Is Pop Culture in the Classroom a Path to Autism Acceptance?
I am sure that most of you by now have heard the term “autism awareness” and you probably know that there is a national autism awareness month every April. It was so declared by the Autism Society in April of 1970 and its intent was to educate the public about Autism Spectrum Disorder. So, for 45 years we’ve been raising awareness. It’s not surprising that there’s a growing trend within the autism community to evolve that term into “autism acceptance.” So many of us—parents and autistic individuals—feel that we need to move the public past simple awareness into greater understanding if we ever hope to create compassionate, accepting communities.
We have to focus on reaching children.
In order to make the shift from awareness to acceptance, we must start by educating children about autism—and do it in a way that helps them make a human connection. If we do it in the right way, they’ll be able to see past any kind of differences only to discover that we’re all pretty much the same at heart.
Since 1 in 68 children are on the autism spectrum, it’s likely that every school, maybe even several classrooms, has an autistic student. For those students, and to create an inclusive classroom, autism must be discussed. But how do you do it in such a way that you can capture and engage students and inspire them to learn more? I believe that the key is reaching them through mainstream pop-culture methods which have an educational foundation.
Pop culture can break the ice.
Have you ever walked into a room not knowing anyone? For me, it’s a terrifying moment that makes me want to run away and hide or avoid attending an event altogether. I can only imagine how my autistic son felt when he had to walk into unfamiliar situations…and oftentimes, to an unfriendly group because he was so different.
“I was bullied and isolated in my first elementary school,” says my son Jonathan. “I was different and the kids use to tease and taunt me. I don’t want what happened to me to happen to other kids. We have to talk about autism at home and at school. Nothing’s going to change unless we do.”
I’m convinced that if teachers had the right educational tools to introduce autism, it would open the doors to a more accepting classroom environment.
Let’s turn fear into wonder.
When my son was younger and I first read about autism, all I could find were clinical tomes—so boring and scary. Also, characters featured in films or television at the time perpetuated stereotypes (some still do) and did nothing to further our understanding of this condition. It’s no surprise that people still have misconstrued ideas about autism.
No longer willing to sit on the sidelines, I decided to take action and do whatever I could to change how the world views autism. I started Geek Club Books, a nonprofit with a unique name and a bold mission: EDUCATE the public and EMPOWER autistic individuals and their families. Our heart and authenticity comes from having an awesome autistic team involved in everything we do. Why? Because what better way to learn about autism than from someone who is autistic.
We are building a new brand of nonprofit by creating and collaborating with other disability organizations, autistic leaders, parent groups, and educational specialists on awareness advocacy and education initiatives rooted in storytelling. We are working to build a culture of acceptance in communities across the country and quality of life opportunities for the autistic.
Here’s how we’re using pop culture with great success in the classroom:
Mighty League of Acceptance School Outreach
Our interactive autistic hero comics are narrative, entertaining and based on real autistic individuals. We turned our comics into a collection of Autism EDU educational tools for teachers—including Powerpoint presentations, curriculum, student handouts, and activity guides. We offer everything available for free because it’s so important to get these tools into the hands of educators.
In 2017, we stepped things up by introducing a school assembly that combines our autistic hero comics with autistic speakers who talk to students candidly about what it’s like to be on the autism spectrum.
Bluebee TeeVee Autism Information Station
“Blue’s Clues meets Mr. Rogers” is the best way to describe our Bluebee TeeVee webisode series where kids learn about autism. Each episode is written, filmed and performed by two autistic individuals. Though the topics are serious, the content is delivered in a friendly and respectful way—with a little humor thrown in for fun.
Here’s an example:
“What is Autism?”
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Get Episode 1 Parent/Teacher Guide: http://bit.ly/bluebeetv-ep1-guide
Other episodes tackle friendship, bullying, safety, communication, and acceptance. These quirky webisodes are definitely sparking great conversations in the classroom. Teachers and parents use the companion episode guides for helping kids delve deeper into a particular topic.
My son is in his 30s now and he’s comfortable and confident with who he is—autism and all! The shift for him happened when we found a school where he was liked, accepted, and encouraged to be no one else but himself. Using pop culture as a means to educate about autism is creating that same kind of environment in the classroom. We’re bringing autism out into the open in a way that’s approachable. I think my son says it best,
“There shouldn’t be any shame about being on the spectrum, so we don’t need to hide it. When you are fearful, that’s when bullies can take advantage. Let’s talk about it.”
Jodi Murphy is the founder of Geek Club Books, 501c3 charity with an autism education and empowerment mission. The nonprofit, with their team of autistic contributors, produce interactive children’s stories as comics, curriculum, digital media and blog content to change perceptions and end stigmas surrounding autism. Jodi dreams of a world where those on the autism spectrum are valued and given every opportunity to share their gifts with the world. Sign up for Geek Club Books mailing list for free comics, resource guides, curriculum, audio stories and more: geekclubbooks.com/autism-bundle
Jonathan Murphy is a SAG-AFTRA voiceover actor appears in videogames, apps, audiobooks, and throughout a major theme park. Jonathan shares his autistic life experiences through public speaking and Mighty League children’s interactive comic series. He’s received a Temple Grandin Award and People’s Choice Award for his storytelling and a Local Hero award for his advocacy. jonincharacter.com