Recently, Seattle Children’s Hospital plastered ads on city buses which featured a young boy smiling, with a caption reading “Let’s wipe out cancer, diabetes, and autism in his lifetime” next to his face. These ads drew the ire of ASAN, which, rightfully, took offense to the ads. Last Friday, Seattle Children’s Hospital apologized for offending people and said that wasn’t their intent. The ads are being taken off of the buses.
While I’m glad that there seems to be some progress in how people take into account the feelings of autistic individuals and work to make things right, it is still unnerving that these ads are even put up in the first place. The ads are a reflection of the typical conversation being had about autism: one which does not include autistic people and one which views autism as an appendage.
If somebody were to have asked an autistic person how they felt about the ad, it probably would not have been displayed in the first place. The mainstream view of autism is still one that paints autistic people’s lives as tragic burdens and people who need a cure. That view is changing, but slowly. People are seeing the need for acceptance and inclusion, but don’t seem to know what those two words mean. Many seem to think inclusion of people with disabilities means some kind of token inclusion, like what occurred with Jason McElwain when he was allowed to play only in the last game of his basketball season, despite being registered as on the team and having a uniform. While I’m glad his talents were finally recognized, I wish his coach would have presumed competence and allowed him to play throughout the season. So, when I say inclusion and acceptance, I mean full inclusion and acceptance, like you would do with any other student. By extension, when I speak about including autistic people in the conversation about autism, I mean full inclusion: in social policy, in scientific discussions, and in discussions of supports and services. It’s the right thing to do.
The ads also propagated the idea that autism is something that can be separated from a person. I have gone through this in other posts (see this post for more detail) and have spoken about how the ideas of cure and recovery don’t really say what people think they do. But beyond those ideas, many autistic self-advocates will say that autism is an integral part of who they are. Many also have said if somebody were to eradicate the autism from their brains, they wouldn’t be the same people. It’s not a very hard concept. Autism is not a disease. Autism is a way of being; parts of it good, and parts of it bad. More and more people are coming out and saying the same thing; it’s time for these voices to be listened to.
Unfortunately, there is still a startling lack of respect for autistic voices. Autistic voices continue to be ignored, despite many instances of pushback against offensive ads or programs, such as NYU’s Ransom Notes Campaign or Autism Speaks “I Am Autism” ad. It is frustrating that these types of situations still occur, but I have to remember, progress is a “slowly moving turtle-mobile” and there is a lot of work that still needs to be done. I know we’ll get there; we just need to keep pushing forward.
“If you won’t listen to reason, there’s always…Towanda.”