"7 Year Old Boy Who Tried to Kill His Mother". Yes that's the actual title. The boy's name is Zach.
In the clips advertising the show they mentioned "Sensory Integration Disorder" - the old term for SPD, so I set my tv recorder to record the episode. I was really surprised by two things: first, that a child with SPD was trying to kill their parent, and secondly, that they were featuring SPD on Oprah - since there has been a campaign to make this happen for some time now, and I was sure we would have heard something from the professional organizations or SPD groups if they were aware of it.
Well, the first problem is that - they weren't aware of it. At least it doesn't appear, at this point, that Oprah's producers made any attempt to contact or feature any of the prominent SPD experts. The second problem, is that the version that aired - all across the world - appears to have been edited in such a way that there is a total absence of quality, accurate information on SPD (or any other of the disorders affecting this child) and in a way that specifically leads viewers to believe SPD is a mental illness, and to associate SPD with violent, potentially murderous behaviours. Clearly this is not an accurate depiction of the behaviours associated with SPD.
It IS an accurate depiction of behaviours associated with serious mental illnesses, such as bipolar or schitzophrenia. Later in the show (much later) Oprah mentioned - almost in passing - that Zach has been diagnosed with various mental illnesses, none of them named on air, but bipolar is named in the online Oprah article.
There has been a flurry of discussion in the SPD online community about this episode of Oprah. Lots of good discussion. But there has also been... a tone. A distinct tone in many of the comments I've read on Facebook pages and blogs, that is making me uneasy. It's a tone I completely understand and recognize as second nature for many - but it is a tone that I think we need to explore and challenge in our role as advocates for children.
It's this tone: "MY child isn't like THAT child"... "MY child doesn't have a MENTAL ILLNESS".
For those of us who's kids have labels, but not one that falls into the category of mental illness, we fear the stigma of mental illness, because it casts such a dark shadow. Much darker, we likely feel, than the ones our kids' labels carry. They don't make movies about OUR kids killing people in psychotic rampages. They don't lock OUR kids up for unspeakable crimes. While we may never say it, the implication here is that our kids are better than that.
In the neurodiversity community, there has been much talk about the need to eliminate the sense of an autistic hierarchy - where those who are non-verbal and score low on IQ tests, are viewed automatically as less than those who are verbal and have average or above average IQ scores. In your own life - have you not felt the inherent awareness that others are viewing your child as less than his or her peers, when your child's behaviour is so different and misunderstood? Many of us have had our SPD kids accused of aggresive or violent behaviours when they hug someone too tightly, tackle another child, or grab someone's neck - not recognizing how much force they are using because their neurons are not sending the right signals to their brain.
I think there is a temptation for us to distance ourselves - and our kids - from the dreaded world of mental illness, because we are tired of our kids being the less thans, and without really recognizing it, we are elevating them above another group of less thans. Similarly, it irks many of us (me included) that Autism (and possibly SPD in the future) have to be placed into a diagnostic manual for "mental disorders" given that neither really ARE mental disorders. But if we are honest with ourselves, we're not irked because it's inaccurate so much as we are a bit ashamed to share a book with the crazy people.
But we shouldn't delude ourselves: ignorance is ignorance. Prejudice is prejudice. Someone who stigmatizes a child with a mental illness out of ignorance about their condition, is just as likely to stigmatize your child out of ignorance about theirs. Prejudice does not discriminate between disorders, it merely discriminates against them all.
Distancing ourselves from the stigma of one disorder (mental illness) does NOTHING to address the pervasion of stigma in the first place - and ALL of our kids are suffering from that pervasion of stigma. It touches everyone who is perceived as "different", and who's behaviours and conditions are misunderstood due to a lack of compassion and awareness.
Which takes me back to Oprah. I view this regrettable episode as one giant missed opportunity. An opportunity to spread awareness about so much more than one beautiful little boy who grabbed a knife in his mother's kitchen - so much more than a sensational headline. This was a missed opportunity to share accurate information. To encourage awareness and compassion for kids who bear the burden of heavy labels, whether it's SPD, Autism, Bipolar, Schitzophrenia, or any other widely misunderstood diagnosis.
The bottom line is that we're all in this together, regardless of the label we wear. If the goal is to destroy the menace of stigma, then we will only be successful when all of our children shed the weight of it. And we will only get there by resisting the temptation to finally be a better than.