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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.)