In a recent (and I would add “highly irresponsible”) piece of reporting from the New Zealand Herald, we are told that an explanation for children turning up at school with American accents is that children are watching too much Disney Channel. We are told that such issues as poor oral skills, poor eye-contact, poor social interaction skills, and talking in phrases rather than typical sentences, are also attributable to this Disney Channel watching. If you think that actually sounds like a very good description of a child with autism, you’d be right, and you’d be in agreement with a speech therapist who wrote into the NZ Herald in response to that article, trying to explain that the issues being described are more complex than can be simply ascribed to enjoying the Disney Channel.
So whose opinion was the NZ Herald sharing then, if it wasn’t the opinion of an expert in the field of speech-language issues, and why does it matter? It was the opinion of a school principal, and it matters because this individual is in charge of students with speech-language issues. It matters because the Herald is a widely read national publication that chose to share this view as if it was important or noteworthy. It matters because our Minister of Education – Hekia Parata – is later quoted in that same article as saying that research into such poor language skills is likely to turn out explanations such as “It’s going to be a mix of stuff like screen time, less reading between adults and kids.” It matters because this woman is overseeing some seriously concerning changes to our special education sector, and it sounds like she has pre-accepted explanations for what is causing such issues – it is irresponsible for her to endorse such opinions before research backs it up. It is all the more dangerous because this view perpetuates the very ill-informed and dangerously unhelpful view held by some (none of whom are experts in autism or language development) that autism, and its symptoms, are really just caused by poor parenting decisions such as too much screen-time.
My youngest son has an American accent. I am a born and bred New Zealander, so is my husband. My son’s kindy teachers had Indian and Chinese accents. My son watched far less TV growing up than his brother did, and his brother has a very clear New Zealand accent (his brother is also autistic by the way – having an accent isn’t a necessary feature for having autism). Also, we don’t have the Disney Channel. The TV shows my son did watch growing up, were mostly New Zealand made shows, some UK and some US shows too, but those did not dominate his viewing experiences. In fact, my son’s peculiar American accent is one of the signs that he has mild autism – which he does, it is a firm diagnosis and has been for a couple of years now. He also has odd social skills, difficulty with eye contact; can’t blame the Disney Channel for that either. I didn’t even know his unusual accent was indicative of his autism until his specialist remarked on it, and my own research threw it up as a common indicator. (Try typing in “autism accent” or “American accent autism” in a search engine, and see what happens, just for starters.)
The complicating issue in the article, is that it is trying to explain an increase in such language issues, and some will respond here that autism can’t be increasing at that rate. However, there are plenty of studies that show autism rates (or, at the very least, recognition of autism symptoms), have been increasing steadily. There is also a growing awareness and concern about children with special needs, that shines an early and intense light on these needs that may have otherwise gone unremarked. There may be other factors causing such delays or speech issues, which may include such things as the increased numbers of children taking part in early childhood education (and the associated issues with the quality of care and amount of one-on-one time that can occur in some such settings), and may include other disorders that are poorly understood or are growing in number for whatever reason.
Or hey, maybe it’s the Disney Channel’s fault.
The point is, we don’t know, and we definitely don’t know enough to have national newspapers sharing the un-researched views of a single principal and the responsible Minister, as if their views were meaningful explanations; even worse, to have such views shared in the main article without balancing views from experts in the field of speech-language therapy – only hearing one such voice at the bottom of a list of views sent in by readers, in a secondary article released later. A secondary article that will not get nearly the same readership or coverage that the first article did.
To say all this makes me upset, is an understatement. It makes me mad, it makes me concerned, it makes me scared about how the public and other schools and the Minister in charge views children like mine. It makes me despair. I think this situation is indicative of how and why the special education sector in New Zealand is so screwed up and not looking like it’s going to improve – we need someone at the top who knows and understands our children’s challenges, and who doesn’t come in with preconceived ideas that special needs are caused by poor parenting. We need change, and “watching less Disney” isn’t the change we desperately need.