Tag Archives: pop-culture

Brain damage

One of my favorite Pink Floyd songs is Brain Damage from the classic Dark Side of the Moon.  Roger Waters says he wrote it in response to the pressure he felt as a teenager to fit in, to not be so different.

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The lunatic is on the grass.
The lunatic is on the grass.
Remembering games and daisy chains and laughs.
Got to keep the loonies on the path.

The lunatic is in the hall.
The lunatics are in my hall.
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paper boy brings more.

And if the dam breaks open many years too soon
And if there is no room upon the hill
And if your head explodes with dark forebodings too
I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.

The lunatic is in my head.
The lunatic is in my head
You raise the blade, you make the change
You re-arrange me ’til I’m sane.
You lock the door
And throw away the key
There’s someone in my head but it’s not me.

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As parents we have a responsibility to our children to help shape who they are, but more importantly to help them figure out who they are.   Autistic or not, we are who we are.

Monday morning lunatics

Another song that brought my experiences with autism to mind, Dream Theater‘s Solitary Shell, from the Six Degrees of Separation CD.

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He seemed no different from the rest
Just a healthy normal boy
His mama always did her best
And he was daddy’s pride and joy

He learned to walk and talk on time
But never cared much to be held
And steadily he would decline
Into his solitary shell

As a boy he was considered somewhat odd
Kept to himself most of the time
He would daydream in and out of his own world
But in every other way he was fine

He’s a monday morning lunatic
Disturbed from time to time
Lost withing himself
In his solitary shell

A temporary catatonic
Madman on occasion
When will he break out
Of his solitary shell

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I have no idea if this song was written to be specifically about autism, but I doubt it.  It could just be about an extremely introverted kid.

The question that pops to mind:  Why does the child in the song need to “break out of his solitary shell” at all?

Scorn not

It’s been a busy week or so, and I am still pulling together a review of The Speed of Dark, but I jotted a note to myself to blog this last weekend following the Republican National Convention and all the furor surrounding Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and her newborn son with Down’s Syndrome.

Over the weekend, and with the news about Gov. Palin still fresh and in rotation, my iPod mix shuffled itself to Sinead O’Connor’s version of Phil Coulter’s  “Scorn Not His Simplicity”, written about his young son with Down’s Syndrome.

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See the child
With the golden hair
Yet eyes that show the emptiness inside
Do we know
Can we understand just how he feels
Or have we really tried

See him now
As he stands alone
And watches children play a children’s game
Simple child
He looks almost like the others
Yet they know he’s not the same

Scorn not his simplicity
But rather try to love him all the more
Scorn not his simplicity
Oh no
Oh no

See him stare
Not recognizing the kind face
That only yesterday he loved
The loving face
Of a mother who can’t understand what she’s been guilty of

How she cried, tears of happiness
the day the doctor told her it’s a boy
Now she cries tears of helplessness
and thinks of all the things he can’t enjoy

Scorn not his simplicity
But rather try to love him all the more
Scorn not his simplicity
Oh no
Oh no

Only he knows how to face the future hopefully
Surrounded by despair
He won’t ask for your pity or your sympathy
But surely you should care

Scorn not his simplicity
But rather try to love him all the more
Scorn not his simplicity
Oh no
Oh no
Oh no
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I first heard the song many years ago when O’Connor first released it, and if you are a parent of an autistic child hearing it for the first time you can imagine my reaction.   I’d love to hear yours.

Just the way it is (but don’t you believe them)

Frequent readers of this blog know that in my attempt to understand autism better, I have a tendency to see connections in things that aren’t always directly related to autism.  A lot of times this will come in the form of a song, a TV show, or a main- or sub-theme in a movie (like the X-Men trilogy).

My post yesterday brought to mind Bruce Hornsby‘s (excellent) song, The Way It Is (from the album of the same name).

They say, “Hey little boy you can’t go
Where the others go
‘Cause you don’t look like they do”
Said, “Hey old man
How can you stand to think that way
Did you really think about it
Before you made the rules”
He said, son

That’s just the way it is
Some things will never change
That’s just the way it is
Ah, but don’t you believe them

“Don’t you believe them.”  Don’t listen when someone tells you that you can’t change things, that this is how it was meant to be.  Nothing is “meant to be”, that is the wonder of being human, that we determine what is for ourselves.

Well they passed a law in ’64
To give those who ain’t got a little more
But it only goes so far
Because the law don’t change in another’s mind
When all it sees AT the hiring time
Is the line on the color bar

That’s just the way it is
Some things will never change
That’s just the way it is
That’s just the way it is, it is, it is, it is

Note that in the chorus after the last verse, Hornsby never says “don’t you believe them”.  I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but it is definitely true.  You can make a law, you can tell people what they have to do, but you can’t tell them how to think about others.  That takes education, persistence, and persuasion.

And that, I believe, is the challenge we all face in gaining more understanding and acceptance for autistics, indeed for all people who are different.

What does it mean to be “me”?

This is the second of three posts of excerpts from Elizabeth Moon‘s novel The Speed of Dark. (Part one – How normal are normal people?)

In this excerpt, Lou is considering what it means to be “Lou”, and how he would be different as an adult if he had been different when he was younger.

If I had not been what I am, what would I have been? I have thought about that at times. If I had found it easy to understand what people were saying, would I have wanted to listen more? Would I have learned to talk more easily? And from that, would I have had more friends, even been popular? I try to imagine myself as a child, a normal child, chattering away with family and teachers and classmates. If I had been that child, instead of myself, would I have learned math so easily? Would the great complicated construction of classical music have been so obvious to me at first hearing? I remember the first time I heard Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor … the intensity of joy I felt. Would I have been able to do the work I do? And what other work might I have been able to do?

It is harder to imagine a different self now that i am an adult.

This particular scene resonated with me as I have had these same thoughts, from a parent’s point of view, as I’ve watched my son grow from a toddler to a 17-year old. (For examples, see Thoughts on curing autism and Whose decision is it?)

For some similar thoughts from a current day, real person with Asperger’s check out Steve’s post Marching to her own drum.

Next:  Do I need to be healed?

A meditation on individual expression

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a meditation on censorship. In light of all the recent discussion surrounding the film Tropic Thunder, I thought I should post this companion meditation on individual expression:

Emperors uphold censorship,
But extreme repression leads to extreme reaction.
Individualists believe in freedom,
But extreme expression leads to extreme reaction.

To answer the question I posed in my last post, “No, I don’t believe the creators of pop-culture have a responsibility for limiting their content to what is ‘acceptable’.” The nature of art is individual expression, and in that the ‘artist’ is responsible only to himself.

As the meditation above states, though, this unlimited expression might result in “extreme reaction.” Artists must accept the consequences of their expression. If they offend or anger a group of people, or even individuals, they should expect those people to express their own feelings. This could be a blog post, a letter to the editor, or a boycott.

In the case of Tropic Thunder, I don’t agree with calls for the film to be changed or for it to not be shown. That is an extreme on the “censorship” end of the spectrum. I do, however, support those who call for a boycott or other action against by individuals or groups about the film. That is an acceptable reaction to the individual expression of the film-makers.

Pop culture has power; does it also have a responsibility?

In a previous post in which I discussed the power of pop culture, I wrote the following:

As much as we may wish it were not so, we can’t ignore the power of pop-culture and the influence it has had, and will continue to have, on the public perception of autism.

(You may have also seen a version of this post earlier this year, when I reposted it in the wake of the ABC Eli Stone story. And, no, I’m going to repost the whole thing again 😉

In the article Film comedy courts controversy; mental disabilities heart of issue, Jenny Goode, chief executive officer of the Betty Hardwick Center, has the following to say about pop culture::

“What we need to consider as responsible adults is that things that occur in pop culture, movies, television and books are things that people do use in some sort of layman’s way to educate themselves or to learn from or emulate in their own lives,” she said. “These things are repeated by young people and adults alike.”

These two quotes together brought to mind those immortal words of wisdom from Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben (yes, another somewhat gratuitous pop culture reference): “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Do the creators of pop culture – or any kind of “culture” – have a responsibility to wield their power responsibly?

Or is it our responsibility as consumers of pop culture to understand what it is that we are consuming and put it into the proper perspective for our own lives?

Indulge your kid’s passion, and build on their strengths

Consider this opening paragraph from the book Strengths Finder 2.0:

At its fundamentally flawed core, the aim of almost any learning program is to help us become who we are not. If you don’t have natural talent with numbers, you’re still forced to spend time in that area to attain a degree. If you’re not very empathic, you get sent to a course designed to infuse empathy into your personality. From the cradle to the cubicle, we devote more time to our shortcomings than to our strengths.

Any autism parent – any parent, for that matter – will likely recognize that this is exactly what we tend to do with our autistic children. In fact, it is what is expected of us, to try to make our autistic children into someone they are not. But that doesn’t mean that is what we should be doing.

The following originally appeared here in February 2006.

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Indulge your (kid’s) obsession

I spent Saturday afternoon this weekend at a Yugi-oh regional tournament with my younger (non-autistic) son, who is 13. Though he was not the youngest duelist there, he was one of a handful of kids under 15 in a group of 80+ duelists. (In case you’re not familiar with Yugi-oh, participants are duelists, not ‘players.’) The ages ranged all the way up to 40+, with the bulk of them in their late teens through early twenties. All duelists were male, save one.

I have the feeling that if you were to observe many of these guys in a ‘normal’ environment – say your local high school – your first impression would be “outcast,” “nerd,” or something similar. They have long unkempt hair and a preference for black t-shirts. They keep to themselves, or a small group of like-minded friends. They are not the ‘social butterflies’ that seem to be demanded in that environment. In a word, they would appear to be “non-social” (ok, maybe that’s two words *-).

Put almost a hundred of them in a room together at a tournament where everyone is trying to prove they are the best duelist in town, though, and what you get is a room full of ‘social butterflies.’ As duelists finish their match, they congratulate each other on a match well played. They walk through the room, soaking in what others are doing. In between rounds, they seek each other out, talking strategy, asking about the cards they have (Yugi-oh is what they call a Trading Card Game). It doesn’t matter if you are good are bad, new or experienced. The only thing that matters is that you are interested (I should say obsessed) with the game.

The thing is, many parents I know don’t understand – and thus discourage – their kid’s obsession with this and other similar games. These parents can’t grasp the hours and hours their kids spend learning each card’s abilities, their strengths and weaknesses, how they can be used together, and how they can be used in response to an opponents actions, or the many more hours (and $$$) spent acquiring and sorting through cards to build the perfect deck. And of course, the many many hours spent practicing by dueling with friends, or in solo practice.

Wait a second. Those things sound an awful lot like what most kids go through when they find their obsession. Take a sport like football. Kids spend hours learning playbooks. They spend hours after school every day of the week at practice, sometimes on the weekend. They gather for games in the hope of proving they are the best. It’s just that these ‘obsessions’ are ‘mainstream’, so their parents proudly refer to them as their children’s ‘passions’ or ‘talents.’

Luke Jackson said it best (I’ve quoted this before, but it seemed worth repeating):

Q: When is an obsession not an obsession?

A: When it is about football.How unfair is that?! It seems that our society fully accepts the fact that a lot of men and boys ‘eat, sleep and breathe’ football and people seem to think that if someone doesn’t, then they are not fully male. Stupid!

Girls are lucky enough to escape this football mania but I have noticed that teenage girls have to know almost every word of every song in the charts and who sang what and who is the fittest guy going, so I suppose an AS girl (or a non-AS one) that had interests other than that is likely to experience the same difficulties as a non-football crazy boy.

I am sure that if a parent went to a doctor and said that their teenage son wouldn’t shut up about football, they would laugh and tell them that it was perfectly normal. It seems as if we all have to be the same.

Though I hate to engage in arm-chair neurology, I’d be willing to bet that if these duelists were ‘evaluated,’ quite a few of them would show up on the autism spectrum, likely as Aspies. That is, if they were evaluated in the general context that those types of evaluation are done – against the ‘norms’ of society today. Conduct their evaluation in the context of their world, the world in which they can indulge their passions, and I think they would show up as perfectly normal (whatever the hell that means).

In my thinking over the last week or so on what it means to be different, I seem to keep coming back to the same point over and over: it’s not our kids that have a problem; it’s the world they must live in that has the problem.
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Not in my backyard: Vaccines, autism and acceptable losses

In her post The AAP vs. Eli Stone (January 2008), Ginger Taylor at Adventures in Autism tells the AAP that her son is not “an acceptable loss in the war against TREATABLE viruses” (emphasis hers). The steel trap that is my mind (ha!) remembered that Ginger had brought this up before when talking about vaccines. In Where I stand on vaccines (June 2005), Ginger wrote:

The CDC’s vaccine policy is based on the principle that the good done for the many outweighs the harm to the few. And that is fine if you are making vaccine policy for 300 million people. But I am not responsible for holding back another Rubella epidemic; I am responsible for two little boys who just may fall into that sliver of the population that the CDC considers an acceptable loss. (my emphasis)

An anonymous commenter responds:

YOU are not responsible, but you do share that responsibility with all of us parents. If enough parents assumed your attitude, pertussis, mennigitis, and perhaps even measles would make a deadly comeback. I’m not saying you must vaccinate, the risks/benefits must be evaluated carefully. But if you choose not to, please acknowledge dropping your share of responsibility for the good of all children for what it is – selfish. Please note that I do not consider selfish anything more than a decision taking only you or your children into account. It does not mean you are an all-bad person.

I’ve thought about this very thing quite often when looking at the vaccine question. Does any single parent have any responsibility to “hold back another Rubella epidemic?” I’ve come to the conclusion that no, they don’t. Though the commenter takes great pains to say being selfish doesn’t make Ginger a bad person, the fact that he had say that at all points to the general feeling that being selfish is bad.

But, and this is a big but, everything that everyone does is for selfish reasons. I’ve written about this before in the context of behavior in the world of business, but the general principal is the same. Every action that we take, or influence, or try to make happen, we do because we want a benefit for ourselves or someone we care about. The Founding Fathers of the US knew this fact, and they also realized that this is the only way it can be if the fundamental freedoms they believed in were to be realized. (This is also why you can’t, and shouldn’t, try to get rid of Congressional ‘ear-marks’ .)

The obvious pop culture reference here is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Spock was right that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but Captain Kirk was just as right – maybe more so, considering what happens later – in not accepting this “axiom” in this case.

The AAP, and others, have gone overboard over Eli Stone, if you ask me, but this is how it should be. I’d expect nothing less if the tables were turned and the proverbial shoe were on the other foot.

The power of pop culture (redux)

A lot is being said about the pilot episode of ABC’s new legal drama Eli Stone, in which the title character successfully sues a vaccine manufacturer on behalf of a family who believes their son’s autism was caused by the vaccine (or, more accurately, an extra substance in the vaccine). Instead of discussing this show in particular, I decided to re-post this from last February. (The bold passages toward the end of the post were added for this re-post.)
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I will be the first to admit that I am a huge consumer of pop culture. I like to watch good TV (no, it’s not an oxymoron) and film, I keep up with the latest in music (yes, some of it is awful), love video games, and read the occasional novel (though most of my reading these days is non-fiction). It comes through every now and then, like in my October post “Every soul is perfect” – Is there autism in heaven? (Redux), a reflection on how autism was treated on the CBS show Ghost Whisperer.

In response to that post, Ian Parker submitted the following:

Um, regarding heaven and ‘perfect souls’, I would hope that people do not determine their religious beliefs based on the pseudo-religious-philosophical musings of the writers of Ghost Whisperer. At least take the time to consider what Homer has to say before coming to any final decision on such weighty matters.

I share Ian’s hope that people are smarter than that, and am doing my part by helping my sons understand what they consume in a smart way, I am a bit of a pessimist when it comes to actually thinking this is the case (a rare instance of a glass-half-empty feeling on my part).

For good or ill, pop-culture is a driving force in many (most?) people’s perception of the world and their actions in the world. Because of that one episode of Ghost Whisperer, I would venture a guess that many people’s perceptions of autism now include one of “imperfection” here on Earth, the image of a “lost soul” trapped inside an uncooperative body.

Why am I re-hashing this, you may ask. These thoughts came to mind as I came toward the end of Roy Grinker’s new book, Unstrange Minds. In it, Grinker relates the story of how a popular film in Korea has helped reshape Korean attitudes about autism in a positive way. From the book (page 256-257, sorry for the long excerpt):

That month a low-budget Korean film entitled Malaton (spelled the way the main character pronounces the English work “marathon”) was released. The film was based loosely on the real-life story of a young runner name Bae Hyong-Jin. Bae worked part-time on an assembly line in a tool factory when, at the age of seventeen, he ran a marathon in Chuncheon, Korea, in 2 hours 57 minutes. While not anywhere near elite runner times, which are under 2 hours 8 minutes, Bae’s time was enough to earn him national recognition. Why? Because Bae Hyong-Jin has autism.

But the film is not about running. It’s about the complexity of autism as a disorder and the problems people with autism confront in their family and social lives. it is one of the most realistic and compelling cinematic representations of autism that I’ve ever seen. The film was made after the Korean media began to publish stories about people with autism. The media had begun to publish the stories because parents, informed by the Internet and the international media, started to talk about autism in public.

Within one month after its release, more that 10 percent of the Korean population had seen the movie, and it was the second-largest moneymaker in the Korean film industry in 2005. Largely as a consequence of the film, millions of Koreans have a least a basic understanding of autism. On web site chat boards, disability rights advocates, parents, and educators in Korea are claiming that more diagnoses are being made, that people are more willing to bring their children with autism out in public, and that educators are more willing to accommodate children with autism in their classrooms. No one knows whether these changes will last, but optimism is sweeping the country. Parents of children with developmental problems think that their children may have brighter future than they previously imagined.

While autism is much more public in the US than it is in Korea, there is still a lot of ignorance of what exactly autism is, what it means, how it should be handled, etc. Any news story, TV show, or film that deals with the topic is absorbed by a curious public. And, in the absence of any other information (that doesn’t require actually going out and finding it), what people see from these sources is what they will believe, what they will think is the truth.

What if the film the Koreans had seen were Autism Every Day? Their pre-existing stereotypes would have been confirmed. Here in the US, what if Autism Speaks had had the budget to put up a couple of spots during the Super Bowl, with the largest single TV audience in history? What if NBC had broadcast the Super Bowl?

As much as we may wish it were not so, we can’t ignore the power of pop-culture and the influence it has had, and will continue to have, on the public perception of autism.
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