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Autism and a Child Beauty Contest

Fenella Wagener wrote an article for the Herald Sun about an Autistic girl who won the “best personality” award from the controversial new Australian children’s beauty pageant [1]. The girl’s mother is complaining that an Autistic girl shouldn’t win a prize for personality and is critizing the pageant organisers.

A beauty contest involves queuing, being quiet, appearing on stage, wearing cosmetics and unusual/uncomfortable clothes. It probably also involves having someone else assist with dressing and applying cosmetics (being touched by another person). These are all things which tend to be difficult or impossible for Autistic kids. So any girl who can get on stage wearing make-up can probably do whatever is required to avoid being obviously excluded from a personality prize. As any such prize has to be largely subjective I don’t think it would ever be possible to prove that someone was the correct choice for the winner, it would merely be possible to prove that some candidates excluded themselves.

But whether the girl deserved to win isn’t the real issue here. I think that beauty pageants should be restricted to adults, merely entering a child in such a contest is bad enough, but making nasty public statements about a child is horrible. If other children made a Facebook page claiming that the girl in question didn’t deserve to win a “best personality” prize it would probably be reported as cyber-bullying. I don’t think that publishing the name or photo of the girl in question is in the “public interest” either. Many news sites that have picked up the story have shown the same lack of journalistic ethics so now the girl has some high traffic sites with her name linked to this story, it seems unlikely that anything good she might do in the near future will get a higher ranking for her name in search engines. So any time she searches for her name on Google (which most people do regularly) she will be reminded that her mother thinks she has some sort of defective personality because she is Autistic.

High school is generally bad for almost everyone on the Autism Spectrum. Presumably any parent who would abuse their child by allowing such an article to be published would also send them to a regular school (as opposed to Home Schooling which is probably the only good option for Autistic kids in Australia). I’m sure that the standard practice at every high school nowadays is that the kids all use Google to discover things to tease each other about. So in a few years the Herald Sun article will probably be the basis of a high school bullying campaign.

The girl in question is only 9, so she’s got another 6 or 7 years before she can legally leave her mother. In Australia 16 is the minimum legal age to live without parents and the police won’t forcibly return “runaway” children who are almost 16.

The Journalistic Code of Ethics

Here is a link to the Australian Media Alliance code of Journalistic Ethics [2]. Section 8 includes “Never exploit a person’s vulnerability or ignorance of media practice“. I think that publishing the name and photograph of a 9yo girl in a way that is likely to lead to bullying in a few years is a clear example of exploiting a vulnerable person.

The code of ethics has a guidance clause which says “Only substantial advancement of the public interest or risk of substantial harm to people allows any standard to be overridden“. Even if it was a proven fact that a beauty pageant was issuing awards to unqualified children there would not be any substantial advancement of the public interest in publishing that.

Beauty Contests are Evil

The Australian has an article about the same beauty contest by Caroline Overington which quotes adolescent and child psychotherapist Collett Smart calling for government intervention [3].

Catherine Manning has written a good article explaining some of the reasons for opposing child beauty pageants [4].

The American Psychological Association has published a report on the Sexualization of Girls [5], they have lots of references to psychological research which gives a variety of reasons for opposing child beauty contests. IMHO each of the reasons alone should be sufficient to convince people that child beauty pageants are bad.

Finally the pictures of contestants who are less than 10yo but made up to look like they are 20+ are rather disturbing.

3 comments to Autism and a Child Beauty Contest

  • Jan Hudec

    I’d think the worst screw up here is the mother. She takes her daughter to a pageant despite having to know it won’t be pleasant for autistic child and than complains that she gets a prize? And point out her daughter’s handicap? I’d go so far as to say it’s on edge of abusing her child.

  • etbe

    Jan: We mostly agree.

    However it won’t necessarily be unpleasant for all ASD kids – some ASD kids would find it no more unpleasant than NT kids would. My point in this regard is that if a child can handle all the random boring/annoying/unpleasant stuff and still smile for the cameras then they won’t be inherently excluded from a personality prize.

    If they had claimed that the girl didn’t deserve a prize because she screamed or gave attitude to the judges (both of which would be likely possibilities for ASD kids in such a situation) then I wouldn’t have such a strong objection to the article.

    But anyway beauty contests are just bad anyway. Even contests involving talent (sports, music, etc) are a bit dubious for young kids IMHO.

  • EffCee

    I saw this article when it was published and I share your sentiments. As the parent of kids with an ASD diagnosis, I was disgusted with this woman. How utterly tragic for the child, having a mother like that. Her comments made me feel sick. It is bad enough having elements of society that do not accept or even attempt to understand our childrens’ gifts (this includes therapists in ASD related disciplines)… but to hear those sentiments coming from a mother of an ASD child was really disturbing.

    I homeschool my children. There is no better option for our children in this country, I agree. Certainly not autism/behavioural specific schools. I have been behind the scenes of some of the ‘best’ ASD schools and some of the conduct of their staff is horrific, even the so-called ‘best’ ASD/behavioural schools.