What often happens is there is a person who has some sort of disability and they might also need some assistance. Then some “typical” person decides to be kind and help them. Usually that’s fine. Great even. We should reach out to our fellow humans. The world needs more genuine compassion and caring.

Sometimes a third-party happens to witness the scene, and interprets it as the grand gesture of an amazingly generous individual who took their time to help out a poor, pitiable and helpless disabled person. Then pictures are taken without asking the permission of all the parties involved, because they want to spread the amazing, feel-good story throughout all kinds of news outlets and social media platforms. Still sound great?

There is nothing inherently wrong with positive stories about people with disabilities or tales of good deeds. It’s the motivation behind it or the way the subject is handled that can be problematic. Sometimes the individual performing the good deed or telling the story does so with motives other than just being kind to someone else; sometimes they do it for notoriety.

In other cases I don’t doubt that the overall intention of the story tellers was good, yet somehow things took a turn. Often that is the fault of the tactics used by the media, who love a heart-tugging, viral story. News sources often spread these “feel-good” messages at the expense of the dignity of their subjects, presenting the person with a disability as merely a pawn in someone else’s story. It is designed to make US, not them, “feel good,” and praises and elevates the person performing the “good deed.” These stories do all that at the expense of the recipient, often without their consent. Stories like this are commonly referred to as “Inspiration Porn.” Continue reading

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See Different, Be Different: Thoughts on Neurodiversity and More

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I was recently asked to speak at at Autism Awareness Month event that was held by the exceptional education department of our local school system, and the audience was parents of autistic children. This is the transcript from that event, and is basically most of what I want to say about autism and neurodiversity all crammed into one post. But first some disclaimers: I am not perfect, I screw up all the time, and am still fumbling my way through this parenting thing.

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I am also not an “expert,” nor am I Autistic, although I am neurodivergent. I am a mom and an advocate and a writer,  and I learn through experience, by asking a lot of questions, and by doing a lot of research.

My perspective may also be different than yours, but one thing I have learned along this journey is to not devalue someone else’s opinion just because their situation isn’t the same as my own. We should be open to considering one another’s viewpoints. We also should avoid the danger of turning this into a competition of whose struggles are worse, and unfortunately we have all seen that happen.

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(Image is inspired by the post “20 Things That Parenting a Child With Special Needs has Taught Me About Life in General.”)

We ourselves may have fallen prey to the dangers of comparison, by saying things like, “Well, at least your child can…”, or “You don’t know what it’s like to…” Friends, let me warn you that kind of thinking is a trap. Parenting is hard, I know that. Some days are exhausting and even sad. Life in general can be hard, and living with any sort of disability can be hard. But we are all in this together, and no matter where we are, or where our children are in the journey, we can learn from one another. Then when we get weary we have each other for support.

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One way I try to help encourage other parents and support the Neurodiverse community is by writing and sharing my voice. I hope to help make the world a safer place for those who are different. I want to help de-stigmatize DIFFERENT. Because without our differences, the world would be VERY boring. Different is the new normal!

So I came up with the slogan: See Different, Be Different (image at top of post). Different is not bad, it’s not broken, or as Temple Grandin says, different is not less.

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Continue reading

The Day a Sea Lion Wanted to Play: Autism Acceptance in Unexpected Places

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We all want to feel happy, connected, and accepted. Sometimes that is found in ways we least expect.

One late winter day my family visited the zoo in Washington, D.C. It was early and we had the underwater viewing area at the sea lion exhibit all to ourselves. My youngest son had on a jacket with contrasting colors and we noticed it seemed to catch the attention of one particularly curious sea lion. I starting recording as the two darted back and forth on opposite sides of the glass, and she followed his every move. When my son realized what was going on he joyfully cried out, “She likes me!”

My son is *Autistic, and social interaction as well as playing with other children is sometimes hard and complicated. Some research has shown that children with Autism and other disabilities are actually  2-3 times more likely to be bullied by their peers. They also often find it easier to relate to animals and can connect with them more easily than with people.

My son was thrilled to find a playmate that day and to feel free to be himself. It came so easily. All the sea lion wanted was to play, and nothing else mattered; not social rules, not appearance. Just fun.

We learned later that the sea lion was named Sophie, and she was famous for interacting with her visitors. She accepted all potential playmates equally, but I would wager that few were as enthusiastic as my youngest son. As their game of follow-the-leader continued, he exclaimed, “THIS IS THE BEST THING OF MY LIFE!”
Continue reading

Autism ACTION Month

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April is “Autism Awareness Month,” but many say that mere acceptance is not enough. Autistic people are far too often marginalized and dismissed. Autistic adults are aware that many who claim to speak for the Autism community don’t actually ask Autistic people for their opinion. They are aware that many businesses refuse to give them a chance at meaningful employment. Parents are aware of the isolation that their Autistic children feel when they are mocked by their peers, and they are aware of the lack of sufficient resources to help their children thrive in schools.

It is not enough to be aware one month of the year, and sometimes it seems like the only people really paying attention to Autism Awareness Month are people in the community. The rest seem to just want to donate money to an Autism charity to ease their conscience and feel like they made a difference.

A startling, heartbreaking example of why we need to do MORE happened while my friend, Cindy, was out with her son, Ty. Ty is Autistic and has limited speech. He’s also sweet and funny and loved by many. Cindy gave me permission to share details of an encounter they had while inside a store:

We were approached by an employee who seemed to have an intellectual disability of some kind. “Is he special?” He asked, pointing at Ty. “He sure is!” I said. “He is VERY special and I love him very much.”

The man said, “I’m special too. So I understand. He can be my friend”. I assured him that we could be his friend too, and agreed we’d high-five him whenever we shopped there. He liked this.

“Of course, everyone else thinks we are freaks”, he said.

What could I do but laugh? “Well maybe we are ALL freaks”, I said.

As I read Cindy’s words my emotions changed from inspired to heartbroken.

Everyone else thinks we are freaks,he said. NO ONE should have to feel that way. We need to do better to make the world a more accepting place for Autism.

That young man saw a kindred spirit in Ty and asked him to be his friend. If we want to make a difference then we too should be a friend to this man and other Autistic people. And we should do it all year round, not just in April. But how?

Want to REALLY make a difference? ACCEPT. ACCOMMODATE. APPRECIATE. ADVOCATE. Take ACTION. Keep reading for some suggestions of ways that we can help improve the lives of people with Autism. They don’t need our pity, but they do need our support.  Continue reading