Our Talk with Christopher Ulmer of Special Books by Special Kids: A Seriously Not Boring Interview

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My youngest son and I recently had the opportunity to talk via Skype with Christopher Ulmer, aka “Mr. Chris,” of Special Books by Special Kids. Usually Chris interviews other people, so we thought it would be fun to turn the tables and be the ones asking the questions to learn more about him and his students. For those of you who may not know who he is,  Chris is an exceptional education teacher in Florida. His unique and affirming teaching style as well as his extraordinary class of students has captured the hearts of many and become a viral sensation. The first video to gain widespread attention showcased his “compliment time” with the students at the start of each school day, and it was featured first at “The Mighty” and then in an article on ABC News. From there the message spread all over the mainstream media, reaching far beyond the typical “Awareness” circles, and Chris even made an appearance on Rachel Ray’s television show. The messages from Mr. Chris and his students continue to spread all over the internet, and the page has even been mentioned on unexpected sites like MTV, prompting Ashton Kutcher to say, “Mr. Chris, you’re a great teacher.”

Two videos from our conversation are embedded at the bottom of this post. In the first video he talks with my youngest son (his older brother decided not to participate because this isn’t his kind of thing 😉 ). Noodle Dog makes an appearance, there is some Minecraft talk in the middle, and an eyeball crossing contest at the end. Chris described his teaching philosophy and what influenced his decision to become an exceptional education teacher. I was also finally able to ask something I have long wondered about; it seems, when watching the SBSK videos, that teaching in a private school setting allows a level of flexibility in the classroom that wouldn’t be able to occur in a public school setting (for many reasons). He addresses that, as well as whether or not they have any sort of standardized testing. He also recalls an excellent and entertaining musical concert performed by his students, and all the work that went into it. You will have to watch the video to hear the fun story.

Update: here is the short “highlights” version of just the silly parts. 🙂

 

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Autism DOES NOT Create Mass Murderers

Today

Autism does NOT equal mass shooter. However, the media often includes information in their stories that may lead the general public to make that assumption. Right now the tragic and senseless shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon is all over the news, as well as the subject of Autism. For example, the Today show ran a news clip on 10/6/2015 (the day of this post), with the description that “Information about the gunman in last week’s mass shooting in Oregon is emerging, indicating that his mother may have had an impact on his fascination with guns.” Then the first part of the piece proceeded to discuss not guns, but Autism. Here is a link to the clip:

http://www.today.com/video/new-details-emerge-about-oregon-shooters-mother-539317827583

The reporter Miguel Amaguer says, “Starling new revelations about the mother of Chris Harper-Mercer, a shooter who killed nine people at Umpqua Community College last week. For over a decade Laurel Harper, a registered nurse, offered online advice on various medical issues like Asperger’s Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum disorder that she wrote both she and her son struggled with.”

The story also mentioned that Harper wrote of dealing with a “screaming autistic head banger.” Why was that necessary? It then without explanation segued into the portion that was actually related to the story’s description: that the mother’s involvement with guns and the way she exposed her son to them may have possibly helped contribute to her son’s obsession with firearms.

So what was the link that viewers were supposed to make between the “new information” about Autism within the family, and the new information about their involvement with guns? What was Today trying to imply? Why was Autism even relevant to a story that seemed to be about the fact that the mother taught her son how to shoot guns?

It seemed to me to be to be a sensationalistic treatment of Autism, NOT relevant to the story, and disrespectful to Autistic people in general.

Stories like these are potentially damaging and can help foster the fear and stigma that is so often faced by Autistic individuals.

(Update: I did not address the gun issue in this post because this is a discussion about Autism. My point is that the news report purported to be about guns, but then also included seemingly unrelated information about Autism. I am not making any sort of commentary about guns one way or another. While it is an important discussion, that was not my focus here.)

Years ago, while the world was reeling from what transpired at Sandy Hook, best-selling Author John Elder Robison wrote an article for Psychology Today called “Asperger’s, Autism, and Mass Murder.” Speculation had arisen then, as now, that the shooter may have had Asperger’s. Robison is himself Autistic (he describes himself using both terms Asperger’s and Autistic), and warned, “Let’s stop the rush to judgment.” He also stated plainly, “Correlation does not imply causation.”  Continue reading

When Public Figures Mess Up

In the past few days and weeks several public figures have had damaging personal information come to light. I’m talking about several different situations, not just Ashley Madison revelations. Some of these transgressions are seemingly worse than others, and some actually hurt people. I don’t make light of that. However, the media is always thrilled to have these juicy stories. Details of people’s private lives and personal failings are then trotted out to the world for their entertainment value. Commenters proceed to swarm all over the Internet and some are positively gleeful, saying, “This is great!” or “Haha, BUSTED!” There are cries of “Hypocrite!” Many are brutal, saying all kinds of cruel, crude, profane statements, even wishing them physical harm. When these fallen public figures happen to be Christians the screaming gets worse, and all Christians are painted with the same brush. People rally to stand in self-righteous judgement, seemingly forgetting their own flaws.

I understand that some of these individuals are experiencing a backlash because of their own previous statements. They have stood in harsh judgement of others and hurt people with their words. The irony is not lost on me. I hope maybe they learn something when they reflect upon the reality that they, too, are flawed. That being said, I still couldn’t believe some of the things that have been said online to those individuals. Reading the comments on a well-known You-Tuber’s page made me physically ill and brought tears to my eyes (but to be fair so did the news of what he is alleged to have done).

What I keep thinking over and over again in my mind is this: All humans are flawed, all humans make mistakes. At times some of us even do horrible things. Ultimately ALL humans on some level are hypocrites. Each one of us has a gap between what we say we believe/the person we want to be versus the way we actually live. And we all must ultimately face the consequences for our own mistakes or hypocrisy. But do those consequences warrant being subjected to public cruelty? (Click here to see a conversation about this subject on my Facebook page.)

Why is it that we take such joy in seeing other people fail? Why does it make us feel so much better about ourselves? And how is it that the simple disconnect of a screen between us and another person allows us to intentionally inflict hurt upon a fellow human being? Is it because we think they are so deserving of the Scarlet A, or the stoning? It seems we have not evolved very far from colonial days when a rule breaker would be placed in the courtyard stocks so that others could throw rotten fruit at them, instead of simply allowing someone to face judgement in the court system.

I make lots of mistakes too. There are things in my past that I regret. I have also stood in judgment and been harsh to others. But I want to do better in my own life and in the way I treat people.

I hope I never rejoice in the downfall of another human being. I may be relieved that they are no longer continuing down the wrong path, and I might nod understandingly at the fact that they are bearing the consequences for their own poor choices. I will probably even be relieved that they are brought to justice. But I do not wish to rejoice in it, or participate in lynch-mob mentality. I won’t use it as an opportunity to further tear someone apart by kicking a man when he’s down, so to speak. There are better ways to stand up for what is right. There are better ways to achieve justice.

The media and harsh commenters and vilifiers seem to forget that there’s often collateral damage… family members, spouses, and innocent children. Your words wound them as well.

Remember folks, we’re all in this together. Let’s be kind.

(This post was edited to add the following: “I understand that some of these individuals are experiencing a backlash because of their own previous statements. They have stood in harsh judgement of others and hurt people with their words. The irony is not lost on me. I hope maybe they learn something when they reflect upon the reality that they, too, are flawed.”)

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“I’m sorry, Ken, but that is incorrect”: My response to Ken Jennings

Wrong Answer

Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings made the following tweet yesterday: “Nothing sadder than a hot person in a wheelchair.” The Twitterverse almost immediately exploded. Some people laughed, most were outraged. Jennings has not yet responded to inquiries and comments about the tweet. Part of me wanted to resist giving this ableist nonsense any more exposure, nor give that person any more free press, but I just have to say: I’m sorry, Ken, but that is incorrect.

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What I learned by having a “viral” video

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Two months ago a video of  a sea lion playing with my son, who has an Autism Spectrum Disorder, unexpectedly got a lot of attention.  An earlier post talks more about the story behind the video, as well as why I decided to make a personal moment public. Basically I thought it was cute and my friends and family might like to see it, other special needs parents might be able to relate, and it was an opportunity to spread Autism Awareness. What I didn’t expect was that within a week’s time it would have over 90,000 views and be spread all over the world (no, not one of those “mega-viral” 1 million views kind of videos, but still a surprising reach). Before I posted it to the internet I was convinced I had thought things through, but the results still caught me off guard. I found the whole unexpected process incredibly exciting and incredibly exhausting. I recently agreed to do a television interview about the experience, and you can watch it here on the website for ABC affiliate WRIC Channel 8. They called it, “Going Viral: What You Need to Know Before Posting Online”. I did the interview and wrote this post in the hopes that by sharing some of our crazy journey it might help other people in a similar situation. I don’t have any advice for you if you have a video that you hope to turn mega viral and use to make lots of money. But if you have a story you want to tell or content to share, and want some tips on how to protect your rights and your family in the process, then keep reading. Yes, when this all started I thought it was possible we might make a bit of money, but that was not my main goal. I just wanted to share a cute video of my cute kid and thought it might also help people.

First, and very important, ask yourself if the benefits from what you post will outweigh the risks. What do you hope to get out of the experience, and is it worth what you will give up? If you just want your 15 minutes of fame you need to be prepared for the loss of privacy and the scrutiny that comes with it. All that attention from strangers feels good for about a whole day, but then in a flash you are yesterday’s news. If you are doing it to make money, let me just say you probably won’t make very much. If you are allowing yourself or your story to enter the public eye because you have something important to share, or you want to help people, then I applaud you. I have a new-found respect for anyone willing to make a public stand for what they believe in, because it is a scary thing to make yourself vulnerable to the prying eyes, and possible criticism, of strangers. That part was what scared me the most. Before I posted the video of my son I thought it through as carefully as I could. It’s not a video that makes fun of him or something he will be embarrassed by when he gets older. I asked his permission before sharing it, as well as before I shared that he has an Autism Spectrum Disorder, because it was important to me that I have his consent. I made sure that throughout the whole process my son was treated with respect. Even though I thought that it could be an opportunity help spread awareness and acceptance, I tried to make sure it didn’t sensationalize Autism or exploit my son. I also asked myself if I was compromising the safety of my family by allowing our video to been seen publicly. Is the loss of your privacy worth it? I felt safer about releasing our video because my son’s face was obscured in shadow. At the time we had not decided if we wanted to publicly release his image. I should have been more emotionally prepared for the fact that even if I didn’t release his image, it would get out there (more on that in a bit).

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