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accessibility Achievement Additional Needs and Disabilities ADHD Celebrities Inspirational People SEND Stigma

In at the Deep End: How ADHD Shaped the Success of Michael Phelps

Michael Fred Phelps is famous throughout the world for his legendary abilities whilst swimming. Phelps is, by far, the most successful Olympian of all time with 28 Olympic medals of which 23 are Gold. Phelps also has several world records relating to swimming and is the fastest human being alive in the water. Phelps has achieved this success for many reasons, not least being his own hard work and dedication, as well as having a body especially suited for high water mobility. But another factor that may have allowed Phelps to reach such success, much to the surprise of many, may be his ADHD. Phelps was diagnosed with the condition when he was a child, and some believe that this diagnosis played a role in making him such a world class athlete. In examining how ADHD has affected Phelps, we may learn to see Disability in a rather different light.

“I simply couldn’t sit still, because it was difficult for me to focus on one thing at a time”

– Michael Phelps, from his book Beneath the Surface

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a condition that causes many behaviours that are unusual in the rest of the population. Commonly observed behaviours include restlessness, short attention span, and difficulty focusing. Many people consider ADHD to be purely negative, but many people with the condition themselves see it quite differently. For instance, ADDA, an self-advocacy group run by people with the condition, argue that ADHD is worthy of being celebrated. Whilst living with ADHD may present challenges, ADDA argues that the condition can in fact have its advantages and should be better thought of as simply a different way of having a mind. This might sound strange at first, but in Michael Phelps there may be an incredible example of this idea in action.

Historically, ADHD was understood as an inability to focus but more modern research suggests that it may in fact be a lack of control on what the brain focuses on. This is why ADHD people often exhibit a trait called ‘Hyperfocus’, where they focus intensely and singly on one thing, often for hours at a time. The theory goes that ADHD people often have a far stronger ability to focus than so called ‘Neurotypicals’ (those without ADHD) do. The problems come when an ADHD person has to focus on one thing when around them are ten or twenty distractions to drag their attention from. Most people have the ability to forcefully draw themselves back to the object of their focus and resist distractions, but without this many ADHD people struggle to stick to one thing long enough to make meaningful progress. With that said, picture child Michael Phelps in a swimming pool. Whilst in a classroom he might struggle to sit and do his work because of all the distractions, in the pool, with nothing to focus on but the water, his mind can intensely focus for hours on end. This allows Phelps to practice far longer and maintain focus far longer than his neurotypical coevals. Becoming a world star athlete requires spending many hours of each day practicing, but it also requires being able to remain attentive to technique even after hours of practice. Its possible that it is because and not in spite of, Phelps’ Disability that he has been able to take on the entire world in his chosen sport, and definitively triumph.

Michael Phelps Video: ADHD and What I would tell my Younger Self

Video Description: Michael Phelps talks to the camera about what he would tell his younger self and what it was like growing up with ADHD. Video has closed captions.

About Theo!

“Hi! My name’s Theo Greiner and I work in the Web and Digital Services Team at Surrey County Council. I’m also on the Autism spectrum and use that experience to write articles on accessibility on behalf of the Council to get people thinking about Accessibility and Disability. I write in hopes of shifting people’s ideas about Disability towards ones that treat Disabled people with the respect and agency they deserve. I hope you enjoy them.”

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Additional Needs and Disabilities Autism Celebrities Film Media SEND Social Stigma

Not ‘Music’ to Our Ears

Contents

Young people’s views on Sia’s casting of Music

You may have heard of Sia’s new movie, Music, which was criticised before release for casting a non-autistic actor as a mostly non-verbal, autistic main character.

In the midst of Sia lashing out at criticism on social media, ATLAS members talked about how the casting of Music and the release trailer made them feel.

A screenshot of a tweet exchange between Helen Z and Sia. Helen Z's tweet reads: 'Several autistic actors, myself included, responded to these tweets. We all said we could have acted in it on short notice. These excuses are just that - excuses. The fact of the matter is zero effort was made to include anyone who is actually autistic. #NothingAoutUsWithoutUs.' Sia's response reads: 'Maybe you're just a bad actor.'
Famous tweet exchange during backlash around the casting of Sia’s movie, Music.

Many of the young people were disappointed that a potential opportunity for representation of girls with autism was overwritten by ableism:

“It feels as if someone who has not experienced being autistic is mimicking and taking the mick out of struggles we have and there are so many potential actors and actresses which would have been happy to be casted in the movie. There is the idea that Sia was not able to put the right environment for an autistic actress to function when filming but if it’s not working for them and the movie is about autism and disability inclusion and awareness then you should change the environment. I feel it is especially difficult to watch the trailer as a girl with autism seeing a neuro typical girl attempt to portray autism in girls, which unfortunately is a very underrepresented thing in the media and is often not acknowledged as much as autism in boys. I feel that the opportunity to bring about awareness for autism in girls has been crushed by such a horrifically degrading movie of a neuro typical attempting to show you what it’s like to live as an autistic person when they have had no actual experience of it.”

Other young people were torn, because they felt that additional needs and disabilities have been successfully portrayed by actors without additional needs and disabilities elsewhere:

“I think it is difficult. Ideally an autistic character should be played by an autistic actor as this will really help raise awareness, and potentially open up these opportunities to people with additional needs. However, I also think it is not a negative thing a non-autistic actor playing this role, as long as the portrayal is accurate and realistic.

A good example is the American TV show ‘The Good Doctor’. A non autistic actor (Freddie Highmore) plays an autistic savant character in the show, and I know his portrayal of the character has received a lot of praise and has also helped to raise awareness, as well as showing a powerful autistic role model through television, despite the fact that the actor does not have autism.”

A still from the TV show 'The Good Doctor' showing the main character Dr. Shaun Murphy played by Freddie Highmore.
Dr. Shaun Murphy from ‘The Good Doctor’

Overall, ATLAS members did not feel that the casting of ‘Music’ was positive.

“Autistic actors are already marginalised and it’s harder for them to get roles. Especially when that autistic character has already been written by non-autistic people, I think it’s disrespectful to not use an autistic actor. It’s unhelpful, and often inaccurate.”

“It’s something that affects me daily and they get to take off their ‘autism mask’ and carry on normally, plus they profit from all of this. It also would be far more accurate with an autistic actor who actually knows the ins and outs of being autistic.”

The portrayal of autism in the media

Sadly, this film does not stand in isolation. The majority of ATLAS members reported that they felt the portrayal of autism in the media was either ‘not very good’ or ‘really terrible’.

There were mixed views around having non-speaking autistic characters in films, however there was a largely positive response to having female characters with autism.

Survey responses about the portrayal of autism in the media.
Survey results from Microsoft Forms on the portrayal of Autism in the media.

“I think it’s so important to have the diversity of autism shown in the media. Too many people think it’s straight white boys lining up cars but it’s so much more than that.”

“The way autism is currently represented in the media is not very diverse. Usually cishet white men who like maths. Or it’s demonised. It’s very often talked about from the perspective of ‘autism parents’ rather than autistic people.”

Film is a powerful medium. When used correctly, it can empower and educate people. When somebody sees a film focused on autism, that may be their first exposure to the idea of autism or to an autistic person. This provides an opportunity for people to talk about and approach autism in better ways. Unfortunately, if the film misrepresents people with autism, then the ideas taken from a film could lead to autistic people being viewed and treated in negative ways.

“It could be great it has amazing potential to raise awareness to the struggles of autistic people by using our own experiences and using us for the information rather than charities and companies like Autism Speaks which believe that autism needs a cure. So if the information that the film and the character was based off of was found through talking to autistic people and if they cast an autistic person then the film would have amazing potential to widen people’s knowledge of the autism spectrum and and make the representation of autism in the media more positive.”

Disability is fluid

Clem Bastow beautifully describes Maddie Ziegler’s performance in her Guardian Article:

“there are elements of truth to Ziegler’s performance, but even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day”

Clem Bastow, in her Guardian Article: Sia’s film Music misrepresents autistic people. It could also do us damage

Disability is fluid:

  • two people with the same condition can have completely different experiences of it
  • the level of disability someone might experience can vary from day to day.

When people don’t understand the nature of fluidity in disability, it leads to stereotyping and contributes to how disabling society is. People with additional needs and disabilities are actively excluded based on assumptions and passively through it being ignored.

The most important thing to do is listen.

You don’t need to understand how an additional need or disability affects someone to accept it. To believe the individual. To accommodate.

“They’ll decide what your ability is, and then you will be prescribed to that and then you’re not encouraged to go beyond that.”

I’m going to crush you with my love

Perhaps one of the most dangerous misunderstandings the film portrays is the use of prone restraint. Restraint should only be used if there is an immediate danger to that individual or others. When that danger has passed, restraint should stop.

In 2020, the misuse of restraint by law enforcement was brought under further scrutiny after the death of George Floyd. However, restraint is also used in health, care and school environments. At least 20 children have died in the U.S. as a result of restraint since 2001.

ATLAS recently talked about the use of restraint in schools for managing the behaviour of young people with additional needs and disabilities:

“Children and young people shouldn’t be in a position where they are treated like criminals.”

“I believe that restraint should not be used, ever, unless a person is presenting an imminent risk to themselves or someone else. As in, they are not able to stop themselves. Honestly, not even then, usually you can use de-escalation techniques.”

Participation, participation, participation

The film Music being released at the same time as ATLAS is starting to look towards Autism Awareness Week (29th March to 4th April 2021) highlights to me the sheer importance of participation and listening to the voices of people who are experts in their own experience!

How different these events could have been if the voices shared around the release trailer of Music had been properly listened to and acted upon. How different the representation of minorities, vulnerable groups, discriminated groups, those the industry continuously promote stereotypes about could be.

Film can reflect society, but it can also heavily influence it and bring about positive change.

ATLAS members have some advice for anyone reading this who wishes to portray characters with additional needs and disabilities:

“Let people be themselves.”

“Building the character and the movie off of ideas and experiences from people with that additional need and/or disability. Actually taking their experiences and using them in it and it’s easily possible to cast someone as an actor or actress with those additional needs playing the character with those additional needs.”

“They’d have to consult multiple different people with the same disability and not romanticise it or demonise it.”

“I would want them to actually consult with people who have those additional needs and involve them in every step of the process – writing, casting, acting, publishing.”

“Show people how I suffer.”

Written by Sabrina Peters, Additional Needs and Disabilities Participation Officer and edited by Rowan Foster, ATLAS member and Bank worker for the User Voice and Participation Team.