Keeping The Conversation Going


When Robin Williams committed suicide back in August, a friend predicted that everyone would post obsessively about depression awareness for a week before forgetting about it and moving on. Apart from the duration – the posts lasted for two weeks – her prediction was dead-on.

Three months after the death of Mr. Williams, Facebook and Twitter posts about mental illness had all but disappeared. Then a woman named Brittany Maynard started trending on social media when she chose assisted suicide over a horrible death from cancer.

Reactions to her death have been all over the place. There are those who believe Brittany’s decision showed courage and strength of character, and there are those who are convinced that she is burning in hell because of her selfishness and disobedience of God.

I want to make it clear that I am in no way equating the deaths of Robin Williams and Brittany Maynard. Robin Williams fought a long battle with depression. He felt desperate and hopeless, and when he looked into the future all he could see was a bleak, desolate landscape. Brittany Maynard was not suffering from depression, and she did not want to die. She simply knew that her death was both inevitable and imminent, and she wanted to spare herself and her family the ravages of brain cancer.

The only thing the two deaths have in common is that both individuals chose to take their own lives.

Whether or not terminally ill people are obligated to see their diseases through to the bitter end is a matter of personal opinion, and that’s another debate for another day. The thing that I took issue with after Brittany died was a comment posted by one of my Facebook contacts on a link to the story.

“Anyone who commits suicide is selfish.”

I was certain that I had seen the commenter’s name crop up in one of the discussions following the death of Robin Williams, so I started digging around in the bowels of her newsfeed. It took a while, but I found it: a statement to the effect that people really shouldn’t judge those to take their own lives without walking a mile in a depressed person’s shoes.

I’m not usually one to start a fight, but one thing I cannot stand is hypocrisy, and as an advocate for mental health awareness, I couldn’t just let it go. So I went back to the Brittany Maynard discussion and replied to her comment, reminding her of what she had said when Robin Williams died. She didn’t respond. Unfortunately, her comment about suicide being selfish was far from isolated.

I am left feeling somewhat disheartened. Did we learn nothing from the Robin Williams tragedy? If, three months later, people are spouting those cruel stereotypes that they previously vowed to help fight, how are we ever going to move forward? Will we ever be able to continue the discussions, or are we going to keep having to start the same discussions over and over again?

I don’t expect everyone to start posting endlessly about mental illness, but I would love to see it consistently treated with the same respect that is given to physical illness. I would love for people to feel able to talk about their experiences with mental illness without fear of embarrassment or shame. I would love to see the judgments and blame replaced with understanding and support.

And I would love to see more meaningful conversations that are not triggered by tragedy.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Victor. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.


Easy Breezy Autism Covergirl?


Being an autism parent comes with many challenges. One of them is society’s tendency to sensationalise people with autism who have any kind of talent. Temple Grandin, for instance, is frequently held up as a shining example of what autistic individuals might be able to accomplish. So, bizarrely, is Rain Man, who isn’t even real.

One of the latest autism whiz kids is a young woman by the name of Carly Fleischmann. She is non-verbal, and at a young age doctors predicted that her cognitive development would be limited. She had a breakthrough when she typed a message on a computer, and since then the world of communication has opened up to her. With the help of her father, she has written a book, Carly’s Voice, giving an insider’s view of autism.

My reaction to Carly’s story is a mixture of admiration and skepticism. Admiration because this girl has clearly achieved more than anyone thought she would. She has found a way to communicate, she has co-authored a book, and by all accounts she is now attending college. Good for her. And I don’t say that in a snarky, sarcastic way. I say it with all sincerity.

The skepticism arises from her reaction at being rejected as a Cover Girl model. She seems to be of the opinion that (a) Cover Girl rejected her because she has autism, and that (b) the reason Cover Girl should have accepted her is because she has autism.

Let me pause for a moment to say that I’m not intending to start a big debate about media portrayals of beauty. Yes, I know that the models we see on magazine covers have been Photoshopped to Kingdom Come. Yes, I’m aware that real people don’t look like that in real life.

I also know that physical beauty has nothing whatsoever to do with the presence or absence of autism. There are ordinary-looking people with and without autism, and there are absolutely show-stoppingly gorgeous people with and without autism. As the parent of a child with autism, I have heard many insults and unfair stereotypes aimed at people who are on the spectrum. But I have never heard anyone claim that people with autism are ugly.

This leads me to the following question: should Carly Fleischmann be granted a Cover Girl contract in spite of not meeting their physical standards, just because she has autism? I’m no oil painting myself, but I would venture to say that I have just as much inner beauty as Carly does. Why, then, should she have more entitlement to be a Cover Girl model than me? I’ve also overcome challenges and accomplished great things.

My son George is ten. He is described as “functionally verbal”, which means he has enough verbal communication to meet his needs. He has enough words to make requests and get by, but he cannot have a conversation. He has good academic skills, but lacks the ability to apply the academic concepts to real life. He can independently get dressed and use the washroom, and he can make himself a sandwich or pour himself a glass of milk. But he would not look at the colour of a traffic light before crossing the road, and if you gave him $10 and put him in a store, he wouldn’t know what to do.

I am big on accommodations for kids with autism. My child needs plenty of them, and if I’m to be realistic, he’ll more than likely need accommodations well into adulthood. He’ll probably be able to hold down a career – maybe he’ll even get to go to college – but he will almost definitely need to have his environment adapted in a way that enables him to succeed.


I would not want my son to be on the cover of some magazine just because he has autism – unless it was a magazine about autism, or at least a magazine featuring a story about autism.

Look, if my son turns out to be the fastest athlete in the province but is denied a place on the Olympic team just because of his autism, I will turn into the world’s biggest autism advocate warrior mom. But if he misses the Olympic qualifying standards, would I want him to be given a place on the team anyway, just because he has autism? Hell, no.

I want my son to come by his accomplishments and accolades honestly, by earning them. I don’t want people to say that he got this job or won that award “just because he has autism”.

What do you think? Is Carly Fleischmann right to be upset over not being accepted as a Cover Girl model? Am I short-changing my son by wanting him to be judged by the same standards as other people?

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: mhs.journalism. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.