Stupid Or Just Different?

23 Sep

While I was having lunch with some work friends today, we started talking about an incident several years ago in which a kid was mauled by a wolf at a zoo.

What happened was that the child, who was maybe ten, climbed into the wolf enclosure. The leader of the pack, understandably upset about the invasion to his territory, attacked the child. The child suffered serious injuries, and the family had to fork out thousands of dollars for expensive medical procedures.

The family was desperate to recoup some of their expenses, so they filed a lawsuit against the zoo. They claimed that the zoo was responsible for the injuries suffered by the child. None of us could remember the outcome of the case.

As we discussed this story today, several opinions emerged around the table. The person who raised the topic believes that it was ridiculous for the parents to sue the zoo. After all, if your child climbs into an enclosure occupied by wild animals, what do you think is going to happen?

I pointed out that if it was so easy for the child to get into the enclosure, maybe the zoo was responsible. There clearly were not enough safeguards in place to prevent the incident. I mean, zoos are full of kids, and kids are not exactly predictable in their actions.

The guy seated to my left had an opinion of his own: the zoo would have been entitled to sue the family because the child was so stupid.

This remark offended me more than a little, and I think my lunch companions were a bit taken aback with the intensity of my reaction.

Here’s the thing. My older son George – the one who has autism – is streets away from being like a typical kid. He does not respond to things the way other kids do. He has his own special blend of needs, wants, perceptions and anxieties. He has a view of the world that the rest of us do not necessarily understand. And because of the way he is, because of his autism, he sometimes behaves in a way that would be widely regarded as counterintuitive. He will do things that do not make sense. Only they do make sense. Just because his actions do not always make sense to anyone else, we have to respect the fact that they make sense to him.

I have fairly very through-the-roof strong feelings about the idea of anyone daring to refer to my child as “stupid” just because he doesn’t do things the way other kids would do them.

I am not necessarily saying that George would climb into a den of wolves, but I can understand how a kid with autism could look at the wolves and see dogs. I can get how that kid’s mind could tell him that these “dogs” are no different from the friendly dog at his grandma’s house. And I am totally see how a child with autism may not have the sense of danger that other people do. He may not read the cues of bared fangs and growls.

All I am saying is that it is wrong to assume that a child is stupid just because he does something that most people wouldn’t do. You never know what is going on with the child or his family. There could be a lot more to it than meets the eye.

What are your thoughts on this? Is it ever OK to label a child as “stupid” on the basis of actions that are undeniably unwise? Is my outrage at my co-worker’s remark justified?

(Photo credit: This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)

5 Responses to “Stupid Or Just Different?”

  1. seekraz September 23, 2011 at 11:12 PM #

    I would guess that, first of all, your co-worker probably doesn’t have children, and second, that he doesn’t have a child with autism…both of which you do, which automatically predisposes you to having a strong reaction to such a thoughtless comment. In fairness, though, your co-worker wasn’t calling your child stupid, so maybe the reaction was a little “through the roof” and out of context since the remark really wasn’t delivered to you about your child. Your little one might do things that others don’t understand or might even consider stupid (if they don’t know he has autism), but he wasn’t the one who jumped into the wolf pen. To answer your last question…no, I don’t believe we should label children as stupid (and maybe adults, too) just because they do things that are undeniably unwise…because, yes, there is simply too much that we don’t know about them and their particular thought processes that are driving them to do what they’re doing in that or any situation.

    Good read…thank you. 🙂

    • runningforautism September 24, 2011 at 1:50 PM #

      No, he wasn’t calling my stupid, and during the lunch I didn’t imply that he had. I was simply making the point that calling a child “stupid” is just plain wrong, because you never know what is happening in that child’s life to make him do the things he does. The message I was trying to convey to my co-worker was that many children who give the appearance of being quote-unquote “normal” have something going on like autism or any number of other things. And to label a child as “stupid” just because he doesn’t act the way other kids do is wrong. I’m trying to spread the message of tolerance, and of being mindful of the fact that when a child misbehaves or does something different, this could be symptomatic of some issue that’s not visible to the eye. I felt that it was important to make this point, because if my co-worker makes a judgment like that about the kid at the zoo, he probably makes similar judgments about kids who, say, melt down in grocery stores.

  2. Kim September 24, 2011 at 9:08 AM #

    The word “Stupid”, boils my blood. In fact when I used to hear it from children, I used to ask that they show me a person that is stupid so that I can show them how “not stupid” that person really might be. The kids soon got the point. The word “stupid” is like a swear word in my opinion sitting along side “retard. This language is not tolerated in my home and I will often times corral teens and share why I find this so offensive. These words that carry no positive are similar to how we are currently viewing “gay” or other sexual orientation words. Let’s just be people.

    • runningforautism September 24, 2011 at 1:55 PM #

      I absolutely agree, and that is part of the point I’m trying to make. I do not allow use of this word in my home, and every time I hear it I want to physically flinch. You also touch on another point I am trying to make, which is that actions should be separated from people. A child may do something that is perceived to be stupid (and let’s face it, climbing into a wolf enclosure falls into that category), but that does not make the child himself stupid.
      Thanks for reading.

  3. seekraz September 24, 2011 at 9:48 AM #

    I agree with you…well said.

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