autism is not a supporting character

I will be starting today’s post with a confession: I truly enjoy the Disney Channel show Girl Meets World. I know, it’s weird, because I’m a grown-up dude with a beard and a real job. I could explain it away to the fact that I work with young people so it’s important for me to keep up with what they might be watching, or the fact that it has been on the television multiple times when I have done home visits for work. But in all honesty, it’s just a fun, goofy show that my wife and I like watching together.

Like its predecessor Boy Meets World, each episode of Girl Meets World deals with real issues, some of them rather difficult. Recently, the show aired an episode called “Girl Meets I Am Farkle.” For those of you who don’t know, Farkle is the eccentric, lovesick intellectual prodigy who makes the show fantastic. In this episode, Farkle’s aptitude test officially determines him to be a genius, but also reveals a potential for Asperger’s Syndrome, an anachronistic term for a strain of autism that is commonly referred to as milder. Of course, his friends initially become upset and deny that he could have autism, which is likely a pretty typical reaction for family and friends when a loved one is diagnosed with something so gigantic. They support him through the whole testing process and waiting period, determined to remain his best friends no matter what happens.

Initially, I was very excited that Girl Meets World was going to address mental health, especially with one of its main characters. Few shows, it seems—particularly shows for young people—take the time to address or include the rather large portion of the population dealing with mental illness. And if they do, they usually deal with it in a pejorative or inappropriately jocular way. I expected Girl Meets World to handle it differently and it did, although I was a little disappointed by the way the episode turned out.

At the beginning episode, Cory (yes, that Cory) teaches Farkle’s class about how, like atoms, every human is unique, and that they shouldn’t allow the labels put on them to define who they are. Naturally, I assumed that Farkle’s autism diagnosis would provide the opportunity to teach kids that Farkle might have autism, but that autism is not who he is. He is still goofy, girl-crazy, and gifted, no matter what his mental health diagnosis may be.

The episode didn’t go that route exactly, though. As it turns out, Farkle doesn’t have autism. Instead, the writers pawn off the autism diagnosis on a minor character named Smackle. Now, they portrayed autism in this minor character in a tasteful—albeit supremely caricatured—way, so that wasn’t the issue I had with the episode. I just wished they had let Farkle have autism instead of pinning it on a supporting character.

When young people are diagnosed with things like autism, they’re not just supporting characters. To their friends and family and in their own lives, they are main characters, just like Farkle is a main character on Girl Meets World. By giving away Farkle’s autism diagnosis, it seemed like the writers were willing to tackle the issue from a distance, rather than the scary-close reality of it. In real life, autism can’t be passed along to someone else. It sticks and has to be faced head-on. It honestly felt like the writers brought the big issue out into the open only to sweep it back under the rug again.

One in sixty-eight kids are diagnosed with autism. That’s a very high number, and I can guarantee that many of them watch shows like Girl Meets World. It’s too bad that those kids can’t see someone with autism portrayed on-screen as a fun-loving, intelligent kid with a close-knit group of friends that care about him. Of course, autism doesn’t look the same across the board (hence the reason it is often referred to as “the autism spectrum”), so Farkle will certainly not look like every kid who has autism. But I do think Girl Meets World had a great opportunity to help kids—particularly kids who are frequently viewed as different—learn that there is way more to who they are than the label that is given to them, and that it’s okay to have a label that sets them apart.

I do understand that maintaining a main character with autism would be difficult for the writers of the show, but I just feel like it would have been worth it. If we want to eradicate the stigma attached to mental health, then it needs to be presented front-and-center as something that isn’t scary or shameful, but as something real.

It’s strange to say, but Farkle would have been a great candidate for autism. Because we’ve already been introduced to him first and foremost as a really loveable human being, it would have been an easy way to show kids that people with autism are people primarily and that Farkle’s autism does not define him. Of course it has an influence on his personality, but it does not pigeonhole him into the category of merely autistic.

But alas the writers decided to impute Farkle’s autism to a supporting character. However, for so many people, autism doesn’t take a supporting role, nor can it just be pushed off to the side. For one in sixty-eight families, autism plays a prominent, messy, joyful, uncertain, difficult, and exciting leading role. I would have really liked to have seen Girl Meets World explore that more than it did in “Girl Meets I Am Farkle.”

Oh well. It’s still a great show. And I’m still a member of #FarkleNation.

me vs. the death penalty, round one

That’s right, my fellow Americans, today I will be tackling everyone’s favorite topic: the death penalty. Well, perhaps “tackling” is too strong of a word. I should say, today I will be running full force into the death penalty and getting thoroughly knocked on my butt. I say that because the topic itself is so broad that there’s no way I could cover every square inch of the issue in this blog post, or even in my decidedly and inevitably biased brain. But alas, I begin.

I believe that killing someone—anyone, no matter what they’ve done—is wrong. Most people are willing to agree that murder is immoral. It’d probably make the top five list of worst crimes a person could commit. We are especially sickened by murder if it takes place in a school or in an act of terrorism. But for some reason, a shocking amount of people are willing to turn a blind eye when the murder victim is a hardened criminal and the murderer is the state. Of course, those people would also call this justice, not murder.

By definition, murder is the illegal killing of one person by another. This definition—which will be common among most if not all dictionaries—does not make any claims regarding the morality of the murdered individual. Murder is murder regardless of the victim’s legal standing. That’s why Jack Ruby, the man who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald (John F. Kennedy’s assassin), originally received the death penalty for his crime, ironically enough. Because, even though Oswald murdered the President of the United States, Ruby did not have the legal right to kill him for it.

And yet, this is a legal right that many people are comfortable with delegating to the state. It’s wrong for a civilian to kill a criminal, but completely within legal limits for a government employee to do so while wielding a syringe filled with lethal chemicals. It’s a philosophical paradox; and not, I think, a paradox to which we can respond by simply shrugging our shoulders and saying, “It is what it is.”

One of the strongest arguments in favor of the death penalty is that the criminal deserves to die because he or she killed someone else. This “eye for eye” mentality regarding murder, however, doesn’t really align itself with the way other crimes are punished. It’s interesting to me that murder is the only crime (near as I can tell) to which parallel justice can be prescribed. For example, rapists are not punished for their crimes by being raped themselves. I think most Americans would respond to this sort of retribution with disgust, and for very good reason. Logically, one would expect this attitude to transfer over to the case of murder, but still “we kill people who kill people because killing people is wrong.” To quote Mahatma Gandhi, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Now, I understand that legal executions do not take place in a vacuum. The sole intent of the death penalty is not simply to punish the criminals, but to bring closure to the victims’ families. I have never been affected by a crime worthy of the death penalty, so I understand that my right to speak on this subject may be somewhat illegitimate. However, I wonder this: Do we live in such a savage society that we cannot find closure in the wake of a crime until the perpetrator has been eliminated from the world? Does the execution of a criminal truly heal the wounds he or she has caused?

It’s important to remember that victims are not the only ones with families. While it may be plausible that the family of a victim—which is innocent—may find closure in its transgressor’s execution, there can be very little solace for the perpetrator’s family—which is also innocent. It is absolutely terrible that an innocent family must lose one of its members to murder, but causing unwarranted hurt to another innocent family should not be the answer. That would be almost like the government of a third world nation decreeing that, because some people are starving, no one gets to eat the meager rations they do have.

I would hate to end this blog post with you thinking I am some sort of anarchist who thinks everyone should be able to do whatever they want, no matter who they hurt. This isn’t the case at all. An anti-death penalty stance, I think, necessarily includes a very serious disapprobation toward murder. I believe that people who murder other people should be prosecuted for their crimes, but my concern is the end result of the prosecution. There are two primary goals I believe should be sought via the workings of the criminal justice system, and neither of them are payback. The first should be public safety, and the second should be rehabilitation.

People who commit murders are, frankly, a threat to the safety of society at large. Therefore, I believe that the principal objective of incarceration should be to keep dangerous individuals in an environment where they can do no harm to others, rather than for punishment. Many people have serious qualms about the cost-effectiveness about keeping imprisoned someone who could otherwise be executed. To that I respond in this way: I don’t know whether it’s cheaper to kill a criminal or keep him or her alive, as I’ve found many conflicting reports regarding this issue. What I do know is that we’ve taken a grievously wrong turn when we begin discussing the value of a human life in terms of dollars and cents.

The second goal, in my opinion, of the penal system should be rehabilitation as opposed to retribution. Rehabilitation says, “You messed up. Let’s see if we can get this thing turned around.” Retribution says, “You messed up. Now you’re screwed.” Rehabilitation seeks a hope for the future. Retribution seeks an end to the future. Rehabilitation sees the person. Retribution sees the crime. Of course, rehabilitation looks different for each person. For some, rehabilitation may be eventual reintegration with society. For others, rehabilitation may just be learning to accept that what was done was wrong. And, of course, there will be those for whom rehabilitation is a pipe dream, but I suppose there must be a patron saint of lost causes for a reason.

That was only part of what I had to say regarding this subject, and even then it was a grueling ordeal that cost me a few good hours of sleep. Tune in next time (or at least whenever I get around to writing more) for my spiritual approach to the death penalty, and my response to those Christians who support it.

saturday night service

Saturdays in the fall and early winter play host to some of the greatest moments of the calendar year. From the beginning of September to early January, hundreds if not thousands of young guys (and girls, on occasion) get their college tuition paid for by playing in twelve to fourteen football games in a given season. People show up in droves to get a glimpse of these games, and even more watch them from their couches at home. They spend hours watching the games, hours reading about them, and hundreds of dollars on merchandise and tickets and cable packages and tailgating victuals. They interpolate intense emotions between goalposts, at times predicating their entire satisfaction in life on the success of their team of choice and feasting off the plate of other men’s success.

I am one of these poor milksops enslaved by the college football machine. No matter how much I would like not to, I can’t keep my mind off of football. Somehow, football always seems to seep into my brain, whether I want it to or not. I feel a tug in my chest if I know there’s a game on and I can’t watch it. I feel like less of a man if I can’t engage with someone in a well-educated conversation about the past weekend’s games and each team’s outlook for the season. I feel naked if I don’t wear the correct apparel on a given Saturday. I feel like a complete and utter failure in life if I miss one K-State—my team of choice—game.

But my love for football doesn’t simply end there. Oh no. If only! Each week, myself and another friend rank all 128 of the NCAA FBS teams from worst to best, and this is a process that probably takes a good two hours per week, not to mention all of the time I spend watching games, listening to podcasts, researching statistics, reading articles, and playing college football video games. Even when I’m at work or just doing something inherent non-football related, I frequently find myself consumed with thoughts about football. At times, it seems like a religion dressed up as a hobby.

Or perhaps it could be likened to a drug. There’s never enough college football for me. College football games can be found on television at least four nights a week—if not more—and yet it seems like games are spaced out by eternity. College football keeps me from working on Saturdays—which, in my job, is a prime opportunity for accomplishing requisite tasks—much like a drug might preclude its addict from working. And, of course, the worst thing in the entire world is the college football off-season. Those eight-plus months are positively torturous. My “withdrawals,” so to speak, have created within me an unusual affinity for Canadian football, which begins its season the first week of June, two months before American college football.

No matter what you want to compare it to, my love for college football is dedicated and obsessive. It’s the kind of thing that characterizes fairy tale love relationships. It’s the kind of magnetism that keeps a puppy on the heels of its owner when treats are at stake. It’s the kind of diligence that inspires a dutiful employee to quality work.

It’s the kind of thing that makes me lament that I cannot seem to follow Jesus nearly as closely as I follow college football.