Academic | Media Analysis: "My Brother Has Autism" by Jennifer Adaeze Anyaegbunam
Last year, the Disney Channel launched a new short-form series called “The Time I...”. In each episode, a child narrates his or her experience about something important in their lives. According to the Disney Channel’s Vice President Creative Director, Ron Pomerantz, “This series contains more than 20 inspirational storytellers and unique stories featuring the emotional milestones that kids around the world experience. Our hope is that by sharing these experiences, kids will feel connected and inspired to try new things.” This paper will focus on the strategic use of a personal narrative in the episode entitled “ The Time I Realized My Brother Was Different,” which documents the impact of having a sibling with autism. This short features Melody Igafo-Te'o, a 12 year old from Jackson, Michigan and Michael, her 15 year old brother who has autism. The purpose of Melody’s narrative is two fold: First, the narrative is meant to help other children with ill or disabled siblings feel connected. Second, the narrative functions as a work of activism, its message is to raise autism awareness and foster understanding and tolerance in youth. This analysis identifies three important factors in the construction of this narrative that allow this Disney Channel short to accomplish its purpose: memory, the processes of co-construction, and social factors that impart meaning on the narrative. It is important to note however that all three factors are related and one cannot exist without the other. The strategic purpose of this narrative also highlights that fact that a single narrative can be re-purposed to accomplish a variety of goals.
Memory is an important component of the personal narratives in “ The Time I...” series, in fact the title itself evokes the process of reflection and recollection. Time in this particular short narrative is not linear. Although we are reflecting on a past time, our reflection is colored by the present knowledge and understanding. Because this specific narrative is depicted through a visual media, both oral story telling and cinematographic techniques are merged to align the spectator with Melody’s memory. After introducing herself, Melody illustrates the memory of when she first realized her brother was different, stating “ I guess I must have been four or five and I remember playing with my other brother Sebastian. We tried to get Michael to play with us, but all he wanted to do was play by himself.” Melody’s voice over is paired with images of a photo album, which show pictures of Melody, Michael and Sebastian. The photographs in combination with Melody’s account, increase the historical authenticity of narrative. As she orally reflects on her past, the camera simultaneously allows the spectator to visually reflect on the past. The spectator however, is privileged with the knowledge that prompted the reflection in the first place: the fact that Micheal is somehow different than the narrator. The camera first focuses on a photograph of Melody, followed by a picture of all three Igafo-Te'o children, followed by a picture of Michael alone. The first photograph establishes the time after which the narrative is named, and captures the age of the narrator. The second photograph shows all three children, depicting them as a family unit. The third picture shows Michael playing in a box all by himself all, which serves to highlight his differences and physically separate him from the other two children.
Our memories tend to be emotionally coded and or defined by social constructs that tell us when things are significant. Interestingly, Melody realized her brother was different as four or five years old. In order to recognize differences between the self and the other, one not only needs to be self aware, but also aware of the standards which define acceptable behavior. For Melody, the time she realized her brother was different was coded by social norms and her awareness of her relation to her brother. In both form and function, this narrative is dependent upon the experience of relating to other other. Upon close analysis, the photographic sequence becomes important in depicting Michael’s illness. Micheal has autism so there are no physical traits that separate him from his peers. One could not simply look at Michael or a photograph of him and judge that he had an illness or disability. That is, one needs to experience, a moment in time with Michael in order to realize that he has an invisible disease. Through Melody’s voice over and the images we are presented, the audience is given a small taste of what it is like to experience life with Michael.
Although this short clip was produced for the Disney Channel, it was based on an Ebook Melody had written when she was eight years old called, “ My Brother Has Autism.” The book was written by Melody, “with a little help” from her mother, Jackie Igafo-Te'o and illustrated by her brother Michael, who happens to be talented artist. Although auhored by Melody,“ My Brother Has Autism”, is co-constructed by the members of the Igafo-Te'o family. Her experience and narrative do not exist without Micheal’s illness or her mother’s encouragement. According to the “afterword” in Melody’s book, her mother Jackie explains that raising a child with Autism is difficult and poses a number of additional challenges to raising other children. Understanding that Micheal’s illness diverts her attention away from her other children, Jackie encouraged Melody find her own voice and express her individuality through writing. The family published the book online where Melody’s voice was not only heard by her mother, but also by other families affected by the disease.
In her book Melody even says “Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if my brother didn’t have autism. I think life would be kind of boring if he didn’t!” Michael is three years older than Melody, so she literally has no conception of life without him. Michael and Melody help define each other. The dynamic interplay of their relationship is reflected in both the Ebook and the Disney Channel feature. Though the layering of sound, image and text, Melody explains that she feel smart because she knows a lot about autism and takes pride in teaching others about the illness. She understand that Micheal’s autism prevents him from expressing himself in the way most other people are able to. Although the short episodes features both children, Micheal never actually speaks. Melody, literally and metaphorically voices his narrative. She highlights her brother’s talents as and artist as well as his favorite activities and food. Micheal is depicted doing each of these activities, but it is Melody’s narrative and explanation provides each of these activities with a deeper meaning.
This narrative is not limited to a single medium, it is co-constructed by both literature and film media. Melody’s book was originally written in 2005 and re-released in 2009 after the Disney Channel segment. The book inspired the television segment, which inspired the book’s second edition. Each layer of the narrative recognizes the narrative form that preceded it. In the Disney Channel feature, Melody talks about her book. In the second version of the Ebook, Jackie and Melody acknowledge the United Front Design production company and the Disney Channel team for “ discovering her book and for seeing the importance of the message inside...and for giving her a voice bigger than the great outdoors.” Melody’s narrative is multi layered, and as it reaches larger audiences, its significance and scope continues to evolve.
As highlighted throughout this analysis, a number of different social contexts affect illness and disability narratives. First Melody’s experience is defined by the fact that she has a brother with Autism, and a mother that understands her limits in caring for her three children. The familial context of this disease makes Michael’s autism an everyday reality for the Igafo-Te'o. The family’s experience with Michael is unique because it alters their sense of normality. This ‘new’ normality allows the Jackie and Melody to challenge others’ perceptions of normality. This ‘new’ norm however, was not a given. Although Michael is older than she is, Melody must have been previously socialized by more dominating social forces in order to be able to recognize that her experience was different. In both the E book and television short, Melody demonstrates that she “learned to love” her brother. She explains that she often felt embarrassed when her friends didn’t understand Michael’s behavior. Even though she is a child, Melody clearly recognizes the stigma associated with illness and disability. As described earlier, Micheal and Melody define each other, they share a disability experience. In the same way Melody embodies Michael’s voice, she also internalizes the negative reactions he elicits from others. That is, the stigma towards Michael also becomes a stigma towards Melody.
Melody’s narrative is told through the media of literature and film. Both forms of expression however, are mediated by language. Melody’s range of expression therefore is confined and quantized by the use of words and the common understandings of language. In a sense Melody’s social environment shapes the way she is able to talk about her differences. Michael’s differences, by definition, may not be adequately expressed by common language. Although he is unable to communicate through language, Michael is able to express himself through art. According to Jackie, “locked inside a seemingly difficult child can be a gifted child who brings joy and inspiration to others.” This statement suggest the importance of subscribing to various types of narratives. While Melody is able to embody Micheal’s voice, she cannot represent the totality of his experience. Michael’s experience is beyond the realm of language, and therefore his family must learn to listen to him in other ways.
Like the 2009 release of “ My Brother Has Autism” which was dedicated to “all of the boys and girls who have autism and the brothers and sisters who love them,” Michael and Melody’s feature on the Disney Channel’s “ The Time I...” was a call to connect children with disabilities and their siblings. The narrative was strategically constructed in that it advocated for greater tolerance towards individuals with disabilities. Although its strategic purposes are aimed at the same goal, the means by which this narrative work towards this goal are different. In the acknowledgements of Melody’s book, Jackie thanks an organization called Partners in Policymaking for teaching her “ to use all of [her] inner angst in a positive, productive way to advocate for change.” Here we see evidence of an intimate family narrative projected into the political sphere. In order to make change, Jackie and other Autism activists must demonstrate significant adversity in order to highlight injustices and create more opportunities to people with disabilities and their families. Melody’s narrative however, highlights a few fundamental tensions in this purpose. Although Jackie seems to be an advocate for change, she must acknowledge that Michael is fundamentally different than other children. The assertion that Michael needs specialized help contradicts Melody’s assertion that Michael is the same as everyone else. Even though this clip is aimed at young children, this personal narrative upon which it is based is fluid. Its various elements can be captured by literature, film, photographs, and various autobiographical memories. The use of the Igafo-Te'o family’s narrative can be strategically re-purposed to achieve various aims and rendered appropriate for different audiences.
"My Brother Has Autism" by By Melody Igafo-Te’o
Disney Channel TTI: The Time I Realized My Brother Was Different (Autism)
Jennifer is an Editor at The Intima