#ShineOnMax Becomes an International Call to End Ableism and Humanize Autistic People in the Media5 min read

Last weekend, a vigil was held in honor of Max Benson, an autistic teen who was killed at school. What started as a small local event became an inter­na­tional social media blitz as people from around the world con­nected over the hashtag, #ShineOnMax.

For nearly a year, the story of Max’s death slid mostly under the world’s radar. It was reported that Max 6′1″ tall, “severely autistic,” and that he “became vio­lent” at school. The sher­iff’s depart­ment reported “no signs of foul play” from the teachers. The story was barely a blip on the radar of social con­scious­ness– that is, until last weekend.

The autistic com­mu­nity and its allies weren’t sat­is­fied with that rhetoric. Advocacy groups like The International Coalition Against Restraint and Seclusion, spoke up and kept speaking up. Other autistic advo­cates called atten­tion to the story, too, and even­tu­ally a large list of advo­cates, celebri­ties, and orga­ni­za­tions signed on to express sup­port and con­do­lences in advance of the vigil.

Last weekend, while a small vigil was held in Placerville, California, the rest of the world was learning about Max Benson. A beau­tiful and heart­felt inter­view with Max’s mother, Stacia, made its way into the hearts of thou­sands around the world. In it, she said of Max,

I would like them to know that he was a hero. He enriched my life in ways I cannot fully artic­u­late, but he was like a fiery star. He taught me things I could not have learned from any other person.

He taught me that hap­pi­ness only exists in the moment, and that nature is the only place we really feel at home. He taught me a lot of Yo’ Momma jokes… He taught me how much we love our chil­dren. Most people think they know, as I did, but I can assure you it’s so much more than that.

Orders of mag­ni­tude more.

The inter­view fea­tured a home video of Max talking about his “Bad guy pants.” His mother laughed heartily behind the camera. Later, she gave advice to people that wher­ever they faced seemingly-insurmountable obsta­cles, they put on their Bad Guy Pants™, mag­ical pants you wear when you need to be espe­cially brave or awe­some.

#ShineOnMax and #BadGuyPants

It was an emo­tional weekend as #ShineOnMax became a beacon of hope, a uni­fying force, a light on truths, a call for jus­tice, an expres­sion of sol­i­darity, an expres­sion of grief and fear, and a refusal to let autistic people con­tinue to be dehu­man­ized by school sys­tems, the media, or the jus­tice system.

It’s clear that #ShineOnMax is a Light that is only con­tin­uing to grow brighter, too.

Special Interests

Autistic people are known for their spe­cial inter­ests and pas­sions. Many people took ini­tia­tive the read about Max, and they learned he had a spe­cial interest in rocks. They hon­ored that with their tweets.

And this from nov­elist Echo Miller, who wrote The Insiders Club, a young adult novel with four autistic pri­mary char­ac­ters.

Ableism in the Media

Others called out the media cov­erage of the cir­cum­stances sur­rounding Max’s death, which was either dehu­man­izing, ableist, or com­pletely inac­cu­rate.

Neuroscience pro­fessor Laura Dilley chal­lenged CNN’s reporting of Max as 9″ taller and at least fifty pounds heavier than he actu­ally was:

Parent Fears and Experiences:

Many par­ents talked about their own chil­dren’s expe­ri­ences or the fears they have for their chil­dren:

Kim Rhodes, American actress most known for her role in Supernatural, acknowl­edged that the same fate could’ve befallen her beloved autistic child.

Inspired to Action

Some people were so moved by their grief about what hap­pened to Max that they were inspired to act.


Faye Fahrenheit even made a YouTube video in advance of the vigil:

Intersectional Justice

While Max’s story deserves all the atten­tion it has gotten, and all the out­rage, so do all the unnec­es­sary restraints that result in injury and death. Many called atten­tion to the fact that people of color are more likely to be restrained and killed in dan­gerous restraints and sys­temic abuse.

Autistic Solidarity

Some of the most heartrending responses were autistic people relating so pro­foundly, knowing that it could have been them.

Autistic poet and Aspergian con­trib­utor Yana Tweeted to Bobby_Rubio, creator-animator of Disney Pixar’s short film, “Float,” a metaphor Rubio wrote inspired by par­enting autistic chil­dren and feeling so pro­tec­tive that you’re afraid to let them go,

And Bobby Rubio replied,

Really, the world has gotten away with too much when it comes to the oppres­sion of autistic people.

In the inter­view I con­ducted with Max Benson’s mother, Stacia, she asked this of the world,

I would also like people to think about a small way they might be able to help make the world a safer place for people like him. He was so good at speaking truth to power, and I think if we follow his lead we can save some lives.

And really, #ShineOnMax feels like the begin­ning of making the world a safer place. It feels like maybe Bobby Rubio was right, that we’re not alone. It feels like maybe more people are going to be out­raged the media tries to por­tray autistic chil­dren as if they are huge, destruc­tive, and soul­less.

It feels like the world cares more than it did a week ago. It feels that the world is more aware. It feels that the world is more willing to listen to the autistic com­mu­nity.

It feels like hope. But the work isn’t done. We have to put on our Bad Guy Pants and get to work, now. Keep Max’s memory alive, and keep the hashtag alive. Use #ShineOnMax to:
chal­lenge the media when they dehu­manize autistic people,
to protest restraint and seclu­sion,
to express con­do­lences for the loss of autistic lives,
to demand jus­tice for autistic people and their fam­i­lies,
to resist prac­tices which are harmful to autis­tics,
to show the autistic com­mu­nity that you want to be an ally,
to let the world know that you care about autistic people,
to con­nect in shared grief,
to express hope for a better future for the next gen­er­a­tion of autistic chil­dren.


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