Despite woefully inadequate supports for those who need them, discrimination, low expectations, and other attitudinal barriers, growing numbers of Autistic people are becoming conventionally successful. This can take many forms, including educational achievement, financial success, building a valued and valuable career, attaining elected office, home ownership, and taking on respected religious and community roles. For many Autistic adults, it happens quietly. Sometimes, however, the neurotypical world takes notice. Efforts of many disability communities to push back against inspiration porn and promote media narratives that recognize and acknowledge the full humanity of disabled people have helped but not completely fixed the situation. Although the problem is unlikely to completely disappear any time soon, there are some steps Autistic people can take to minimize the risk of becoming inspiration porn and reduce harm if it happens, anyway. It is also imperative that the neurodiversity-oriented Autistic community learn to separate the story from its subject.
The media attention to Haley Moss’ admission to the Florida Bar, and the story ultimately going viral, is just the latest, and one of the most prominent, of many episodes of very real achievement by Autistics or others with disabilities handled regrettably by the media and popular culture. The usual pattern is that an Autistic adult does something that is genuinely worthwhile. Sometimes, the activity in question would be newsworthy even if performed by a neurotypical. Sometimes, it is only newsworthy because it is a ‘first’, a barrier broken by a member of a minority group. Sometimes, it is not newsworthy, and its very coverage is somewhat patronizing. News outlets, often starting with local ones, cover the activity and the subject of the story’s disability, but the coverage is low-quality. Actual achievement is simultaneously sensationalized, exaggerated, and described in an incredibly patronizing way. The subject of the story is often quoted selectively, with words that add dignity and nuance cut out. The end result is someone who has done something genuinely challenging and worthwhile being covered like a curiosity, like a talking dog. These stories often go viral.
Volumes have been written on this issue. Many different disability communities have tried hard to push back, and there have been some improvements. In recent years, a growing number of well-regarded media organizations have put opinion pieces on disability in the hands of disabled writers with excellent results. There are also a growing number of guides for journalists covering disability. Writers, bloggers, and journalists who get these stories right consistently find that their reputations precede them, and disability communities trust and support them more and more over time. Although the situation is improving, contact with the media remains risky for the dignity of people with disabilities, especially when the story in question is one of achievement and success. It remains important for Autistic people anticipating contact with the media to take basic steps to reduce the risk of ending up at the center of an inspiration porn story and going viral and for the community to avoid blaming the victim when that does not work out.
Not all attention or representation is worthwhile. The first step to preventing an inspiration porn incident is to avoid, if at all possible, becoming part of stories that are not newsworthy and lower-grade publications that may care more about going viral than producing real news. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to turn down the interview, express surprise and confusion that the activity in question may get press coverage, and point out that it is common, routine, or uninteresting. It is also important to consider the source. It is unsurprising that Forbes’ article on Haley Moss described the significance of her achievement in much more nuanced, interesting, intersectional terms than USA Today’s. No publication is perfect, but the ones that are more committed to high journalistic standards will get this right more of the time.
The format is also important. At least for those who are good with words, it may be easier to get one’s full humanity across in a longer-form interview than a short quote that will be heavily contextualized, for better or worse, by a reporter who may or may not be informed about disability, by the surrounding story. If an opportunity to speak with the media does seem worth pursuing, it is important to plan ahead as much as possible. Having a basic outline, or even a script, of what one wants to say can make it easier to stay on-message. Consider words carefully, and try to think through every sentence as if it could be the only one that makes it into publication.
Of course, these tactics are not always sufficient to prevent inspiration porn, and whether to cooperate with a given story is always a judgement call. People who are looking for inspiration porn will sometimes find ways to read it into the most dignified coverage of a disabled person achieving something worthwhile. Adding context on social media, speaking out about the problems with lower-quality coverage, entering into dialogue with people who want to discuss the story, and otherwise trying to get some modicum of control of the narrative, as Haley Moss has on Twitter in recent days, all help to reduce the harm and increase the odds that a story will change perceptions. Ultimately, there are parts of the process of media coverage and a story’s flow through social media networks that are outside of the control of its subjects, but Autistic adults can exercise some agency before and after content is created.
The Autistic community must remember that getting caught up in these stories is often something that happens to people without being intentionally orchestrated by them. Although professional Autistics are a real problem, albeit one driven by the community’s horrific unemployment rate, many or most people caught up in inspiration porn stories are victims, rather than perpetrators, of indignities on themselves and other disabled people. The Autistic community can be unforgiving to people who are perceived as impediments to a good narrative. However, it must recognize that the person at the center of the story is a human being who belongs in the community, often regrets their role in the story, and is somewhere between barely culpable and not at all culpable in most cases, at worst having made a handful of easy mistakes. Doing something worthwhile, making a good faith effort toward quality representation, and getting bad coverage despite one’s best efforts should not be grounds for exclusion, humiliation, or harsh reproach. In all of these episodes, Autistic people must refrain from driving away those who did good things only to have them covered badly.