Normal is a four letter word. Extraordinary is the new black.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Of labels and walls...

Pssst! Hey! Over here. Can we talk?

So, this past week, a celebrity in the music world, made some crappy comments to a fan seemingly because the fan mouthed off to him. He told the fan that "he looked autistic" and then went on to say, "I don't want no special ed kids on my time line follow some body else."

Okay, so first off, I would just hate to be a publicist in this day and age. With all the ways for their clients to communicate via social media, I imagine many publicists have a permanent dent in their foreheads from the repetitive 'face-palms' they must do daily. 

Second, who says that? Really, are there actually people that think it's okay to say things like this? Wait, of course there are. See the thing is, that this isn't the first, nor will it be the last time that someone with a mass twitter/facebook/instagram following is going to misspeak. 
After all, regardless of your station in life, we are all human. We can recognize that at some point each of us has used our words to inadvertently or intentionally disparage others. So while I was frustrated and disappointed in the words I read, I could accept that the person speaking them made a mistake and needed to be educated. 

When this tweet was published, right out of the gate, Hollie Robinson Peete wrote an eloquent, well thought out, open letter to the offender. Over instagram and twitter, parents of autistic children sent him photos of their kids tagging #thisiswhatautismlookslike and #whatautismlookslike. I was one of those people. For the most part, this response was in the spirit of education and understanding. However, there was also a response of outrage and anger, which ironically echoed the outrage and anger that the tweet was born from. As the days wore on, with no public apology forthcoming, the anger that bubbled under the surface out of the gate started to rise and words like "thug" "ghetto" and "ignorant" became louder than educate, advocate, and communicate. Unfortunately, it was this anger that was heard and it was the anger, the "outrage" that was reported on. It seems the media has learned long ago, that their audience feeds on the negative aspects of a story first. Although lacking in spiritual nutrition, a headline like, "Parents outraged at 50 cent tweet" garners a lot more traffic than a headline that reads, "Parents of Autistic children patiently advocate for an apology." 

Yes, it sucks that medical diagnosis' are still used in derogatory ways, either as insults, or for laughs. It is discouraging that so many people don't seem to understand what autism truly is, and what it looks like both physically and in behaviour. It is frustrating that there seems to be a collective voice coming from the mainstream media that desires to compartmentalize and simplify what is a complex neurological condition. This misunderstanding only succeeds in further pandering and underestimating a population of truly exceptional human beings. Humans beings with gifts that often go unseen because a medical diagnosis, a label, meant to facilitate understanding, is twisted in a negatively slanted definition. It is this collective stereotype that feeds the miseducation of our population and breeds these derogatory slams.

It is all frustrating, and so the voices that start out patiently advocating get louder. These voices start getting angry, they start calling names. If the offence starts with labels being used derogatorily, how can it be resolved by continuing to use different labels derogatorily? An angry response not only serves to produce a knee-jerk apology from the offender, it also inflames a population of bystanders, polarizing the response down to those defending the offender and those defending the offended. 

With a delivered apology, the media has moved on from this story. Outrage, demanded satisfaction and got it. If we are to follow this lead, there is nothing more to discuss. However, I argue, it is the aftermath of feelings that we should all be talking about. The heavy focus on the initial offence blinds us from the lessons in the fall-out. When the story is dead, an autopsy on it is where the real learning begins, because this situation will happen time and time again. Some of the players will change, but the pattern is still there. The celebrity will eventually apologize, because, genuine or not, they have to. The world is watching. 

In the moment of misspoken quotes, the stakes are not the hearts and minds of those that misspeak. The stakes are the impressions left on the hearts and minds of the bystanders. The stakes are in teaching the bystanders how to respond for our children when we are no longer able to. 

If we yell instead of advocate, all that is heard is a collective noise, of anger. All that we teach is to respond with noise and anger. If we speak with kindness, and with a desire to educate; we can be heard. Perhaps, without 'outrage' we will not get that publicly demanded apology. However, when given the choice between an apology coerced by outrage, or an opportunity to educate a few more hearts and minds, I choose education. 

Mahatma Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the world." The change I must be is the person that seeks to foster understanding and communication, one heart at a time, in the place where anger once spoke. I must teach that the purpose of a label is for understanding, and not for mudslinging or laughs. If we don't want a medical diagnosis to define our children, if we don't want a label to quantify their existence, then we ourselves must recognize that all labels, when used derogatorily are equally offensive. By defining a person based on their negative actions alone, we cease to find a solution to the problem and instead build a wall. 

As human beings, we all are complex, and name calling is beneath the dialog we should aspire to. 

I strive to 'be the change'. I strive to educate and advocate with patience and understanding. It might be exhausting to do it time and time again, but at one point I benefited from patient education.  

Maya Angelou said, "When you know better, you do better." As a parent of children with special needs, I do know better, and I must do better. 
In the battle for the hearts and minds of the bystanders, I have a lot of loud voices to drown out with my one little voice. I don't have a network behind me. I don't have a large social media following. However, if my little voice, joins the voices of several other patient, teaching, advocates, we can be heard.


  1. BEAUTIFUL! You are so very wise with such a way with words. I really can't think of any better way to address this kind of topic. It is so easy to react with emotion, but to extend mercy and grace to those who mis-speak, especially when it hits heart, that is a difficult thing to do. Thank you for you sharing!

    1. Thank you Erin. I think it is one of those things that get easier the more you do it. At least that is what I have found for me at least. It seems that I have learned that the mileage I get from patience, takes me much closer to my goal than the mileage I used to get from anger.
      Thanks for stopping in for coffee.

  2. This is by far one of the best responses to this situation that I've read! Thank you! Thank you!

  3. Thank you very much. I am happy to hear that. I was a little nervous posting this to be honest as I'm not sure that this is a popular sentiment, but it is one I hold dear so I wrote it. It was so nice of you to stop by and I got a glimpse of your blog last night. I am sitting on my deck right now, looking forward to having a little time to read a little more.

  4. Well written Lisa, I love your comments on IG, always insightful. You are so right about being a quiet (not angry) voice.
    Write on Mama!

  5. Well written and beautifully said, if only more people would take up the challenge and 'be the change you want to see in the world'....keep adding your little voice, we are listening

  6. Thank you for your very thoughtful and meaningful comments. Since following you on IG, I have sincerely appreciated the way you speak about all of your children. When I hear your love and gratitude for the diversity in your children, it makes me smile from ear to ear. Professionally, it saddens me when labels are used in a negative way. I also feel angry at folks that feel they can disregard other humans just because of educational differences. The most insightful students that I have had the pleasure of knowing are children who are living with autism. I continue to learn copious amounts from these precious kids. I agree, Let's be the change you want to see in this world.
    Sherry (preschoolsfun)


Thanks for stopping in for coffee. I welcome a good conflab, and appreciate different ideas and opinions, and am always happy to listen to another take on things, just keep it respectful.