3/12/2015

On Revisiting Past Interactions and the Unfairness Factor: Newsweek's Autism Article

In December I was contacted by a reporter from Newsweek asking to interview me for an article about Jonathan Mitchell. I politely declined, as I haven't had any interaction with him since I apologized in 2011 for allowing him to be bullied in the comments on several of my blog posts. I sent the reporter the link to the article and my addendum with the apology.

Since I declined, I was more than a bit surprised to find out that my words to Jonathan about autism not being his biggest problem, along with my take on my three children with autism, essentially close the article.



 Initially, after reading the piece online, I decided against commenting on it. The title for the article online wasn't really that reflective of the article, as the article was more about Mitchell and his life and how he was a loner even in the autism community. My 13-year-old read the article, and she came away from the piece feeling bad for Mitchell, wanting him to like himself. She felt his situation was unfair and he should like who he was, commenting on all the things he can do and how brave he was to sing in public.

I've had mixed feelings about the article, whether it was aimed at being sympathetic toward Mitchell and his point of view or if its point was far different. Online with the title "The Debate Over and Autism Cure Turns Hostile," it is innocuous enough, but it is very dated. My interactions with Mitchell were from 2009 to 2011. In the online world, that's ancient history. It didn't just turn hostile. It's been hostile from the get-go, long before I arrived on the scene.


The picture opening the article shows Mitchell as he would seem to see himself, alone and lonely, fading into the background.

The actual print magazine, although the article is word for word, changed the intent by changing the title:

 
 The full first two pages shows Mitchell at his desk, a picture that appears in the online article.

02_20_JonathanMitchell_01 

It doesn't appear with that title, though, and I think the bait and switch of the initial online title and the title in the contents, "Hope Kills," is unfair.

Sure, several individuals I know online appear in the article, quoted from present time, stating that Mitchell hates himself.

Is this how we want to treat people? Mitchell, in the article, admits to being rude, and the article author notes that he gives as good as he gets, but again, what does it serve to cut a man down?

By reducing Mitchell to a trope to either sympathize with (feel sorry for) or to dismiss as a self-hater trying to make other people hate themselves, the article does Mitchell a disservice. It doesn't see him as a whole person with feelings. It doesn't consider how this bait and switch headline will affect him or other autistic individuals who are similar to Mitchell in that they are ostracized, alone, and lonely, because of difficult behaviors or behaviors just off enough to make people veer around them.

Mitchell himself might be fine with the portrayal, seeing any acceptance of autism (autistic individuals) as the same as accepting a potentially (and perhaps often) crippling disability as the norm, in need of no mediation.

I think Mitchell and all the individuals like him deserve better. I'm not sure he was heard in this article, that the reality he was trying to convey was really understood. That sometimes a "cure" would be a blessing for those who are severely disabled by autism.

When I started blogging six years ago, I ran across Mitchell through the Age of Autism blog, which featured him as an adult autistic wanting a cure. We had several acrimonious interactions, and rather than considering the individual on the other side, I focused on the words. I ignored the communication disorder that is part and parcel of autism. At the time, my oldest was 19, and I did not see my son in Jonathan. I saw a middle aged man who was bitter. I didn't go deeper.

Six years later, it's becoming easier to see my son thirty years into the future, with his difficulty in regulating tone, reading facial expressions, and understanding receptive language. I hope and pray that people who cross his path will look past the issues and see him empathetically and give him the benefit of the doubt, that they will be kind and patient and accepting. 

I hope that there won't be pictures portraying my son as alone or lonely or as a self-hater. I hope he won't feel that way. And I hope Jonathan Mitchell will not always feel that way, either. As my 13-year-old says, "Everyone deserves a friend and to be happy."