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Political abuse and the abuse of autism

Posted Nov 05 2009 10:01pm

“Political autism” has emerged again in a row within the European Union (EU). Despite taking Britain into the EEC (the forerunner of the EU) in 1973, the Conservatives have always been vulnerable to disputes between their pro-European wing and the euro-sceptics who are mistrustful of European federalism and keen to defend British independence. The Labour Party has comparable factions within its ranks.

Thus political leaders of both the main parties have always had to perform a tricky manoeuvre, demonstrating their European credentials to a business community that knows where its markets lie and appealing to an electorate, many of whom prefer to blame faceless European bureaucrats for all our ills. This has led to an inconsistent approach that causes exasperation amongst some of our European partners.

This came to a head again this week over the lack of commitment by the Conservative Party leadership to the European Union. According to the Guardian

Pierre Lellouche, France’s Europe minister, described as “pathetic” the Tories’ EU plans announced today, warning they would not succeed “for a minute”.

Giving vent to frustration across the EU, which has so far only been expressed in private, Lellouche – who said he was reflecting Nicolas Sarkozy’s “sadness and regret” – accused William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, of a “bizarre autism” in their discussions.

He said: “They have one line and they just repeat one line. It is a very bizarre sense of autism.”

This is not the first time autism has been used as a term of abuse in politics. But the National Autistic Society launched an immediate complaint

Autism (including Asperger syndrome) is a serious, lifelong and disabling condition. Comments such as those attributed to Pierre Lellouche, France’s Europe Minister, in which he seemingly suggests the Conservative Party, and in particular, William Hague, demonstrate a bizarre sense of autism are therefore extremely unhelpful.
To use the terms ‘autism’ and ‘autistic’ in a derogatory or flippant manner can cause deep distress and hurt to people affected by the condition. The National Autistic Society (NAS) is keen to address this issue, in order that these terms are not used lightly, particularly by commentators or people in positions of power or influence.
Autism is much more common than most people think and affects over half a million people in the UK. To use the terms as a criticism, for dramatic effect or to try and gain political advantage only perpetuates the confusion and misunderstanding which people with autism have to cope with everyday. This is simply unacceptable and must stop.

Today’s Times ran with the story of Monsieur Lellouche’s apology.

France’s Europe Minister has expressed his deep regret at causing offence by calling the Conservative Party “autistic”, but also blamed a mis-translation for the furore today.

Pierre Lellouche said that he was voicing his real concern about the Tories’ Eurosceptic slide under David Cameron when he reproached the party for “a very bizarre sense of autism” in an interview with The Guardian.

He also called their hostility to the European Union “pathetic” and said that the party’s policies in the European Parliament had “castrated” them. Aside from the political row, the remarks were condemned by autism advocacy groups.

However, although the minister said today his remarks were “clumsy”, he claimed that the term, which is colloquially used in French to refer to a stubborn person who does not listen, is a common term of political abuse in France.

Leaving politics aside, this derogatory use of autism reflects some very primitive and harmful ideas that still hold sway in France. Two years ago I wrote about an abusive “treatment” known as “packing” that is still going on today

“A French treatment for autistic children with psychiatric problems which involves wrapping the patient in cold, wet sheets from head to foot is undergoing a clinical trial for the first time, which critics hope will see an end to the controversial practice.

The treatment, known as “packing”, involves wrapping a child in wet, refrigerated sheets in order to produce a feeling of bodily limitation and holding, before psychiatrically trained staff talk to the child about their feelings. Critics have called the procedure cruel, unproven and potentially dangerous, but its proponents say they have seen results.”

This cruel treatment has been condemned by advocates for neurodiversity and proponents of biomedical cures alike. I have made my feelings regarding Lorene Amet’s position on vaccines and biomedical treatments perfectly clear here and, more recently, here. But I agree with her that Packing is barbaric.

It is time that the French medical and educational systems came to grips with the reality of today’s autism. Placing autistic children in hospitals, under psychiatric surveillance, refusing their inclusion in proper educational systems, refusing their access to medical examination
and treatments, violating their human rights and dignity, and even worse still allowing interventions such as “packing” to be conducted in hospital settings is unhelpful and has to be stopped.

According to the Times French autism organizations have welcomed the NAS response and are equally condemnatory of the casual use of autism as a term of political abuse in France.


French autism groups said that the affair demonstrated how offensive was the current use of the term in French public discourse.

Patrick Sadoun, a member of the Sesame Autism Association, said: “The English are right to be shocked. I congratulate a country that reacts to this. I am horrified that French politicians, at the slightest occasion, call one another autistic.”

While autism is an acceptable term of abuse autistic people continue to be the victims of unacceptable physical and psychological abuse.

This post is also available on Action for Autism.

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