Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Monday, April 24, 2006

A Devastating Cliche

One thing I've noticed about blogging, and about writing in general, is how very easy it is to use lazy clichés instead of giving one's words thoughtful consideration. Bloggers do it sometimes. Students do it in their writing assignments. Even professional journalists do it, despite their well-intentioned efforts to avoid it.

Often it's harmless and funny, as in this list of journalistic clichés. Every once in a while it gets nasty, such as when racial stereotypes find their way into crime stories. But usually it's not devastating—unless the subject happens to be autism.

Why is the word "devastating" so often used to describe autism in news stories and fundraising materials? How did it become an essential part of what Estée Klar-Wolfond calls The Economy of Pity? Well, to start with, a devastating epidemic attracts a lot more attention and donations than a natural genetic variation.

And wherever there's hype about a tragic incurable disorder, you can be sure that a mangy horde of quack cure peddlers must be very close by, adding their yips and yelps to the din of the calamity howlers.

That's where the well-intentioned but careless journalists come in. They blithely lap up the calamity howlers' sensational press releases and reflexively churn out tear-jerking tales of devastated parents struggling to cope with their afflicted children. And the result of such a media onslaught can indeed be devastating to families, as one mother describes:

"The day after I 'accepted' Ben's diagnosis...I grew to hate him, in some ways. Everything that I saw as indicative of his 'autistic tendencies' I attempted to rid him of by superior intellect. I'm not kidding when I say the day before I loved everything about this little buddha. The day of, it's like I went on a religious crusade."

After seeing so many stories of tragedy and despair, some parents begin to respond to interviews about their child's diagnosis by saying that they are "devastated," simply because the word has become so closely associated with autism in the popular consciousness that it's the first word that comes to mind. Other parents see these interviews and react in the same way, and the ugly cycle continues.

It's a classic example of mass hysteria.

Now let's put all this talk of devastating genetic disease in its proper perspective. I recently watched a TV show about a tattoo artist. One of the artist's clients asked her to put a tattoo of his baby girl on his shoulder. The baby had Tay-Sachs disease and was not expected to live much longer. The father wanted her picture on a tattoo so that he would have something to remember her by.

That's devastating.

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  • Sometimes I wonder if there is something particular about a percentage of parents of autistic kids, why are they just soooo awful. Obviously it's not all the parents, probably not the even 15% of them, but it's like the most evil ones have the greatest access to the media. You never hear parents of other sick or handicapped kids speaking so hatefully about their children's conditions or about their children. It's like open season on their kids for some of these people. I'm just glad that my kids had a mom who really loved them as they are.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:02 PM  

  • I am the crazy mother who "grew to hate my child"...and it isn't anything I'm proud of, but it's the honest to God truth. Talk about a real "bitch from hell...". Any time he did anything "autistic", I just went to pieces.

    Personally, I KNOW I'm not the only one. How else could you explain putting 6 month old children on anti-depressants, or whatever else is going on? Being concerned because a kid doesn't talk at 18 months? My husband didn't talk until he was 4 years old!

    You are exactly right in that it is mass hysteria.

    But don't you see, that it is the ********POWER******** of people like YOU who change the world. You are getting through the hysterics.

    I've read as much as I can of Ballastexistenz. I sent a mother of a severely language impaired autistic son who is 15 years old to gettingthetruthout.org.

    She asked, "Do you mean he could have an active inner life? Do you mean he thinks intelligently?". When I had first met her, she said she wished God would take him as his life was useless. Because I had been in such a bad place myself, I didn't judge her. But without blogs like this one, with this new way of seeing autism...I wouldn't have heard her mind 'click' on the phone. We "evil ones" can change that quick for love of our kids.

    It's pretty exciting...

    By Blogger r.b., at 10:01 AM  

  • Just to clarify, r.b., I didn't mean to suggest that you were crazy or evil or anything like that, and I hope you weren't offended by my post. Even the kindest and most sensible people can get caught up in media hype sometimes.

    I respect your courage in writing so honestly about your experiences. Your blog is helping people to understand what is happening.

    By Blogger abfh, at 11:02 AM  

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