Know Your Audience

If you’ve got a television, you’ve probably been watching a lot of coverage of the Olympic Games lately. If you’ve got internet access (Editor’s note: I typed that last phrase, realized how stupid it was and decided to leave it in to teach myself a lesson. Feel free to mock me in the comments; I deserve it.) If you tend to frequent blogs that critique the folks who bring televised sports coverage into our homes, you’ve seen a metric ton of bitching about the NBC commentators, particularly the gymnastics crew and ESPECIALLY that mean old Tim Daggett.

“I won a gold medal 28 years ago. Your argument is invalid.” (photo from

I’ve got no problem with the critical tone of the commentary. That’s the nature of the sport. Each routine starts with a maximum possible score and the judges mete out deductions for every little misstep the athletes make. You can’t gain points, you can only lose them, so the dialogue is destined to skew negative. My problem is, that little nugget regarding the scoring is the full extent of my gymnastics knowledge. And I haven’t learned anything else from the broadcasts.

Instead of explaining what the athletes are trying to do and pointing out where they went wrong or what they could have done better, all I get from the NBC talent is hyperbole, angst (you’re not competing any more, guys, let it go) and a million variations on the phrase, “Ooooh, that’s going to be a deduction.” Teach me something!

NBC is an American network, broadcasting in a country that largely ignores gymnastics for three years and 50 weeks at a time. We don’t know anything about your sport. Dumb it down. Take a page out of John Madden’s book and use a telestrator, if you have to. Don’t just suck your breath in through your teeth and say, “That’s gonna cost her.” Tell me why. Show me why. It’s like they don’t have a clue who their audience is.

It’s like … an adult trying to talk to a child with autism as if he’s neuro-typical. This realization hit me like a ton of bricks as I was sitting on the couch thinking how much better these guys could do. This is what learning is like for Alex. He’s starting from the low ground and trying to fight his way up. Just like I don’t get the subtleties and nuances of a gymnastics performance without a clear, direct explanation, Alex doesn’t have the instinctual grasp of communication and social interaction that his peers enjoy. It’s counterproductive for Daggett and Co. to assume their viewership knows what’s implied when they say, “There’s a deduction.” Likewise, it’s ineffective and flat out unfair for a teacher to assume Alex is following along when she’s giving instructions to a class with 21 other kids in it. Those 21 other kids are shuffling, shifting, sneezing, snuffling, speaking, and/or stinking. For a child with sensory integration trouble, each of those little environmental distractions is magnified exponentially, making it nearly impossible to zero in on one particular voice or instruction.

When the language moves away from the concrete and toward the theoretical, it’s even harder for Alex to follow along. I can’t analyze the gymnastics action that happens in the air. They’re twisting and flipping to quickly for me to notice whether their legs are straight or if their toes are pointed. The best I can do is watch the landing at the end to see if they “stick” it. Then I’ll “harumph” or nod in approval as if my appraisal of the landing has anything to do with the total score. In similar fashion, if I’m trying to explain something to Alex, and he doesn’t follow, he’ll simply grab onto the end (the landing, if you will) and repeat back the last few words of whatever I say to him. He says it with conviction, but it’s a dead giveway that I’ve done a poor job of explaining.

I do this to my kid all the time, except with my words. (Getty Images/The Washington Post)

And if you think the constant negativity in gymnastics punditry is tough to stomach as a viewer, imagine being constantly corrected or reprimanded in your own life. This on top of the fact that you don’t really even understand exactly what you’re supposed to be doing because you couldn’t concentrate on the instructions. No matter how constructive it is, constant criticism can wear on a person. If all you ever hear is that your performance isn’t good enough, you eventually start to see yourself in those terms. Self-esteem issues are the last thing you want to put on a kid dealing with ASD.

I’m currently reading Ten Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew, a short reference book by Ellen Notbohm, a writer with a son on the spectrum. My cousin sent me a link to a shorter article by Notbohm with the same title a few years ago, before we had a definitive diagnosis for Alex. It’s a great read because it offers a frame of reference for the behaviors autistic children exhibit. It really simplifies the complex sensory issues that cause social disconnects and behavioral problems for autistic kids and uses examples that neuro-typical readers can relate to. The article is a great resource for friends and family who are trying to get a handle on what your kid is going through. It’s an upbeat crash course. The book is a more in-depth exploration of the causes behind common behaviors, and I plan to share a copy with Alex’s teacher prior to the school year to make sure we all start out on the same page.

And while we’re on the topic of reading lists, if anybody finds “Watching Gymnastics for Dummies” in print, let me know. I’ve got four years to earn a freelance spot on the NBC crew in Rio. Start calling your local affiliates now.


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