There is a small difference between empathy and sympathy. Not until recently did I fully understand how to put into words what I knew it to be in my heart. Brené Brown has studied vulnerability, shame, and empathy and their social effects for years. She has been a Ted Talks speaker multiple times and is engaging in her talks. She explains sympathy as pointing out the silver lining in a bad situation they find themselves in. she describes empathy as someone coming along side a hurting person and acknowledging their hurt and saying they are sorry and there if that person needs them. They aren’t jumping in and trying to solve the problem or lighten the mood. They are putting themselves in the shoes of the hurting person and seeing the pain they might be feeling, even though you can’t truly know what that struggle feels like unless you are walking it. Many of Brené’s talks are on YouTube.
I am just going to put it straight out there: I think the entertainment industry has fallen short of its presumed autism sensitivity. Sure, there are shows where characters are autistic, but do they really display all levels of autism? I know one character cannot show multiple severities of autism, but the high functioning charater seems to be the only type being written. “Parenthood” is a show that is famous for its inclusion of an aspergers character. Honestly, the first time I saw the show, I laughed. That was supposed to show the world “autism” ? And the character Abed in the show “Community” has aspergers as well. He made it to college! If that is the picture of autism as a whole the entertainment industry is sending out, it’s no wonder some in society still don’t get it. These characters talk and function well. For so many of us, that is not what autism looks like at all.
Enter my son. He doesn’t talk, doesn’t sit still for more than a minute (yes I mean a literal minute), has emotional issues, and can get aggressive when he is upset. He has obsessive compulsive issues that can be pretty inhibiting at times. Don’t take him to the store if you want to come out with only what you were intending to buy. If there are mylar balloons there or any kind of bubbles plan for a meltdown.
Now before anyone thinks that we mothers might be too soft in the discipline department, let me inform you. My son is 10 with a strong 12-year-old sized body. He is 100 lbs. He throws meltdowns that are more in line with a three-year-old. Yet, even a three-year-old is more able to be reasoned with. I know because I have two other normal children (If you are unsettled by my use of the term “normal” please read my earlier post, Weakness, Trust, and the Power of Community).
His last tantrum included blood curdling screams because he couldn’t have a mylar balloon. I had no money to buy it even if I wanted to, and I had my two other children with me, one being a baby. We had just finished paying for our groceries, and he just saw it at the register. He threw himself to the ground pulling at the ribbon so hard it was stretching, all the while he’s kicking and screaming. All this was happening in a small pathway from all the registers to the entrance and exit doors. I try to use these moments to show people who might be staring rudely that I am not even influenced by them in the slightest by remaining calm and showing as little flustered emotion as possible, even though I may be internally feeling much the opposite. I have more pressing issues at hand, and those are attending to this meltdown and getting him calm and out the door. We shop at this Safeway a lot and they know us. It was the week before Christmas and one of the checkers said to not worry about it; that she would pay for it. After I started to politely decline, she insisted that she would and it was her Christmas present to us. I couldn’t help but well up as I told her thank you. I hope that any unsympathetic people witnessing that had a softening of their hearts.
A very large chunk of our Autism Community have family members on a much more affected level. It is common to see people without speech or with limited vocabulary (most of which is only for communicating basic needs; not emotional expression. I have yet, and may never will, to hear an unprompted “I love you”). People who have significant emotional issues, aggression, ADHD, meltdowns, sensory sensitivities, health issues, allergies, food aversions, and more. Autism is a part of a bigger umbrella called “developmental delay”. Many other conditions are under this umbrella, including mental retardation, downs syndrome, aspergers, cerebral palsy, and more. see the CDC website for more information.
My problem with casting characters who are only mildly affected is that, to those who don’t know much about autism, this is what people think autism is. So when I am out with my son, he has a meltdown, and I tell people he has autism I receive many reactions that are quite the opposite of empathetic. Because they think what they see on TV is autism. What they see in the grocery store is just a spoiled kid. Whereas before the TV “PSA” characters were around, if you told people your child was autistic, they may not know what it was, or even equate it with retardation, but at least there was a bit more empathy. Now I run into more people who have way less empathy because they know what ‘autism really is’ and judge me more. I also see mocking stares that don’t soften when I explain that he makes the noises he does because of his autism. He is a freak compared to what is ‘autistic’ in their knowledge.
I want to express that I do know that for some people, it doesn’t matter what TV portrays or doesn’t portray. They are who they are and probably won’t change. I do understand that. Yet there are people who are guided by TV’s portrayal of autism. Whether that is a good or bad thing is another subject altogether. There is one show I want to recognize for displaying a painfully accurate image of an under addressed part of autism. It starred Keifer Sutherland, called “Touch”. Sadly, it only lasted 26 episodes. I still feel it is worth watching even though it was cancelled. Keifer Sutherland played the Father of a non-verbal autistic son who shows him no affection.
Autism awareness in the media and TV is a potentially great thing for us affected by autism. But until it is shown in a more realistic dynamic, I feel it hurts those of us whose kids are less functional and wouldn’t be as easy to watch as one of the characters on TV.
I want to end by returning to my son. With all of his difficulties, to me he is the sweetest 10-year-old on the planet. There is, and never will be, anyone like him. He is cuddly, loving, and accepting of others. He doesn’t judge. It is what it is to him. He is intrigued by the things we think are so little, we don’t even notice them. One day, I saw him looking up at the sky; the clear blue sky. Not even a bird was flying in it. I wish I could stop my world to appreciate things like that the way he can. Even though he has aggression and difficulties, these aren’t because of a personality flaw. He is incredibly innocent and forgiving. He is so much more aware than many give him credit for. He loves trains, playing video games together, scootering, tickle fights, snow, and lots of water. He has a sweet singing voice. He can be shy and looks so cute when his is. When you get to know him, your life is changed for the better. There is so much to be learned from him.
So much of this is missed because it seems to be easier to play characters that aren’t affected to that degree, and beyond. For every kid as affected (or even more so) as my son, there is a story with as much pain as well as joy, possibly on an even greater level. It’s quite the loss for society. They deserve to know more.
As always, positive comments are welcome. Negative hurtful comments will be trashed before I can even finish reading them. I have many readers who are emotionally vulnerable, and I will not post comments that will further harm.
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