Who are your favorite fictional television characters? Perhaps you’re a big Lucy Ricardo or Fonzie fan, or you love Ross and Rachel from “Friends.” Maybe you admire Jack Bauer from “24”, or you can’t get enough of Michael Scott’s antics on “The Office.”
When television characters become beloved pop culture icons, it’s often because there are parts of that character that feel like a reflection of ourselves – our own insecurities, or big dreams, or deep-rooted opinions. We love watching characters play out similar hopes and desires or navigate through relatable challenges.
That’s why I think it’s so important that there have been an increasing number of television shows and movies with neurodiverse characters.
“Atypical,” “As We See It,” “Love on the Spectrum” … these are all shows that literally put characters on the autism spectrum on center stage – and as an admissions professional at a school for children with complex challenges, I love seeing the lives of characters similar to my students gain airtime, attention, and respect.
However, when we watch these shows, we must remember that just because we see a diagnosis expressed on screen doesn’t mean we now understand everyone with a similar diagnosis.
I recently read a great article by author and speaker Kerry Magro, who is on the autism spectrum, that does a great job at expressing this point.
While reflecting on the uniqueness of autism, she includes popular quotes such as Dr. Temple Grandin’s “Different, not less,” and Dr. Stephen Shore's “If you've met one individual with autism, you've met one individual with autism.” But she also highlights a quote from Stuart Duncan, an autism advocate who has a son on the autism spectrum. He said, “Autism is one word attempting to describe millions of different stories.”
That quote really spoke to me. I have met hundreds of parents, grandparents, and family members who take great pride in describing the unique characteristics of their students. Just this week, a parent described her son on the spectrum as “flexible” and “open to trying new foods.”
“I know that’s not what you expect when you hear I have a child with ASD,” she said. “But that’s not part of his profile.”
As neurodiverse characters become more prevalent in mainstream media, we must acknowledge and celebrate the uniqueness within that term, and continue to broaden our understanding of “diversity.”
Here at TQS, neurodiversity is one of the many types of diversity embraced by our community. When teaching and interacting with students with complex challenges, we have to acknowledge every day the truth behind those popular autism quotes – each student is an individual, and a diagnosis doesn’t change that.
One resource that has helped our faculty and staff have conversations around this topic is Irshad Manji’s “Don’t Label Me,” which we all read together. The book talks about the importance of diversity of thought, and how we cannot create change by labeling those with whom we disagree. It provides wonderful insights on moving past preconceptions and elevating diversity.
Honoring diversity is essential for our interactions with every person we meet; the same is true for students with diagnoses like ASD, ADHD, anxiety, dyslexia, or any other “label” that just helps us support them, not define them. I am hopeful that as we become more open and accepting – on the television screen, and in the real world – we will continue to make more space for individuals as unique as the amazing students in our school community.
By Lori Boccuzzi, TQS Assistant Head for Enrollment Management & Institutional Advancement
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