Sympathy unwanted for autistic teen in viral video

by | Feb 4, 2016 | Opinion

Phil Witmer

Nothing makes the viral wheels spin faster than an opportunity for people to show how much they care.

This goes double for Canadians, the self-appointed guardians of politeness and niceness worldwide.

Thusly, when a video of a gawky, teenage Starbucks employee dancing gained five million views on Facebook a few days ago, some saw it as a victory for the oppressed. The barista, a Torontonian named Sam, shot to Canada-wide fame but in his one public statement about it asked to not be treated with sympathy and for others to keep an open mind.

Day before yesterday was the occasion of Bell’s #LetsTalk initiative, wherein social media is intended to play host for frank discussions on mental health and ending the stigmas surrounding it. Some tweeters suggested Sam as a topic of discussion.

Firstly, autism is not a mental illness. It’s a different form of mental processing, an alternate wiring of the brain. Treating it with the same disguised revulsion, the “good for them” pity games that sufferers of Down syndrome or cerebral palsy get, is ignorant and reductionist.

Carly Fleischmann, the also-autistic videographer of Sam’s moves, likely didn’t intend to exploit what she and Sam identify as involuntary muscle movements that the teen chooses to make light of by transforming them into shimmies.

Fleischmann wanted to show the many who still misunderstand autism that the condition comes in many shapes and sizes. This mentality is welcome after the anti-vaccination controversy of last year led to mass outcry from parents over fears of having an autistic child. (To which this author says that yes, you do want one; we’re not much for conversation but you won’t find better list makers.)

However, the reason for the video’s spread probably owes more to the well intentioned but sort of clueless activism that ends up making its subjects into cutesy examples of how “they’re just like us!” It reduces thinking, feeling and complex people to points on someone’s awareness checklist.

Furthermore, it creates more of a sense of the “other” for autistic people, especially young people like Sam. The conversation about autism isn’t being engaged; it’s being kept at arm’s length.

When does genuine interest and compassion express itself as guilt? Which feeling among casual clickers was responsible for Sam the Dancing Barista’s (step right up, folks!) Internet fame?

I was diagnosed with having autism spectrum disorder and ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder) when I was 10. Overcoming simple social hurdles and the process of steadily becoming a more open, flexible person has marked my life.

Never have I had to deal with being made an example of an “inspiring mental health sufferer”, since I had no gimmick to zero in on.

I feel sorry for Sam, not because he has autism but because he has been gimmicked. The kid might have a burning passion for computer coding that can be parlayed into any number of valuable careers but to nearly everyone he’s a bouncing cartoon character.

There needs to be a better understanding among neurotypical people about what autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is. Granted, many experts themselves still can’t agree what exactly it is, but as the rate of autistic child births in North America grows to something like one in 70, it’s time to stop looking at us like we’re special. Programs in middle and high school that integrate autistic kids into classrooms instead of separating them are a start.

For adults, giving autistic people a voice in our own matters and having us speak on our experiences can help to illuminate the truth about our misunderstood condition. We just think differently, that’s it. It’s a different way of being that can exist alongside and within neurotypicals. If we can integrate ourselves and educate others on what ASD entails, then maybe that can be truly inspirational.