Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Dressing autism in a banana suit does no one any favors

Stafford County teen Bryan Thompson — Colonial Forge High School’s very own “Banana Man” — is free. The 14-year-old gained infamy after school officials suspended him for 10 days forrunning around the field at halftime during a school football game while wearing a banana suit. The principal recommended that Thompson be expelled. Thompson returned to school Sept. 26 after his 10-day suspension was shortened to five days. Banana Man’s 15 minutes, it would seem, are up. The question is: How much damage did those 15 minutes cause? “Autistic ‘banana man’ becomes cause célèbre” screams one blogger’s headline. “Autistic student cuffed & suspended for harmless ‘banana man’ stunt” shouts another. Business Insider proclaimed “Autistic high schooler suspended 10 days for ‘Banana Man’ halftime stunt.” Thompson’s behavior might have been harmless, but the coverage has been another story, because it unnecessarily evoked autism for a stunt that any class clown could have pulled. Did the family play the autism card to try to get school officials to lighten his punishment? Did the media trumpet that aspect of Thompson to make him a more sympathetic character or to call Colonial Forge school officials on what many thought was a gross overreaction to a benign disruption? It doesn’t really matter now. What matters is that at a time when advocates for children with autism are fighting for greater resources and trying to educate the public about a condition that affects 1 in every 110 children (1 in 70 boys), the headlines are pointing the public toward misleading perceptions of what autism really is. The autism spectrum is vast, but public perception of children with autism should not be of a boy gleefully traipsing around a football field in a banana suit. If anything, the more accurate perception should be of a child sitting in a cafeteria, alone and overwhelmed, wanting desperately to connect to one of the groups of friends around him, but almost always on the social outskirts.

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