Central Florida is home to the nation’s first higher-education institution dedicated to serving students with learning disabilities. Beacon College was created more than 30 years ago specifically catering to those with learning differences such as autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. It was while working at Beacon College that Darryl Owens, Associate Vice President of Communications and Engagement, considered ways to expand the school’s reach.
“It came to me that one of the ways we might be able to approach that effort would be to launch a television show,” Owens told Verywell Family. “People are watching videos all the time on social media, they’re very much into the digital realm. So I figured a TV show would work.”
From that, “A World of Difference: Exploring Neurodiversity” was born in 2020. The show, which premieres its third season in September, uses a news magazine-style format featuring three segments that work together to educate families and loved ones of neurodivergent people on topics of neurodiversity while also uplifting their stories and voices.
“A World Of Difference”
Each episode of “A World of Difference” follows a simple structure with three parts: Family Matters, Ask an Expert, and Difference Makers. The Family Matters section is a profile of a neurodiverse family dealing with a particular issue which is the topic of the episode, like helping neurodivergent children forge friendships. The second segment is a conversation with a panel of experts who explore the episode’s topic more in-depth and provide actionable strategies. The show closes out with the Difference Makers section which highlights either a prominent neurodivergent person or an advocate for neurodiversity with an award.
Owens used the format because he was not seeing anything else like it in the media. While he acknowledges there has been a great improvement recently with featuring neurodivergent actors or characters in scripted television shows, he said there wasn’t anything that dealt with the daily realities of life for neurodivergent families.
— Darryl Owens
“[Topics] such as how do I manage with helping my child with ADHD power through after-school homework after his medication has worn off or how can I help my child with autism make and sustain friendships,” Owens explained. “These families needed real-life strategies for real-life situations. And there was a gaping vacuum on television. And that’s where we knew ‘A World of Difference’ could make a difference.”
The first two seasons of the show covered a myriad of issues with tangible advice and topical content. Season three continues expanding coverage to include broader ideas such as understanding the experience of neurodivergent people of color.
Owens knows first-hand how important it is to have an accessible resource like “A World of Difference” as the parent of a neurodivergent child. He says many caregivers are hungry for this sort of information, especially if it’s presented in a concise, easily digestible manner. More than that, at its core, the show allows families of neurodivergent children to feel seen.
“Neurodivergent individuals need to know that there are people out there like them,” Owens said. “Parents need to know that there are families there like them, dealing with these situations. They need to see that there are neurodivergent people out there who have learning differences, but who are excelling. That gives the family, the parents, hope that even in their darkest days, even when they’re dealing with their most challenging situations, it gives them hope.”
Real Portrayals of Neurodiverse Families
Aside from offering valuable knowledge and insight into neurodiversity issues, “A World of Difference” allows the simple excitement of media representation, a not-so-common feat in pop culture. Autistic people have been especially neglected in the media or misrepresented altogether, so having an accurate, more realistic portrayal can make a big difference.
Rebecca Vaurio, LP PhD
— Rebecca Vaurio, LP PhD
“People with autism lead diverse, satisfying, and meaningful lives. They fall in love, they have families and relationships, they work in a wide range of careers, they have fascinating interests and hobbies, and they struggle and triumph through a range of experiences,” says Rebecca Vaurio, LP PhD, a neuropsychologist and clinical director of neurodevelopmental services at Children’s Minnesota. “When we have true representation, autistic children and their families have the opportunity to see themselves and think about possibilities and the myriad of ways they can be part of the world.”
Dr. Vaurio added that seeing neurodiverse people in the media is also a benefit to neurotypical audiences. It provides the opportunity for them to learn more about autistic people while also providing an avenue to empathize with people who experience the world slightly differently than them.
“[It] gives neurotypical people an understanding of how they can make their interactions, their workplaces, and their communities more welcoming and accepting of people across the spectrum of neurodiversity. And that brings true connection to others in a way that enriches everyone’s lives,” Dr. Vaurio explains.
Neurodivergent characters in the media do not represent a niche audience. About 15%-20% of the United States population has a learning disability and it’s estimated that 1 in 44 people are on the autism spectrum.
Media outlets have also become increasingly better at including neurodivergent adults on screen, as opposed to the narrative focusing solely on children. A follow-up to a 2011 study recently conducted by UC Santa Cruz tracked portrayals of autistic adults over the past decade in fields like advocacy, entertainment, and publishing. After analyzing 124 movies and television shows released between 2010 and 2019 with autistic characters, researchers found that 58% of the characters were children. When the original study was released, an analysis showed that 68% of the characters were children.
Being able to relate to a neurodivergent character on screen and connect with them is equally as important for children as it is for adults, but adults who are neurodivergent are often not given that opportunity. Representation of neurodiverse adults also serves children by allowing them to think about themselves in a more long-term way, rather than seeing experiences such as theirs confined to childhood.
Breaking Down Stigmas of Neurodiversity
As part of their Difference Makers segment, “A World of Difference” showcases notable figures who are neurodiverse. Big names such as “Shark Tank” star Daymond John and NASCAR driver Armani Willams are featured in the series and provide a space for parents and families to think about the future.
“There are quite a few innovative people who are neurodivergent,” Owens explained. “They think differently and they come at things from a different perspective and it makes them successful.”
Though the show is in its third season, it premieres on a PBS station and on the PBS App nationally for the first time on September 3. Having broader exposure to neurodiverse issues and people is necessary to break down the ableist stigma. The more exposure neurodiverse people and topics receive, the less taboo neurodiversity becomes.
“We all know someone who is autistic, whether we are aware of it or not,” Dr. Vaurio said. “When we fail to include representation of autism in our stories and our media, we are missing out on a very broad range of our experience as human beings.”
What This Means For You
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