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Autism Speaks: it’s time to listen

Posted Dec 18 2013 1:23am

I’ve always found the Autism Speaks motto ironic: “Autism Speaks. It’s time to listen.” Change he period to a colon and you get “Autism Speaks: it’s time to listen”. And, please, could you start listening, Autism Speaks?

Autism Speaks got off to a rocky start. Although they claimed an ” overwhelming positive response from the autism community”, the rollout of the organization was met with much criticism. Autism Speaks co-founder Suzanne Wright adhered to the “missing child” model of autism with phrases like: “It is as if he’d been kidnapped, or somehow had his mind and spirit locked in a dark hole deep within him”. She also had the parent-centric model of the autism community with phrases like “Such an effort must be driven by those with most at stake: the parents of autistic children.”

Shortly after their launch, Autism Speaks released a short film, Autism Every Day . While Autism Speaks told themselves and the world that the response was positive , in reality there was a great deal of negative reaction. (e.g. here , here , here , here , and more.)

It took years, but eventually Autism Speaks listened. The video disappeared from their website and YouTube channel.

Another video debacle came in the form of “I am autism” which depicted autism as a sinister monster stealing babies and ruining parent’s lives. Here’s the transcript in case you think I’m exaggerating. The video is now also removed.

Every now an then, I feel hope for Autism Speaks. There are some really excellent people at AS. AS took on the phrase “ different, not less “. Sometimes a blog post comes by that I particularly like. And a lot of their research portfolio is quite good.

Then you get announcements like this one: Autism Speaks to Washington – A Call for Action . And we see that we are back to 2006. We are back to “I am autism” but this time it’s phrased “This is Autism”.

As a result of that opinion piece, John Elder Robison quit. He was one of the few (if not the only) autistics working in a high profile position with Autism Speaks. Here’s a section from his article, I resign my roles at Autism Speaks :

For the past four years I have worked very hard to defend Autism Speak after a series of public relations missteps; beginning with the I Am Autism video. The most recent “Autism Speaks Point of View” shows me that my words and efforts have had no real impact on the beliefs of the actual leadership of the organization.

I have tried to help Autism Speaks staffers understand how destructive its messages have been to the psyches of autistic people. We do not like hearing that we are defective or diseased. We do not like hearing that we are part of an epidemic. We are not problems for our parents or society, or genes to be eliminated. We are people.

We do have problems, and we need help. Some of us need counseling or training, while others have significant medical challenges. We also need acceptance, and support. There is a great diversity in our community, which means we have a very broad range of needs. Unfortunately, the majority of the research Autism Speaks has funded to date does not meet those needs, and the community services are too small a percentage of total budget to be truly meaningful. We have delivered very little value to autistic people, for the many millions raised.

A newspaper in Palm Beach, Florida (where the Wrights have a home) published the article: Autism Speaks post rattles some readers One board member resigns, saying he can’t stand by co-founder Suzanne Wright’s views. While they couldn’t get a comment from Mrs. Wright, they did get some statements from Autism Speaks itself.

Autism Speaks took the old cop out. Whenever there’s a discussion of whether a depiction of autism is demeaning, one can count on hearing the argument that the discussion is between parents of “severely” autistic kids and “high functioning” adults.

Michael Rosen, executive vice president of strategic communications at Autism Speaks, said Robison was the only one who resigned over the post. He said the organization understands that higher-functioning people with autism may have a different point of view about the issue.

“The people who are not sick, not unhappy, and are totally fulfilled and happy with their differences, we totally support them as well,” Rosen said. “We’re not looking to change anybody, we’re looking to support and get services for everyone who needs them.

“What that column had was a lot of empathy for those who are struggling the most. But for those who just need support and services, we work for them as well.”

Eight years ago Autism Speaks could pretend to be ignorant of the fact that much, a great deal in fact, of the criticism they get is from parents like me. Parents of children. Children who are “struggling the most”.

Then there’s the old “they see autism as a good thing” bit:

He said some people with autism feel it’s “a good thing” that just makes them “neurologically different. It’s a matter of diversity, and diversity is a good thing. We understand that and get that. They’re proud of their diversity and we salute them.”

Unless John Robison was VERY different at Autism Speaks meetings than the John Robison I’ve seen at IACC meetings, Mr. Rosen had no business saying what he did. Perhaps he could have read Mr. Robison’s resignation article:

I celebrate the gifts autism brings us, and I have discussed at length the emerging realization that autism – as a neurological difference – confers both gift and disability on everyone it touches. It’s the fire the moves humanity forward, while simultaneously being a fire that can burn us individuals as we try to make our way.

Many autistic people are aware of this dichotomy. Some of us feel “totally disabled” and others feel “totally gifted.” Most of us – I’d venture to say – feel both ways, at different times, depending on what we’re doing at that particular moment.

It’s so much easier to build the straw man that criticism comes from those who are “totally fulfilled and happy” than to face the criticism head on.

Doing a quick google search, I found these criticisms of Mrs. Wrights op-ed:

A Reporter’s Guide to the Autism Speaks Debacle
by Lucy Berrington, autistic adult

AWN SQUARES OFF WITH AUTISM SPEAKS OVER NATIONAL AUTISM PLAN
by the Autism Women’s Network

A Poem For Suzanne Wright. A Call To Action; A Call To Be. November 15, 2013
By Cheairs Graves, mother of an autistic child.

no more – a letter to suzanne wright
by Jess, mother of an autistic child.

The Price We Pay for Autism Speaks
by Heather Clark, mother to two autistic children

Why Autism Speaks Doesn’t Speak for Me
by Emily Willingham, mother of an autistic child.

And there’s more. I did run into a couple articles supporting Mrs. Wright too. But this isn’t about who has more articles, it’s about the fact that Autism Speaks chose to frame the discussion in a very simplistic and, frankly, insulting way. They dismiss the criticism and ignore the fact that much of it comes from parents. The people Autism Speaks claims to represent in this discussion.

Autism Speaks: it’s time to understand.


By Matt Carey


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