Mari-Jane Williams is a news design editor at The Washington Post and a regular guest contributor to the On Parenting blog. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two children, one of whom has special needs.
Stafford County teen Bryan Thompson — Colonial Forge High School’s very own “Banana Man” — is free. The 14-year-old gained infamy after school officials suspended him for 10 days for running around the field at halftime during a school football game while wearing a banana suit. The principal recommended that Thompson be expelled. Thompson returned to school Sept. 26 after his 10-day suspension was shortened to five days. Banana Man’s 15 minutes, it would seem, are up.
The question is: How much damage did those 15 minutes cause?
“Autistic ‘banana man’ becomes cause célèbre” screams one blogger’s headline. “Autistic student cuffed & suspended for harmless ‘banana man’ stunt” shouts another. Business Insider proclaimed “Autistic high schooler suspended 10 days for ‘Banana Man’ halftime stunt.”
Thompson’s behavior might have been harmless, but the coverage has been another story, because it unnecessarily evoked autism for a stunt that any class clown could have pulled.
Did the family play the autism card to try to get school officials to lighten his punishment? Did the media trumpet that aspect of Thompson to make him a more sympathetic character or to call Colonial Forge school officials on what many thought was a gross overreaction to a benign disruption?
It doesn’t really matter now. What matters is that at a time when advocates for children with autism are fighting for greater resources and trying to educate the public about a condition that affects 1 in every 110 children (1 in 70 boys), the headlines are pointing the public toward misleading perceptions of what autism really is.
The autism spectrum is vast, but public perception of children with autism should not be of a boy gleefully traipsing around a football field in a banana suit. If anything, the more accurate perception should be of a child sitting in a cafeteria, alone and overwhelmed, wanting desperately to connect to one of the groups of friends around him, but almost always on the social outskirts.
Contrast Thompson’s story with a serious incident, also involving a Stafford County teenager, in May of 2010. Reginald “Neli” Latson was found guilty of assaulting a police officer and sentenced to 10 ½ years in prison (all but two of which were suspended). Latson has Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, and would not provide his name to Deputy Thomas Calverley when the officer responded to reports of a suspicious youth at a local library. Calverley grabbed the uncooperative Latson to place him under arrest, and the two fought.
Clearly, assaulting a police officer is not acceptable. In Latson’s case, though, his refusal to provide his name was perceived as belligerence, when it likely was a lack of understanding of the situation. The subsequent scuffle was a reaction to being touched unexpectedly by a stranger.
In this case, autism made headlines for all the right reasons, resulting in greater understanding and compassion. Police departments in Northern Virginia have since put their personnel through training on how to recognize and deal with people who have autism spectrum disorders and parents and teachers no doubt have spent more time working with children who have autism on how to appropriately respond in such situations.
Parents of children with autism struggle every day to help their kids cope with the world. They see how their atypical child cannot connect, sometimes even with them. They bear the financial burden of paying for treatments that insurance often doesn’t cover. They worry about what will become of their children when they graduate from school and enter a world that offers very little in the way of adult services.
It does them no favors when any of us dress those problems in a banana suit.