One of my guilty pleasures in life is watching reality television shows. With favorites such as Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, Top Chef, The Amazing Race, and Celebrity Apprentice, I find a relaxing escape nearly every day enjoying these shows that involve competition and cooperation as people complete assigned tasks. This week my mom forwarded me a humorous e-mail proposing a new season for the reality show Survivor that entails business people being placed in an elementary school and having to complete typical teacher tasks, such as writing lesson plans, conducting safety drills, and making bulletin boards. Challenges included trying to teach students with special needs, keeping the photocopying within the monthly budget, and planning bathroom breaks around times when someone else can watch the class. While the actual proposal was much longer and more detailed, the gist of the e-mail was to illustrate that most people don’t understand how difficult teaching really is. Having taught for more than twenty-six years in a public school, I understood and appreciated the satirical tone, especially the lines, “They must maintain discipline and provide an educationally-stimulating environment to motivate students at all times. If students do not wish to cooperate, work, or learn, the teacher will be held responsible.” As I mused over the truth and the humor of this proposal, I began thinking about another possible season of Survivor.
Survivor: Autism would require participants with no experience in raising or teaching a child with autism to supervise such a child while successfully meeting the medical, educational, and social needs for that child. Armed with laptops, contestants surf the Internet, looking for the latest autism research and seeking professionals who can provide therapies that meet the child’s needs, including speech therapy, occupational therapy, sensory integration therapy, and biomedical interventions. With limited financial resources, contestants will spend time pleading their cases to insurance companies as to why this child needs benefits that they routinely deny. In addition, contestants must attend IEP meetings in which they will also fight to ensure the child receives the best and most appropriate educational placement and services. Special reward challenges could include “If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d Have Baked a Cake,” in which contestants must bake a gluten-free and casein-free birthday cake for the child, who is on a restricted diet due to food allergies or sensitivities. The winner of this challenge would not only complete the task in the allotted time and meet the dietary requirements, but would also make a cake with a taste and texture the child would actually eat. Those who create a cake decorated to resemble the child’s current favorite cartoon character receive bonus points for this task. Another challenge might be called “Déjà vu”; contestants must sit patiently as the child watches a favorite Disney video or DVD dozens of times in a row or asks the same question repeatedly for over an hour. If the child jumps up to replay a favorite scene, the contestant may not intervene, lest risking a full-blown fit. Facing this endurance type of challenge, the winner of this task simply sits through this scenario over and over calmly and patiently until all of the other competitors have left screaming or been dragged away by the men in white coats from the challenge. Perhaps the most difficult challenge would require dealing with the child who is in complete meltdown mode. Entitled “Be Jack Bauer,” named after the hero from 24 who always remains calm, even in dire circumstances, contestants must calm, cajole, and comfort a child who is anxious, angry, and aggressive after something simple happens, such as the cable or Internet service stops working. Those who can talk the child down from this level of upset by lying, bribing, or distracting without losing their own tempers can successfully complete this challenge. Those who get through the task without getting hit, kicked, or bitten, along with nothing getting broken by being thrown, win bonus points. Of course, the irony of Survivor: Autism is that most contestants would beg to be voted off of this island and smile as Jeff Probst snuffed their torch, sending them back to freedom, no longer having to “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast.”
As I consider my affinity for reality television shows, I realize that I enjoy the psychological aspects and watching how people react to difficult circumstances. Moreover, I always wonder why people would voluntarily agree to be part of something that not only tested their skills and character, but also allowed them to be scrutinized by millions of people watching them on television. In many ways, parenting a child with autism is like being on a reality television show. Daily, we face tests with unusual challenges that force us to be resourceful in limited amounts of time. Moreover, “judges” sometimes criticize our performance, whether by askance looks at our children or us or by comments that range from clueless attempts to be helpful (a la Paula Abdul) to the blatantly rude (a la Simon Cowell). In this month of Autism Awareness, I pray that those who have not played Survivor: Autism learn a tolerance and compassion for those of us who are completing our challenges the best we can, often blinded by the love we feel so deeply for the special children whose progress rewards us more than any reality show ever could.
“They will survive through hard times; even in famine they will have more than enough.” Psalm 37:19