Note: This blog post is not intended to question the veracity of any specific stories of injustice toward specific autistic individuals. Nor am I disparaging any bloggers for the causes they choose to champion. This is simply an issue in general that I have been concerned about for some time.
A man goes to his spiritual advisor to confess his sin of spreading false rumors. He feels terrible about it and wants to know what he can do to stop feeling so guilty. He is told to gather a huge bag of feathers and to place one feather on the doorstop of each person with whom he shared the false rumor and to return a week later for further guidance. The relieved man races out to do so and returns in a week. He happily reports that he did as asked and inquires what more he must do to make amends. He is then told to go back to each house and pick up the feather. Alarmed, he protests that it will impossible to get them all back. The spiritual advisor sadly agrees.
From time to time, I get requests from well-meaning souls to share provocative stories with my readers, either here, on Facebook, or Twitter. I received two yesterday. I was asked to share a story about a person with autism who had been unfairly treated –along with a petition to demand “justice” for that individual. The story, as presented, did indeed sound awful. The parents were reported to be outraged and desperate. And there are lots of demands being made for a specific course of action toward those allegedly responsible.
But I’m not going to share the story.
It’s not because I don’t care. It’s not because I can’t imagine myself in their shoes. Of course, I think that the needs of the defenseless must be the first consideration when accusations are made. And it isn’t that I think the stories are false necessarily. But I think that we, in our community, tend to react with outrage before we sort out the facts. The problem is that, every now and then, it might just destroy the life of a truly innocent person.
I doubt I’m the first person to declare such, but it needs be said.
There are lots of crazy, unreasonable, and simply mistaken people out there.
Statistically, some of them are going to have special needs children. And an even smaller percentage of those are going to have a some sort of platform. That platform, in all likelihood, will also host perfectly sane, logical, and correct people who also have special needs children. All we have to do is determine which of these complete strangers is telling the truth.
Pause here for a moment of silent reflection.
The problem is we have no easy test for sanity, reason, and accuracy. There is no database in which to check he said/she said. We cannot know them all personally. I happen to think myself a very good judge of character. I think I’m open-minded, and I attempt to remain civilized. But I am not so confident in my people skills or psychic ability to champion the cause of a viral internet story without having been present in the room in which it supposedly happened. I won’t risk ruining the lives of the innocent people who are sometimes going to be wrongfully accused. That’s not my job. Detectives, investigative reporters – have at it. Like the rest of you, I’m interested in the story alright. But verifying isn’t my area of expertise. So, I’m not going to run in and tweet, share, or blog about it until someone with complete access to all of the pertinent information reports their findings and not just what one side shares with the media and internet.
I have taken an informal poll. It’s informal because it is laughably imprecise. Statisticians, avert your eyes. I divided up everyone I know (or attempted to) and separated them into categories: Reasonable vs. Unreasonable. I came up with 5% of the people I know being unreasonable, based upon my own unstated criteria and subjective appraisal. Admitting the fragility of my statistical reasoning, I still confidently maintain you could try the same and come up with a similar number. (Note: If the number you come up with is 95% or higher, you are the unreasonable one and should seek counseling and perhaps medication.) Go ahead, try it. I’ll wait here.
I am a teacher. And I’m going to say something that is going to be unpopular with 5% of the special needs parenting population. There are some really crazy parents out there who have special needs kids. Some of them expect teachers to have no life whatsoever. Some of them have mental problems. Some of them are just plain mean. Some of their children actually lie. And, every now and then, one of them decides to get your goose. There isn’t a veteran teacher alive who hasn’t had one come after them. But usually, those issues involve grades, complaints about teaching style, etc. The world doesn’t pay any attention, and the matter is resolved to varying degrees of satisfaction. But special needs individuals? What else can bring about such strong feelings of rage and empathy in public opinion? Yep — God help the special education teacher falsely accused of abuse or the doctor accused of malpractice. Ditto for therapists, social workers, hospitals, police, medical personnel, bus drivers, and anyone charged with the care of this population.
In my 15 years of teaching, I have both seen and experienced false accusations by parents. Sometimes, it isn’t an outright lie but a simple omission of fact that skews how outsiders view the situation. I have also listened to friends in the medical profession express frustration with similar incidents. And, here’s the thing. All of those people I mentioned who work with children? They can’t defend themselves to you. By law, they are not allowed to speak to the media, clarify the facts, or share additional information. They can’t tell you about the accuser’s history. They are required to stand still while the crowd throws things at them.
It is one thing to demand an investigation. I’m all for that. But that’s not what we usually do. We tend to insist upon a judgment that concurs with our own and demand action –a firing, a medical treatment/procedure be completed, or prison time. This court of public opinion known as the internet –most especially for those of us in special interest groups – is a dangerous one in which to be a defendant. Since, I’m no prosecutor, I won’t be pressing any charges. Yes, I believe that we need to champion the cause of helping our own children and future persons with autism to have greater access to their world. Yes, sometimes we need to be outraged.
But I also think that we need to be more discerning in our social media and analysis of the “news”. Just because someone created a Facebook fan page doesn’t make the story true. We need to remember that all are not who/what they appear to be. And just because we can’t stand the thought of such a thing actually happening to our own precious children, it doesn’t mean that it really did happen to someone else’s.
No, I think these words are wise indeed: “Trust, but verify.”
And if verification isn’t possible, don’t state them as fact, but direct the matter to those who can.
It’s a Golden Rule kind of thing.