It’s Not Always About the Autism
When did “special needs” become synonymous with disregarding the needs — and safety — of others?
July 26, 2008 - 8:00 am
Seldom does a week go by anymore without autism somehow making the news. Most recently, talk show host Michael Savage scoffed at the notion that autism is a health epidemic among the nation’s children saying, instead, “In 99 percent of the cases, it’s a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out.”
Not surprisingly, the autism community was outraged and immediately began petitioning WOR Radio to fire Savage. The online community responded similarly. Advertisers began pulling their ads and affiliate stations dropped Savage’s show.
But Savage chose to stand by his comments, explaining in a New York Times interview:
“My main point remains true,” Mr. Savage, whose radio audience ranks in size behind only those of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, said in the interview. “It is an overdiagnosed medical condition. In my readings, there is no definitive medical diagnosis for autism.”
While there’s no denying that Savage’s initial remarks were cruel and ignorant, this situation has made one thing perfectly clear: autism is big news. It’s the latest celebrity cause. It’s the new chipotle, the disorder du jour, and now it’s a plot line on NBC’s “Days of Our Lives.”
And when it comes to protecting autistic children from discrimination, everything else takes a backseat.
Consider, for instance, an incident last month involving a mother and her 2-year-old autistic child who were escorted off of an American Airlines flight after airline personnel declared the boy’s behavior “uncontrollable.” According to the airline, the child’s behavior simply compounded an unsafe situation stemming from the mother’s refusal to place her carry-on bag in the overhead compartment and the boy’s inability to remain in his seat.
Naturally, the mother’s story differs. In her telling it all comes down to the airline not understanding that, due to autism, the child had special needs to which the airline should have been more sensitive.
She claims, for instance, that the attendant repeatedly came by to tighten the child’s seatbelt because, in the mother’s own words, the child “was wiggling around and trying to get out of his seatbelt.” When the attendant reached over to tighten the child’s seatbelt again, the mother says she warned that the action would exacerbate her son’s autistic behavior. The child once again got out of his seat.
Later, the pilot himself came to tell the boy, “You have to stay in your seat, young man,” which the mother says prompted her to begin crying. That, too, she acknowledges, exacerbated the boy’s behavior, and again he got out of his seat. Eventually the pilot announced that the child was uncontrollable and the plane was going to return to the terminal where mother and child were escorted off.
The one aspect of the story upon which both sides agree: the child was, in the mother’s own words, “rolling around on the floor” after flight personnel had instructed passengers to fasten their seatbelts and the pilot prepared to take off.
While the pilot and the airline are being pummeled on blogs for their “cruelty” — and at the risk of sounding insensitive myself — I can’t help wonder when “special needs” became synonymous with disregarding the needs of others, or when the parent of a child with special needs was accorded special needs of their own.
Likewise, I can’t help wonder if the uproar would be more subdued if, say, the child on the American Airlines flight — or the children targeted on Michael Savage’s show — had ADD, depression, or oppositional defiant disorder. And where’s the uproar when a non-disabled child and her parents are ejected after the child refused to wear a seatbelt and wouldn’t get in her seat?
Answer: you can’t hear it above the applause of people who understand that safety rules require passengers to be in their seats wearing seatbelts before takeoff and that the airline owes a duty to all of its passengers to take off on time. Why, earlier this month HR 6355, the “Air Service Improvement Act of 2008,” was introduced to require airlines to address departure delays.
Listen to the news on any given day and you’ll realize just how little we do understand about autism. We have no idea what causes it: unstable genes, perhaps, or mental illness in the parents. Or maybe it’s high testosterone levels during fetal development or pesticide exposure or even — despite all the evidence to the contrary — caused by certain childhood vaccines.
As the phrase “autism spectrum” demonstrates, we’re not even sure how to define autism entirely. We know it’s a pervasive developmental disorder, but so are Asperger’s, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, and that catch-all, “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified.” We know their symptoms overlap and vary in degree, but we don’t know if they’re all manifestations of autism or discrete syndromes in their own right.
One thing we do know about autism: it creates a different world for every child who has it, one in which they alone exist yet where neither they, nor visitors like parents and educators, speak the language. We know, in the words of one little girl who emerged from her world of silence, that for those with autism, “reality hurts.” Their condition is not merely “all in their heads”; one autistic girl who’s learned to use a laptop for communication describes it as “a million ants are crawling up my arms.”
We know, too, that autism can lead to behavior that neither the child nor the parent can control. And it’s a fact, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, that such “meltdowns” can evolve into frightening rages leading the child to harm himself or herself — as well as others.
But because of the media’s obsession with autism, it’s not politically correct to point out that other people’s safety is a concern, too.
- Earlier this month, a Roman Catholic church in Minnesota obtained a restraining order prohibiting an autistic boy from attending mass. The boy, age 13, is 6 feet tall and weighs over 225 pounds. While attending mass he has urinated and spit in the church, bolted from services, and knocked down other parishioners in the process. The mother is fighting the restraining order.
- Last year, a 9-year-old boy was injured after being hit in the head by an autistic classmate who’d previously bitten his teacher and injured other students as well. The 9-year-old was also autistic, and the class was for children with special needs. The school had previously felt unable to address the situation due to laws prohibiting administrators from punishing children for behavior stemming from a disability.
- In 2006, an autistic boy in Issaquah, Washington, put his teacher in a headlock, hit her in the head and stomach, and threw her against a cabinet. He kicked two teaching assistants who tried to intervene. The teacher was left with neck and back injuries, and when the assistants said they were afraid to continue working with the boy the school district threatened to discipline them or terminate their employment.
- In San Jacinto today there sits a mother whose autistic child’s rages terrify her. Her son has jumped on her as she was driving, thrown his body into mirrored closet doors, busted through windows, hurled furniture, and attacked his younger siblings. When she’s called the police out of fear for her own safety, they’ve taken her son to a mental health facility. Mere hours later, she’s been told to pick him up. After explaining her fear of driving with him due to his rages, one of which led her to crash into a car, hospital personnel told her that if she’s not there within the hour they’ll report her to child services.
So when it comes to a toddler who refused to remain in his seat wearing a seatbelt and who was, as his mother described it, “rolling around on the floor,” if that child didn’t have autism he’d have been labeled a brat whose parent needed to tell him to, as Savage put it, “Stop acting like a putz. Straighten up. Act like a man. Don’t sit there crying and screaming, you idiot.”
But this was a case involving an autistic child, and somehow that meant nothing else was important: not the safety of the child and his mother, the flight crew, or the other passengers. Nothing.
Because when autism is involved it’s all about the autism, our new sacred cow.
Oh, let Michael Savage call the Catholic Church “greedy pigs.” Let him say that illegal immigrants “come here to work the system, sell drugs, rape, and kill on contract.” Let him call the Koran a book of hate. Let him complain about feminists and their “she-ocracy.” Let him say that homosexuals “mean nothing to me. … They’re all sausages” he hopes will “get AIDS and die.”
He’s a “shock jock” who insults people for a living. That’s what he does.
And that’s something the autism community, with all of its focus on autism awareness, fighting discrimination, and promoting inclusiveness for autistic kids, just isn’t getting with respect to Michael Savage’s comments: inclusion is a two-way street.
Unfortunately, just like the case where the safety of other American Airline passengers and the flight crew got overlooked because the situation involved an autistic child, that disorder is once again stealing the focus when it comes to Michael Savage’s comments: this isn’t about whether Savage’s comments were right but, rather, that it’s his right to have made them.