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Personally On the Juice
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Who You Calling Retard?
2007-08-29 18:16
by Scott Long

Growing up with a verbally and physically abusive Father whose manic depression made it nearly impossible to know what was going to happen next, gave me a few different choices on what direction his behavior would influence me towards. You don't have to have a master's degree in child psychology to know that having one’s self-worth mentally and physically beaten out of them doesn’t generally lead a child on the path into becoming a well-adjusted adult. While I can happily offer up that I’ve never had any use for hurting someone physically, I do love to verbally slice up anyone who sends a zinger my way.

I guess it could be worse, as I could have continued the physical abuse cycle my Father demonstrated on his immediate family. What has kept me somewhat likeable, despite being in constant verbal joust-mode is that my Mother was the opposite of my Dad. She wanted everyone to like her. Somewhere in the middle of this is this strange dichotomy of parentage is my personality. I would diagnose myself as being aggressive/passive. I will take a shot at someone I think deserves it and then just as quickly, try to get them back on my side. It’s hard to explain, but I do know that I went into the right profession, as having this type of personality works well on the stand-up comedy stage.

I have a predilection to want to shock my audience. I am a natural contrarian, who feels uncomfortable when I’m preaching to the converted. While I’m a really even-keeled person, I do tend to have a chip on my shoulder in regards to the privileged who I don’t believe have earned their success. The reverse of this is that I have a pretty strict code on who I will attack.

My standards for who is off my comedy radar.

  • If you were born with some particular malady.
  • If you were injured in some type of accident that was no fault of your own.

The second standard is specific, as someone who is befallen when doing some dangerous activity like driving a race car or bungee jumping being fair game, according to my code. I want to make clear that while I believe political correctness is based in a nice concept, I generally hate it, as I feel it limits people discussion. Race, Gender, Sexual Preference, Body Type, etc., I see as all being potentially worthy targets, as long as the joke is based in some type of fairness.

The comedy biz is filled with performers from every type level of ability, who believe the easier the target, the better. Why is this the case? Because these comics know a certain portion of the audience embraces making fun of people who they feel superior to. I have never seen the intellectual challenge in taking on the defenseless, but there are things I say that offend others, so I try to stay out of behaving like some type of moral police.

Good enough, but what is the point behind your rant?

My 4 year-old daughter is Autistic. To the uninitiated, I have put below a basic definition of the disorder that comes from the website, Autism Speaks.

Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder that typically lasts throughout a person's lifetime. It is part of a group of disorders known as autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Today, 1 in 150 individuals is diagnosed with autism, making it more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined. It occurs in all racial, ethnic, and social groups and is four times more likely to strike boys than girls. Autism impairs a person's ability to communicate and relate to others. It is also associated with rigid routines and repetitive behaviors, such as obsessively arranging objects or following very specific routines. Symptoms can range from very mild to quite severe.

Most Americans who haven't been touched by Autism know the disorder from Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man or a number of other newsmagazine pieces that demonstrate some amazing gift that an Autistic person has. It is actually a small percentage of Autistic people who exhibit some kind of a savant-like behavior (less than 10%). My daughter Madeline fits more of the typical example of an Autistic child, as she has a hard time communicating and does a moderate amount of hand-flapping and body rocking.

The emotional and fiscal challenges of having a child on the Autisitc spectrum can be exhausting, but Madeline has brought me more joy than all the other great moments in my life, combined. Unlike my natural tendencies of being guarded and cynical, waiting for the world to offer up its next haymaker to my jaw, Madeline has no malice towards anyone and only has unconditional love to offer. While others might see the trepidation she has in taking on new people and new tasks, I see a little girl who has her own rhythm to life. A rhythm that is unencumbered by the pressures that us typical people face. Madeline has given me perspective on how small slights that befall us all are pretty small in comparison to the challenges that she faces.

I blame no one for being uninformed about Autism, as I was that person just a couple years ago. While I knew by the age of 2 that she suffered from learning delays, I thought there was no way that she would be classified as Autistic. My girl laughed a lot and was affectionate to people she knew and trusted. Her sweetness was infectious to those who came in contact with her and complete strangers often commented on how beautiful she was. This was not a withdrawn child who sat in a corner. She did not spend hours just lining up blocks. The more I became informed, though, the more I realized that the Autism spectrum is much wider than I had realized. Doctors are very reticent to diagnose a child with Autism until the age of 3, as it has such a stigma to it and most parents of younger children believe their child "will grow out of it."

As much of a joy as my daughter continues to be, there is no real way for me to convey how overwhelming it is to have a child who is autistic. Since Madeline has little understanding of what can harm her, she needs constant adult supervision. Since she struggles with communication, the sense of utter helplessness overrides you when she is sick or hurt and can't tell you what is wrong. There are many other difficulties that go along with her Autism, especially meltdowns that come from seemingly nowhere. If you are interested in what it is like for a parent to have a child with Autism, I strongly recommend watching Lauren Thierry's powerful short film about the subject titled Autism Every Day.

So now we come to the word retard. In my lifetime, it has always been around, but strangely, while so many other derogatory terms have become less prevalent in most people's conversation, retard seems to currently have a free ride with most. As I mentioned before, I'm not here to tell you what or what not to say, but I do want to offer a couple points on why you might want to drop it out of your vocabulary.

While I'm not advocating using bigoted terms for people, I will mention that when these hurtful words are used directly at someone, the offended party is able to defend themselves. I know many people's defense is that when they use the word retard, they are not using it to inflict any type of pain on people who are mentally challenged. Some would offer up that the word just comes from the medical term of being mentally retarded, so what is the big deal? Once again, I'm not telling you are an evil person if you use this version of the word in your everyday speak, but you should know the pain that it brings to not only the people who are mentally challenged, but their parents as well.

Think about the staggering increase of this disorder in the U.S.
1 in 150 individuals is being diagnosed with Autism.

There is a good chance you know someone who has a family member that suffers from this disorder. Let me mention that I have never met anyone who has been impacted by Autism, who uses the term retard when discussing their child. If they say anything or not, I know that most of these parents wince when they hear the word thrown around, even it is done by someone they consider a close friend.

Take my thoughts for they are worth, but know that as much as I wish my daughter could experience many of things most of us take for granted, I wouldn't trade anything for what she has brought to my life. She makes me a better man everyday that I spend with her. I feel very lucky that she calls me her Daddy.





2007-08-29 20:39:11
1.   joejoejoe
Good post Scott.

Have you ever read anything by Oliver Sacks about autism? For the general reader they are fascinating stories and contain a lot of similar insights (though a bit more clinical and less personal) to your post here. If you like reading about science or how the human mind works Sacks is a good writer.

2007-08-29 20:53:08
2.   Hugh Jorgan
Cute kid, great post. I've got 5 kids and can't even begin to imagine the care required for an even mildly affected autistic child. Funnily enough even after reading your article I just see a cute, precocious child when I look at the photo...must just be the dad in me. Your post is also very relevent for us down under as father's day is this sunday so it made it kind of special to hear about your daughter.
2007-08-29 20:57:10
3.   Scott Long
I've spent more time just trying to learn more about what is best for my girl, at this point. I was aware of Sacks' work on the subject, so someday I do plan on exploring it more.

Temple Grandin is someone who is autistic, has written books on the subject which are considered by many the best window of what it is like to be autistic.

2007-08-29 21:06:31
4.   joejoejoe
4 You may know this already but one of the chapters in Sacks' book 'An Anthropologist on Mars' is devoted to Temple Grandin. The other chapters are also profiles of people with various neurological issues like a doctor with Tourette's, and an autistic savant who does line drawings from memory that Sacks has known from the time he was a child. I read one of Temple Grandin's books just because of the chapter in Sacks' book on her was so good. I have no personal connection to autism or neurological disorders, I just read it because I enjoy reading and learning from good non-fiction of any type.
2007-08-29 21:31:20
5.   El Lay Dave
I just see a cute, precocious child when I look at the photo

Me, too. Appearance-wise, she must take after her mom an awful lot.

OK, very cheap joke out of the way. Scott, thank you so much for sharing a little of Madeline and the joy she gives you with us - we are the better for it. While I am disgusted whenever I hear the word "retard" used (and it can only be used in a mean, hateful way), I can't begin to imagine how painful it can be for those like you with children who have autism or other mental conditions. For what little it is worth, anyone who says it in my presence knows that I disapprove. Scott, I wish you well as you continue raising your daughter. (And I'm all the more amazed that you have time for this blog at all. Thank you.)

2007-08-29 21:57:34
6.   Scott Long
Thanks, Dave. It is true that she does look like her Mom, so the truth hurts in that joke.

Let me reiterate that I'm not here to condemn anyone who uses the word, just wanted to maybe give a little perspective to the subject.

2007-08-29 22:01:58
7.   Blackfish
You're dead on about the word retard. It's a word you hear all the time, but never from the lips of anyone who has actually spent a lot of time around a child with special needs of any sort.

My brother has ADHD, OCD, and bi-polar disorder, which were extremely difficult to diagnose as he was growing up, especially since these things were more imprecise in the 80's. His problems led to learning disabilities and extreme difficulty connecting to other individuals, which resulted in him being labeled as a high-functioning autistic for a while before doctors altered the diagnosis.

I can't remember ever really using the word "retard" in a casual sense, and it always annoys me when others do. What was (and still is) especially difficult was going to relatives' on holidays, where my cousins have always used the term very liberally. It's tough to really say anything about it, because you know they don't intend anything--it's just a part of their lexicon--but it's not something you want to hear 100 times in a day.

2007-08-29 22:32:56
8.   King of the Hobos
I live near LARC Ranch, and I've always wondered why they have kept the name (Los Angeles Retarded Citizens). It was explained to me that retarded simply was a normal term for these people, and has only recently become derogatory, especially through the increased use of the noun retard (as opposed to retardation). However, I'm hardly an expert on the matter.

I do have some experience with autism, but only Asperger's (a few family members, including myself), which is no where near as severe as most autistic persons, and I applaud you and wish both you and little Madeline the best of luck.

2007-08-29 22:55:06
9.   T Money
Nice piece, Scott. The most interesting book on autism I've ever read is called "Aquamarine Blue 5." It's a collection of essays, written by highly-functioning autistics, in which they talk about attending college, and the specific challenges of being an autistic in the world of academia. It sounds dry, I know, but it was actually really insightful.
2007-08-29 23:34:48
10.   Jon Weisman
Thanks for this post, Scott. I will say that the circles I run in, "retard" is definitely off limits, but thanks for the reminder - and above all, thanks for sharing her story.
2007-08-30 03:35:55
11.   snydes
scott, thanks for sharing.

i'm actually curious about the definition of autism you have in your post, the part about "...typically lasts throughout a person's lifetime."

a couple days ago i met a woman at a mcdonalds whose grandson was autistic. i never would've guessed unless she told me. he was a sweet and playful 7-year old and got along great with my 4 year-old son. they were "best friends" for almost an hour running around in the play area together.

she did say she was hopeful he would grow out of it. she said he used to spin around and around when he was younger and never got dizzy. she said now he spins around and he gets very dizzy. she said getting dizzy was actually a sign he might be snapping out of it.

it was a very interesting conversation but i was actually surprised to hear her say he could grow out of it. and to read that it in the definition you included.

any idea how often it happens? or know of any instances? also, do doctors have any clue what might cause it to happen?

just curious. and thanks again for the great piece.

2007-08-30 07:19:36
12.   Phil Bencomo
This one really hit home for me, Scott, because my family is also directly affected, every day, by autism.

I have an autistic sister. Now 21, she is perhaps the most loving person I have ever known. She has good days and bad days; meltdowns out of nowhere are just as common as sudden and overwhelming bursts of affection. She has a tendency to obsess over friends and family, almost to a fault, but it is always rooted in deep affection for those close to her.

I got rear-ended in a car accident a few months back. Nobody was hurt, but the very first time I saw my sister after the crash -- only a few hours later, actually -- she was in tears, worried sick about the well-being of her brother, and immediately ran to hug me. I just about had to pry her arms from around my waist.

She also demonstrates savant-like abilities. Ask her for the phone number of any person she knows, and she'll rattle off the number faster than you can catch. We always have to ask her to repeat it, slowly. She only has to be told a new number once, and it's memorized for all time.

Not to mention her incredible recollection of past events. Things from years ago that no one else in the family has more than a fuzzy remembrance of, she can tell you the most minute details.

She really is an incredible individual. We all love her very much, and I'm proud to call myself her brother.

2007-08-30 08:24:43
13.   Scott Long
Snydes, My layman's guess is that the boy has a more functional case of autism. Autism has a large spectrum. There are CEO's who are Autistic. Look up famous people who are thought to have Autism and people like Einstein come up.

When people first see my daughter, they generally have no idea she is Autistic, but if you watch her closely for a few seconds, it becomes apparent. I don't believe you can "grow out" of being Autistic. What does happen is some people who are highly functional, but on the spectrum learn how to mask their symptoms through coping mechanisms.

I'm guessing that a lot of people who were considered "eccentric" in the past, were just undiagnosed "autistic". This is just one reason that Autism has exploded in this country.

2007-08-30 08:50:48
14.   snydes
interesting. thanks scott.
2007-08-30 09:31:43
15.   chris in illinois

My twin girls are not quite two (dec 12th) and it is incredibly frustrating that I can't quite communicate completely with them---they understand a lot, but not everything. My solace is that I know that they will soon be like my 3.5 year old son: chatty to a fault.

It pains me that you won't have the same sort of relationship with your daughter that I am enjoying with my son. On the other hand, she is clearly one lucky girl (in the parent department) and I'm certain that she'll continually present you with unique joys that the rest of us will never experience.

Sometimes shit balances out.

2007-08-30 12:42:03
16.   jgpyke
Wow. Great post, Scott. My sister's son has autism, so I can relate to everything you've written.

As for the word, "retard," that's one I've never used, like many here, nor would ever use. It's cringe-worthy, and always has been, even when I was little.

FWIW, I've always of mentally retarded as low-IQ (i.e., <70, which is a couple SDs below the mean). Learning disabilities and developmental disabilities are different and have nothing to do with IQ.

2007-08-30 15:47:49
17.   confucius
Cool read Scott. I'm a discrete trial therapist. I work with two brothers who have Autism. I appreciate your words.
2007-08-30 20:16:49
18.   Barb
Great post, Scott. Thanks for sharing your insight on the condition and how our thoughtless comments can impact others.

Madeline gets prettier with every picture I see of her. While she obviously has some challenges that most of us are fortunate enough to have avoided, she is a lucky little girl to have you and Susan.

2007-08-31 00:07:45
19.   Greg Brock

I have philosophy that no person should be judged on how they were born. I'm a sarcastic, judgmental, arrogant sunofabitch who lives to mock people, and that's not a good thing to be. But it's what I am.

I've used "retarded" in the past, despite the fact that I have developmentally disabled people in my family, and despite the fact that I have good friends who face these challenges every day. I don't do it to be a jerk...I do it because, as you know (as a comedian), making people laugh is the best drug in the world. And sometimes it's comedy gold. Maybe it's a cheap laugh, but it's funny.

I often think about Rickles or Lisa Lampanelli, and how, at heart, I know they are like me...Progressive people, who vote to advance the rights of others, but simply find humor in everything. And I mean everything.

My closest minority friends tell me the funniest jokes. My sister, who faced a debilitating physical ailment, tells me inappropriate jokes all the time. Because, despite the fact that they are in poor taste, we do, say, and vote in ways that advance the agenda. We just find humor in everything. It's our way of coping.

Anyway, I just felt like addressing your entry. And I wish you and your family nothing but the best. God Bless.

2007-08-31 00:33:19
20.   Greg Brock
And, since we're on the subject of taboos in comedy, I would like a cogent defense of "We can make fun of our own, and you can't" in comedy.

I would like you to explain why Woody Allen can discuss Judaism, and why my Episcopalian self cannot. I'd like an explanation why Chris Rock can discuss African-American culture, and why others cannot.

There is a reason why Lenny Bruce is celebrated as a comedy god, and nobody gives two shits about stand-up today. And it's because comedians used to be the paragons of truth, and now they are more interested in getting an ABC sitcom. I wouldn't pay a dime to watch some random comedian at the Laugh Factory, because they don't have jack shit to say about anything. They want to be observational yet non-offensive. And that is the most useless comedy on earth.


2007-08-31 07:50:42
21.   Suffering Bruin
Yet another Scott Long post that cannot do without comment.

1) Touching, poignant, insightful... pick your adjective, Scott, and apply it to your post. Wonderful stuff.

2) As usual, I agree with my fellow posters, particularly GB.

3) Mu students know one thing: if you say retard in Mr. Landon's classroom, you will find out how creative Mr. Landon can get. Just ask the last girl who said it.

2007-08-31 07:51:36
22.   Suffering Bruin
One more thing: I'm rushing off to Tennessee this second (otherwise, I'd type longer!). I hear it's a little humid out there?

Have a great weekend, everybody. Be kind, be gentle, be funny.

2007-08-31 07:52:07
23.   AbbyNormal821
Scott - Great piece there.

When I lived down in Virginia a few years ago, a co-worker of mine got angry with me because I, as you put it "freely" used the word 'retarded'. I had NO idea that the reason she was angry was because she has a brother with Downs Syndrome. I was unbelievably ashamed of myself and immediately apologized. Talk about a lesson learned! Since then, I do my absolute best to NOT use that word. I also try to tell my friends to be careful about when, where & how they use that word.

Since then, we have remained very good friends to this day. I have much more respect for her and her family for all they do for their baby brother, Mikey (who's actually 32 now). I don't know how Downs in categorized as far as severity goes, but he's functioning. He holds 2 jobs, one at a library, one at a local Hardee's in Va. Beach and he and his family are heavily involved in the Special Olympics.

I have a nephew, also named Michael, who was born w/spina bifida. While his disability is mostly physical, I know that he will face certain comments, looks and stigmas that go along with his disability and I worry for him. But he's got great parents and friends, and he's treated no differently than his other siblings, and maybe that is what helps him. So, now my friend and I, when we speak on the phone are always sure to ask about "our Michaels" because after all, "Michaels" are special.

I commend you for your story about your daughter. Regardless of her autism, she's still your daughter. She will always be your heart.

2007-08-31 10:30:27
24.   George Y
Scott, touching post.

Not to pimp my employers, but the Koegel Autism Center here at UCSB does some incredible stuff, so if you don't know the Koegels' work (and yes, the name is pronounced that way, so you can get cheap jokes out of them, too), check it out at

2007-08-31 17:51:33
25.   Scott Long
I want to thank everyone who has commented here or sent me a personal email. I really appreciated the sentiments discussed here and think the dialogue, as usual, was great from the readers at the Juice Blog.
2007-09-01 11:59:36
26.   marieadams
Dear Scott,
Thank you for your blog. A friend of mine sent me the link. I have a 9 year old son who is autistic and high functioning. We spent a lot of time, effort and energy getting him therapies and assistance that worked "for him". It paid off. Also, the grace of God. He will always be autistic, as you mentioned earlier, but yes, he is learning to cope. He is also one of the sweetest kids you will ever meet. I could not imagine life without him.

I appreciate your comments about the word "retard" and humor in general. I have to agree with you. Some "humor" is just lazy, and really not funny. I don't hear the term "retard" too much anymore, but have a few times. You are correct, it is painful. It goes in like a knife.

The other term I absolutely abhor is "idiot savant". My son has perfect pitch and one of those amazing memories. If we can't remember a date or a phone number, we ask him. He could be classifed as a "savant". I have heard people use the term "idiot savant" and my knee jerk reaction has been rather strong. Oh, so you may have something you do well, but FIRST you are an idiot THEN you are a savant. I just can't stomach that one! Anyway, off my high horse. Thanks again for sharing and God bless you and your family. Your daughter is so blessed to parents that treasure her for who she is!

2008-09-21 10:09:33
27.   JMK
Don't know if you'll see this question, but I was wondering what your take was on the whole Tropic Thunder controversy over the use of "retard" and Simple Jack depiction.

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