By Dan Olmsted
Don’t you just love the word treacle? I do. It describes so much of what we're subjected to in pop culture these days. Without looking it up, because it speaks for itself, I’d say its approximate meaning is sickly sweet sentimentality without substance. It’s no doubt named after the candy.
So much of what passes as compassionate coverage of children in this day and age is so much treacle – commodified treacle at that, by which I mean it is packaged to sell, and one touching story is just about the same as another, only distinguished by its bathos quotient (which I think of as just slightly more treacle-y than pathos).
The more bathetic, the better.
Treacle is getting easier to get away with, and harder to get away from. The whole gloppy genre of troops home from the wars and tearfully embracing their families in a brand new home that some app helped them find, etcetera, while an indecipherable Mumford-like melody swells, is a case in point.
Another: On Good Morning America Friday, a child who I’m sure is deserving of all the loving-kindness coming his way was in the spotlight – he was afraid he couldn’t assemble any friends for a birthday party, because he didn’t have any friends, and his mother’s pleas led to an extravagant outpouring of new friends on Facebook. And did GMA ever have a birthday surprise for him!
According to the Daily Mail, “during a surprise visit to the set of “Good Morning America,” Colin Cunningham found out that he has friends all around the world, even though he has to eat lunch alone at school every day.”
And wouldn’t you know, “Colin is very friendly and open, but often shows symptoms of a mild form of autism, which is why he is typically shunned by his schoolmates.
“Fortunately, this is just one of the many difficulties that no longer seems impossible to conquer thanks to social media.”
Wow, social media as super-hero -- like Mighty Mouse, here it comes to save the day! No longer will a mild form of autism spread its evil tentacles around helpless kids -- not when heroes like Facebook and ABC have anything to say about it.
The on-air promos were enough to give me the general idea, so I turned the channel. But on the channel I turned to, the Today show was featuring Bat-Boy – the child with leukemia in remission who took over San Francisco for the day. Turned out he was going to be featured at the Oscars, but the bit got cut. Never mind, he got a trip to Disneyland with the real-life (meaning movie version) of Batman himself!
Now I have to say I loved the Bat-Kid story, which seemed to grow into a spontaneous citywide celebration of a child’s triumph over adversity. (Maybe it's because Batman and Mighty Mouse are my own personal cartoon-era heroes.) The GMA extravaganza feels different to me – a child with a condition that has not been alleviated by all the attention, but is made to seem so.
It reminds me of the mainstream coverage of Donald Triplett, the first person diagnosed with autism. That version, also impressarioed by GMA, and the unctuous John Donvan, left the impression that everyone was so nice to Don down there in friendly Forest, Miss., that he grew out of a form of the disorder so severe he was the first one to be identified.
No, that’s not right. It’s another story, one I won’t recite here, but suffice it to say he got a biomedical treatment for a toxic exposure, an exposure that has continued to this very day and now drives an epidemic of children with autism, most of whom are not going to conquer it or get a million friends to come to their birthday.
Meanwhile anyone who tries to look at why there might be so many kids like Colin in need of real help, and many more who might escape the same fate if we faced up to reality, gets ridiculed. (I'm looking at you, George Stephanopoulos.)
And to pretend otherwise is just bathetic.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.