Cas Sweeney ‘19
For many autistic people, April 1 marked the start of the most dangerous and difficult month of the year. Autism Awareness month, sponsored by the group Autism Speaks, serves as a cruel reminder of the many ways people are determined to erase autistic people’s agency, importance and even lives. When an autistic person sees donation drives that are sponsored by Autism Speaks at their schools or #lightitupblue campaigns to raise “awareness” of autism, they are reminded again of the danger Autism Speaks and similar organizations put them in.
Autism Speaks, which promotes itself as a charity organization, is at the forefront of that erasure and violence. Run by a board of entirely allistic (non-autistic) leaders, the group is a major promoter of eugenics and conversion therapy. Autism Speaks preys on the fears of autistic children’s parents who are unaware or fully willing to embrace the dangers it brings to the autistic community. The organization ignores the existence of autistic adults and specifically attempts to silence their opinions and views. Instead it focuses on a narrative of “Autism stealing our children.”
One of the many flaws in this approach is that autism is not an illness, but a neurodivergence and a disability. It is not something that children can catch, but rather an innate aspect of a person’s self. When Autism Speaks pledges to “end Autism”, they do not intend to bring out some allistic version of a person which does not exist, but rather find a way to prevent autistic people themselves from existing. This is a form of eugenics that Autism Speaks would not be able to promote if they could not also get away with promoting the false ideal that autism and autistic people can be separated.
For autistic people that already exist, Autism Speaks has other initiatives that do just as much harm. The organization supports a type of conversion therapy, ABA or Applied Behavior Analysis, on which the most well-known type of conversion therapy for LGBTQ people is based. Conversion therapy for LGBTQ has been found by multiple experts to be extremely dangerous and ineffective and the same is true for ABA.
However, this method is used across the world in classrooms and therapy to attempt to change autistic people, especially children, into allistic people. Because autism is an innate quality that cannot be erased, the “therapy” does not work, but rather it teaches autistic people to repress their actions as much as possible. It specifically forbids bodily autonomy and consent as part of the program, therefore opening autistic people up to more abuse in the future and often leads to PTSD and other mental illness.
The outcome of such therapy is not worth the loss of happiness and life, but many parents are willing to do anything to change their children’s personalities to make them appear more “normal.” That is the same motivation that anti-vaxxers have for not vaccinating their children, and instead they endanger lives to avoid a risk that has been debunked for years.
Many autistic people have taken a stand against the idea that it is worse to be autistic than dead. Autism, like any other neuro-divergence, is not a natural detriment to life. There are many qualities that make autism something to be celebrated, including some of the qualities that Autism Speaks condemns. In an effort to combat the ableist idea that any deviation from the norm is not worth having, which is promoted by organizations like Autism Speaks, autistic-run organizations such as the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network have created alternate movements such as #redinstead and Autism Acceptance or Autism Appreciation month.
Autism awareness is not a necessary concept, because the negative awareness and stereotypes that Autism Speaks actively encourages leads to more misinformation, hatred and even murder of autistic people.
Instead autism acceptance is more important because it strives to change the way that society unnecessarily rejects autistic people. Focusing on appreciating stims (repetitive movements, such as flapping arms or rocking back and forth, that help thought processes and convey emotion), tips for dealing with ableism, raising money and awareness for pro-autistic charities and generally loving autism are things Autism Acceptance or Appreciation month accomplish.
The main ways that allistic people can support their autistic friends this month are speaking up against Autism Speaks, promoting autistic-run groups such as ASAN, letting your friends know you are there for them, celebrating and appreciating autistic achievements and experiences and above all uplifting #actuallyautistic voices, especially in a month where so many people are trying to silence them.