I watched Child Genius on Channel 4 last night and last week’s first episode too. I always find Genius documentaries interesting because all geniuses are autistic savants. But the word ‘Autism’ was not mentioned once throughout the documentary, because to most people, Autism is something WRONG with the brain; not something RIGHT with it.
So why is it important to mention that a child is autistic, as well as a genuis? Because many of the characteristics, such as bossiness, disruptiveness and arrogance are mistakenly thought to be either due to their genius, or because they have had a privileged life – due to their genius. But these characteristics are in fact due to high functioning Autistic Spectrum Disorders such as Aspergers Syndrome. These misconceptions are damaging to these kids, because they are resented by many people who think they are being deliberately difficult.
So the makers of the program choose to tell their own story. Incidentally there is no such thing as an impartial documentary. All documentary filmmakers make judgements about their subjects, and if you are able to read between the lines you will see their message. One of the ways these judgements are indicated, are by use of the comedy-style plink-plonk music that they always have to accompany social documentaries these days (yawn). The music is telling the audience: “Now THIS person thinks he is normal, but he’s really odd – you just watch!” Even when the audience is not consciously aware, they will pay attention when they hear this music, in anticipation of what they will learn about the person on screen.
Clearly, one of their messages in this case is that usual old chestnut; that all parents of gifted children are pushy parents. In the introduction of every episode so far, the narrator states “…but behind the child genius, there’s often a determined parent.”
The program makers want to tell us what is RIGHT with the children’s brains and what is WRONG with their parents’ brains. This is something that I think is very British. In the same narrow-minded way that Hollywood and the media want us to have a generalized view that poor people are good, and rich people are bad; so too do the British media believe that if a parent supports their gifted child and attempts to utilize their abilities as much as possible, then they must be making the child suffer in some way.
Another way the filmmakers get their point across is to show a father explaining why he has a strict routine of activities for his son, then they follow this explanation with a glum expression on his son’s face. As the father’s explanation is filmed when playing ping-pong with his son, and the son’s glum expression is filmed during a piano lesson, they have edited the two clips out of sequence to portray their particular biased opinion.
Only one parent came across as pushy, and she said “He doesn’t care if he doesn’t win… I do!” This sentence was used in isolation in the introduction, so she could even have been joking, but the filmmakers don’t want us to think that.
I believe the psychology behind this is to make the filmmakers (and therefore the viewers) feel satsfied that they are “normal”. They are compensating themselves for not being geniuses! It’s like when they do stories on lottery winners who go on to have a run of bad luck, or the marriage breakups of movie stars.
But once I got past the plink-plonk music and the promotion of pushy parents, I was able to enjoy watching the children’s quirks. The gifted children were contestants of the prestigious competition that High IQ Society MENSA held to find the most intelligent child in the UK.
For some, the competitive mindset was perfect and they loved to rise to the challenge, but for others, it produced too much anxiety. One of the most affected by nerves was 8 year old Chess Champion, Joshua Altman, and you could tell from his eyes that he had had very little sleep before his big day.
In contrast, 10 year old Hugo Goodwill was so headstrong and determined to only study for his favorite subjects, he didn’t seem to care how well he did in the competition. Although he came across as the most arrogant, he also seemed relaxed. He had a strong obsession with trains, and was not able to tolerate people less bright than him – so nearly everyone then.
His parents could certainly not be accused of being pushy, as trainspotter Hugo clearly ran that household. He had his parents wrapped around his little finger, and they seemed very lenient and unwilling to discipline him into studying harder for the competition. They did try to have a No-Laptop rule on study days, but were not able to enforce it properly. I didn’t judge them harshly though, as I could see they loved him a lot. But he did always get his own way, and that might produce a few problems for him in the real world as an adult.
Another child that caught my eye was Leo Buckley who was described as very theatrical. He made a joke to the judge about 13,000 GBP being deposited into a Swiss bank account, but it only produced awkward grimaces instead of smiles, as it seemed the wrong time to make a joke about bribery. He also got very emotional at the end when he was out of the competition, and didn’t appear to try and hide his pain. Leo loves history and has read thousands of books. His dad says he is very intense, and hungry for knowledge.
Both he and Hugo regularly got into trouble for disrupting the class. Their disruptiveness was put down to being bored because they were so clever. But it is not just that. Many people on the autistic spectrum need constant attention. They cannot just sit there quiet, even if they have extra stuff to do.
Longyin follows a strict timetable of activities set by his dad, but he seems to enjoy them all. Most of these activities involve input from his dad, so he is getting the attention and quality time he requires. He plays the piano at a very high level and is currently learning Chinese.
Shrinidhi loves literature and books. In facts she loves books a LOT. She always smells them, and obsessively loves the smell of old books. Her mother said she even licked one book she particularly liked. Now if this sensory behavior does not give you a major clue that autism is present, then nothing will.
Not only did the filmmakers fail to acknowledge that child geniuses are autistic but they managed to convince the nation that Hugo is the most annoying kid in the country. Yes, his mum did say he was in the top 5% of most irritating kids, but they isolated this quote and put it in each episode’s introduction. If you go to Twitter or a site like WhoTalking.com and type in #childgenius, you will currently see an army of sheeple tweeters who have been conned into believing Hugo is the rudest person in the world, and that his mum despises him. If either of those were true, he would be very unhappy above all, and he is certainly not unhappy.
The program has put the idea in the public’s minds that highly intelligent people are rude, when actually they have Aspergers syndrome.
To give you an idea of what Joshua has to contend with, for example, here is part of the text he has pinned on his wall, that I managed to jot down from pausing my recording of the first episode:
How My Brain and Body Work
My brain works differently
My thoughts get stuck
I feel pressure to shout or scream
Bad words come out that I don’t mean to say
I have to repeat phrases over and over
I have to do the opposite of what I’m told
I say “No!” before I say “Yes”
I spend more time worrying about what I need to do, than doing it
I especially worry about how to transition from one thing to the next
I get anxious when I don’t know exactly what to expect
I become angry or rigid when I am uncertain
I cannot understand people’s expressions or emotions
I cannot always express appropriate emotions
I cannot easily filter thru overlapping voices or instructions
I find it hard to navigate thru the day
It’s very hard to do my work…
…Playing chess helps me to be steady and redirects my brain
Notice how none of the statements refer to how bright he is. They all highlight his difficulty in making sense of the world.
Statements such as:
- I feel pressure to shout or scream
- Bad words come out that I don’t mean to say
- I have to do the opposite of what I’m told
…should be a clear indication that Joshua cannot control his behavior, and that is what most people don’t understand.
In addition to this, Tourettes Syndrome is also an Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and the well-known swearing version of Tourettes is actually the least common type of the condition. Having ticks and making involuntary noises and actions is much more common. There is increasingly more evidence to suggest there might be an overlap between Aspergers Syndrome and Tourettes Syndrome.
This means the message of the program is very unfair on these kids and their parents. They already have an extremely hard time every minute of every day, and now as a result of this documentary, the nation thinks that the kids are obnoxious brats and that the parents are pushy, evil tyrants.
But hey, documentary makers have to have “an angle”, so as long as the nation is entertained, their job is done.
All four episodes of Child Genius are available at Channel 4.
Well done to all the finalists, and Congratulations to Shrinidhi Prakash who was a deserving winner.
How ironic that Andy Murray should become the first British Men’s Singles Champion in 77 years, only days after Child Genius last aired. Because he was one of the children who was believed to have a “Pushy Mum” in the 1990s. And now the whole of Britain is delighted with him, no matter how he achieved his goal.
Not only did Andy Murray love tennis as a child (it was also he who begged his mother to give him better resources; not her who forced him to do anything), but it’s nigh on impossible to force a child to do anything they don’t want to do, over a long period of time, without certain abuse.
So c’mon Britain; make your minds up.
Do you want parents to stop actively encouraging their talented kids?
Or do you want champions?
Because you can’t have it both ways.