Singer/musician Kodi Lee is America's Got Talent's latest breakout star—and the media's latest subject of terrible autism-related news coverage.
Golden Buzzer: Kodi Lee Wows You With A Historical Music Moment! - America's Got Talent 2019 www.youtube.com
Make no mistake, Kodi Lee is an incredibly talented musician and performer who deserves every ounce of fame and fortune he'll inevitably receive. He also "happen[s] to be blind and autistic too," as he mentions in his Twitter bio. We've written about Hollywood's autism fetishization trend before, so it's important to emphasize the fact that, overall, it's wonderful Kodi is being featured so prominently this season on AGT––the problem lies entirely with the surrounding press coverage.
America's Got Talent has never been a show that shies away from exploiting people's individual hardships and personal tragedies for ratings, so it's no surprise they would go that route for a talented musician with autism. That being said, aside from the audience's collective "AWWW" at the first mention of Kodi's autism, AGT actually handled the topic pretty well, at least within the framework of their baseline exploitative model. Giving Kodi the Golden Buzzer felt deserved, given his excellent performance, and the hosts seemed to treat him with respect when they congratulated him afterwards.
The same can't be said for Newsweek's coverage of the contestant: "WHO IS KODI LEE? 'AGT' CONTESTANT OVERCOMES ALL ODDS, RECEIVES FIRST GOLDEN BUZZER OF THE SEASON." Kodi Lee is a self-described "musical prodigious savant," one of roughly 25 people in the world with a combination of perfect pitch, audio photographic memory, and a hyper-focused attunement for musical expression. This means that he has a natural inclination towards musical talent that's significantly greater than the average population. Newsweek's booming assessment that Kodi has "overcome all odds" to receive the Golden Buzzer is, quite frankly, inane. As mentioned on his official website, Kodi has been performing music for years. Music is not only his passion but something he is uniquely equipped to excel at. If anything, the odds he'd be great were strongly in his favor.
That's not to say Kodi hasn't overcome struggles related to autism––he surely has. But it's important to separate the inevitable struggles Kodi has faced due to autism from his musical talent. Kodi is a wonderful musician and a musical savant, who also happens to be blind and have autism. Conflating these elements only serves to "other" the majority of people with autism, most of whom are not savants and don't necessarily have the type of incredible talents that Hollywood loves to fetishize. This is the main problem with NBC affiliate News 3 Las Vegas's take: "AGT's singing sensation Kodi Lee inspires families living with autism."
The news segment included an interview with Dr. Erin Honke, a clinical neuropsychologist who works with children on the autism spectrum who said, "There's always hope as far as hidden strengths." This is likely true, but the doctor's point was that people with autism can often excel in certain areas, especially when those areas relate to their specific interests. She goes on to talk about how parents focusing on their child's interests can help with development, which is also true. The host, Renee Santos, takes this to mean something entirely different. "All children on the spectrum have strengths just like Kodi's," she says. No, Renee. No, that is not true. Kodi is a savant. Most children with autism are not savants––less than 10% of children with autism display any signs of savant syndrome at all, and 50% of savants don't even have autism. This is a dangerous myth to propagate because, at best, it misinforms the general population about autism. At worst, it completely erases the vast majority of autistic experiences.
Ultimately, Kodi Lee's appearance on AGT is wonderful. He's a skilled, hardworking musician whose appearance on the show displays how diverse people with autism can be. But it's important for the media and viewers to realize that Kodi isn't indicative of every autistic person's experience. He's simply one voice among many—albeit a very nice one to listen to.