“It seems that for success in science or art a dash of autism is essential.” –Hans Asperger
Autism Speaks is the world’s leading non-profit autism awareness organization. With April being Autism Awareness month, everyone who reads this article will likely be asked to donate by one of their corporate sponsors, including retail giants such as Dollar General and GameStop—both of which are listed on Autism Speaks’ website as donating more than a million dollars annually. On the surface, this sounds like a good thing. However, a quick Google search of “Autism Speaks hate group” shows that most autistic people feel that the organization, listed as an “accredited charity” by the Better Business Bureau, is anything but.
“Is Autism Speaks a Hate Group?” is an article by the Autism Women’s Network (AWN) on why autistic people classify it as such. The article repeats: “A hate group promotes animosity against disabled people, and the members of the group don’t share the disability.” Autism Speaks does not have a single autistic or neurodiverse person on their Board of Directors; many autistic people liken this to what it would be like if only white people led the NAACP. Additionally, the article states that “A hate group includes those having beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.” Autism Speaks was founded on the belief that autistic people need to be “cured” or otherwise fixed and that there is no place for us in society.
A closer look into the language of Autism Speaks’ website proves this. Their “about” section states that they plan to “relentlessly pursue strategies that make significant progress toward … children with an autism spectrum disorder being diagnosed before the age of 2 [and] children having access to appropriate intervention, services and resources immediately following diagnosis.” This only sounds bad after one clicks their link for the “Autism Treatment Network,” which describes their supported “intervention” as “multi-disciplinary medical care for children with autism.” Known as “ABA” or Applied Behavioral Analysis, they describe it as “the only scientifically proven behavioral method effective in the treatment of ASD.” However, most autistic people, myself included, don’t want to be cured. What ABA does is not change the way an autistic person views the world; rather, it changes how the world views the autistic person. The ASN has another article explaining why ABA is considered harmful.
But if Autism Speaks were so dedicated to “supporting individuals with autism,” why would it support something considered abusive by those it claims to support?
Until October of 2016, Autism Speaks stated that its mission was to find a cure for autism. However, they didn’t really change anything, as stated by unstrangemind.com. Instead, they simply began stating that they were looking for “solutions,” which makes autism sound less like a disease and more like an epidemic. John Elder Robison, an autistic author, wrote this article in 2013 on why he stopped supporting the organization. One of the founders, Suzanne Wright, “published an op-ed piece that laid out her views on autism, and what we should do about ‘the problem,’” leading Robison to state that “there is a vast gulf between the tone of Mrs. Wright’s words and my own.” He continues by saying that:
The point here is that there are many ways autistic people can choose to live [our] lives and all are valid and deserving of respect. Some people want a little help, while others face major challenges. They (and their families) feel great anger and frustration over society’s weak response to their cries for help. As a progressive society I argue that it is our duty to develop ways to meet the very diverse range of needs our community has.
Mrs. Wright’s op-ed articulates a view of the “autism situation” that is very different from my own. She says things I would never say to people with autism and cannot in good conscience stand by. Given her role as leader of the organization, I am afraid it is my signal to exit the Autism Speaks stage.
At no point has Autism Speaks truly been an organization deserving of support. By cornering the market on “Autism Awareness,” they’ve made those who oppose them out to be fear-mongers. But who is the real fear-monger here? In fact, “fear of autism” is a common Google search that leads to countless articles about parents fearing their children won’t be normal. Because who would want their child to be the next Einstein, Mozart, Newton, Darwin, Gates, Jobs or Tesla? Who would want the burden of raising the next Anthony Hopkins, Tim Burton or Temple Grandin? All of these people are known to be or believed to have been autistic. Even if said autistic child doesn’t become the next Steven Spielberg or Lewis Carroll, why would anyone want a child with extreme attention to detail, expertise in special interests or unique worldviews, or who are honest and individualistic with fantastic memories? These are the types of people that Autism Speaks wants to rid society of. Would we really be better off?
Now, despite all of this, Autism Speaks has done a few positive things. Because of their prevalence in today’s society, people are more aware of autism and some of how it affects autistic people and their families. However, most people are only aware of potential negative effects because of how it is portrayed by them. This is why autistic people ask that others support organizations such as the ASAN and AWN, which both raise awareness and positivity.
Today, and the rest of April, please don’t “Light it up Blue” in support of Autism Speaks. Go “Red Instead” or “Light it up Gold,” both of which are supported by autistic people worldwide. If you want to support an autism organization, please support the Autism Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) or Autism Women’s Network, both of which are looking for a change, rather than a cure. For more information, clicking any of the links in this article or Googling “Autism Speaks Hate Group” is a good place to start.