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January 2011



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First Published Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Imagine ... Neurodiversity ... Acceptance ...

Zac Smith/The Daily <http://oudaily.com/staff/zac-smith/

Autism Speaks is the world’s largest and most prominent autism advocacy
organization. Through its partnerships with Toys “R” Us and other businesses
and its stable of celebrity spokespeople, it is able to raise well more than
$30 million per year.

It would be natural to assume that donating to such a medical charity would
be a good thing. Advances in the efforts to cure diseases such as breast
cancer and AIDS have come largely as a result of widespread public concern.
Wouldn’t a few dollars one might otherwise spend on luxury items be better
placed in the hands of Autism Speaks?

Contributing to an organization that speaks up for autistic individuals
would be wonderful. With my donation, this group could campaign for greater
understanding and acceptance of those with autism and help influence society
in such a way as to be more accessible to them.

Such an organization would be well deserving of your and my support.

However, such an organization also would be pretty much the polar opposite
of Autism Speaks.

Autism Speaks, whose sole concern seems to be “fix[ing]” those with autism,
engages in scaremongering, distorts facts and dehumanizes those they are
supposedly speaking for, all as a matter of policy.

Autism Speaks has likened having autism to being in a car wreck, being
struck by lightning and being fatally ill. Autistic children are said to
have been “kidnapped” from their families.

Learning to live with and understand a person’s autism-related
characteristics is not an option– autism must be defeated, and the person

This attitude has been most effectively distilled in an advertisement
designed by the unrelated New York University Child Study Center.

The ad, which is presented in the form of a ransom note, reads, “We have
your son. We will make sure he will not be able to care for himself or
interact socially as long as he lives. This is only the beginning. [From]

This variety of approach, while no doubt useful for scaring up donations,
obviously promotes the stigmatization of autism.

Autism Speaks is abundantly eager to engage in these tactics. Autistic
children are “stolen” from their families – soulless husks, they live lives
devoid of human emotion, or so the portrayal goes.

The incitement of hysteria fills Autism Speaks’ coffers, but at the cost of
further alienating a group of individuals who already face numerous social

The most unsettling example I’ve seen of Autism Speaks’ dehumanization of
autistic individuals is contained in their 2006 film “Autism Every Day,”
which features, among other things, a mother claiming that she would have
murdered her autistic daughter but for the existence of her other,
neurotypical daughter.

That this would have been an insane or at least critically misinformed
choice is not highlighted.

Individuals on the autism spectrum, when not being obliquely portrayed as
soulless androids, are turned into mascots.

My favorite example of this is the Toys “R” Us-associated charity that
offered donators of $10 or more a complementary tote bag decorated with art
by a real autistic person. Oh boy! For $20 can I get a souvenir photo taken
with him, too?

How is it, one might wonder, that an autism advocacy organization could be
comfortable promoting these views?

Why don’t those autistic individuals involved in the group’s running do
something to moderate its speech?

The answer is that the autistic are not represented, even by a single
individual, in the group’s leadership.

Perhaps having an autistic board member would betray the fact that autism
doesn’t render one totally nonfunctional.

Autism Speaks is like an all-white NAACP.

The organization also spends a significant portion of its budget researching
the connection between childhood vaccination and autism.

The hypothesis that vaccination can lead to autism is unsupported by any
evidence and runs counter to what we do know about autism’s probably
primarily genetic basis. But this has not stopped Autism Speaks from pouring
funding into research on the topic, presumably in the hope of finding a link
which would accentuate the paranoia around autism.

The truth is that, while individuals on the autism spectrum face difficulty
integrating into a society constructed by and for the neurotypical, many
autism-associated idiosyncrasies are useful and positive.

Andy Warhol

Take, for example, the characteristic attention to detail and fascination
with repetition that led artist Andy Warhol, who was probably autistic, to
create some of his most recognizable works.

Daryl Hannah & Quentin Tarrantino
Recognizable contemporary individuals on the autism spectrum include actors
Dan Aykroyd and Daryl Hannah, singers Ladyhawke, Gary Numan, Craig Nicholls
(of the Vines) and Peter Tork (of the Monkees).

Dan Aykroyd, Blues Brothers

In fact, many high-functioning autistic individuals and individuals with
Asperger syndrome (“aspies,” for the hip) prefer to live as they are,

regardless of the inconvenience, and find the notion that they must be

rescued from the ravening demon of their autism insulting.

But, even if one accepts the premise that autism must be controlled
(presumably through prenatal testing and abortion, as with Down syndrome),
Autism Speaks remains an unprincipled organization that actually fights the
understanding and acceptance of the people it purports to represent.

If you’d like to contribute to an organization making an effective effort to
improve the lives of autistic individuals, I’d suggest the Autistic
Self-Advocacy Network, found online at www.autisticadvocacy.org.

The next time a Toys “R” Us cashier tries to guilt you into giving a few
dollars to Autism Speaks, buy yourself an oversized Chupa Chups instead.

-Zac Smith is an English junior.

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