My Challenge to Peter Schiff: Spend a Day with a Person who has an Intellectual Disability While They Work

One of my biggest pet peeves is when somebody speaks about a subject matter as if they are an expert when, in reality, they do not know the first thing about it.  Everybody is guilty of it to an extent, but at least I hope I can realize when I don’t know enough to speak about an issue.  I know enough to say that I shouldn’t be speaking about the ins and outs of international relations; I am not well read or studied on the matter.  However, there are some people with whom this construct has not set in.  One of these people is Peter Schiff.

Schiff was featured on The Daily Show this week on a segment regarding Obama’s State of the Union address.  During the address, President Obama spoke about issuing an Executive Order requiring federal workers to pay their federally-funded employees a wage of at least $10.10 per hour.  During the Daily Show segment, Schiff expressed some apprehensions about Obama’s executive order and proposed to get rid of the minimum wage as a whole.  He goes on to speak about how getting rid of the minimum wage would create jobs and how some people would be happy to work for $2 an hour.  That’s where things went south for Schiff.

When asked about which people would be happy working for $2 an hour, he mentioned teenagers working at McDonald’s and the intellectually disabled.  He defends this statement in a follow up interview by saying that if an intellectually disabled person could not make a minimum-wage level of output, then employers should not have to pay them minimum wage salaries.  He then speaks about how the intellectually disabled tend to enjoy the jobs they have when neurotypical people would find them boring and mundane.

Does Schiff really not see how offensive his comments are?  When speaking about intellectually disabled people and employment, he has the arrogance level of Donald Trump and the tactfulness of Archie Bunker.  He presumes to know about how intellectually disabled people function within society and assumes that they are either too happy or too naïve to understand or perceive when they are treated unjustly.  His remarks also carried a smug, condescending tone that should make anybody uncomfortable even reading them.

So, that is why I am proposing a challenge to Peter Schiff.  I would like for him to spend one day with an intellectually disabled person at their workplace and to do the job that person does on a daily basis.  We’ll let him feel how demeaning it is to have to come to work to do a menial job where he doesn’t get paid a living wage and where his employer does not appreciate the work that he does.  I would hope for him to learn that the work that these people often perform is not easy for anyone to perform.  Maybe then, he’ll actually learn what minimum-wage level work actually looks like.

I have had various kinds of jobs in the past.  In some of them, I have worked alongside people with intellectual disabilities (and no, that does not make me some sort of hero or martyr).  The people I have met are not only capable of performing the tasks they are assigned, they are some of the hardest workers in the place of employment.  Their work is not worth less than a neurotypical’s work because of their disability.  Many of these individuals live on their own and are responsible for many, if not all, of their finances.  If Schiff ever bothered to look, he would see that.  But, it is obvious he hasn’t.  I believe that any person who works a full work week should be paid a living wage, regardless of ability.  Schiff, obviously, does not.

Overall, I feel Schiff’s comments during The Daily Show interview and subsequent follow-up to be ignorant, insensitive, and disgusting.  Schiff is not only a man who has no idea about how people with intellectual disabilities live their lives, he also seems to have no idea about what it is like to have to really struggle to make ends meet.  Although he understands that people want to work, he does not understand that people want to be able to make enough to get by.  For too many people in the United States, this is not the case.  I hope one day, Schiff will be able to empathize with people who have to struggle to earn a living or with people who have intellectual disabilities working as hard as they can to survive as well.  Until then, he should just close his mouth and listen.

“If you won’t listen to reason, there’s always…Towanda.”

John Elder Robison Resigns from His Positions with Autism Speaks

What can you say about an advocacy group that loses its only member who is part of the target group they are working for?  You would say that group was doing a bad job at working for the people they advocate for.  This is now the case with Autism Speaks.  For the past few years, John Elder Robison, a man with Asperger’s Syndrome, has been working on the science and treatment boards at Autism Speaks.  He resigned just this week.  He explains his reasons in this post:

I am not going to summarize what he said because he is capable of speaking for himself, and because he enumerated his issues with Autism Speaks in a succinct manner.  I will say this, however:  I commend Robison for trying to work with Autism Speaks.  Upon hearing about his appointment, I feared he would end up being tokenized(well, he was) and start to tout the Autism Speaks mantra of fear, dehumanization, and stigma.  But his post shows otherwise.  He went into an organization knowing full well about its PR issues, its issues with allocating funds, and its general unwillingness to listen to the voices of autistic people.  It makes me upset that Robison could work for an organization that targets a population which he is a member of and not take anything he tried to say or do with the legitimacy it deserved.  From his post, it appears that he spent a great deal of time being frustrated with them and their inability to listen to him.  In my eyes, he chose the perfect reason and time to sever ties with Autism Speaks.  (For the post Robison is referring to, here’s the link:

For him to see a post like this, after working with that organization for that long a period of time, must have been completely infuriating.  It’s infuriating to me, and I don’t even work for the organization.  For it to be 2013 and to have one of the founders of the largest autism organization worldwide to call us autistics public health crises, the cause of families breaking up, and consider us general burdens to society is disgusting.  This type of rhetoric has no place in 21st Century dialogue.  No wonder why so many autistic people think Autism Speaks is evil.  Look at what they’re saying about us!  For Robison to stay on as long as he did shows that he has more patience than almost anybody I can think of!

Oh, and I find it funny how the science world believes we lack empathy.  That we can’t understand what other people are thinking or that we are not considerate of other people’s feelings.  So many believe that autistic people’s primary deficit is being unable to understand others and empathize with them.  But, even after all of the pushback Autism Speaks has faced from autistic people, whether it be after the “Autism Every Day” incident, or the pushback after the release of the “I Am Autism” video, they still use the same exact scare tactics they used before to promote their organization.  It’s as if they’ve learned nothing over the past few years.  They have learned nothing about how autistic people feel when they are called public health crises, diseased, defective, etc.  They have learned nothing about how to work with autistic individuals in developing the best solutions for mitigating disability and creating a more equitable society for everybody, autistic and neurotypical alike.  They have learned nothing about advocacy as a whole.  I think we all now know who really lacks empathy…

So, now that Autism Speaks’ only autistic member is gone, the organization can no longer make any claim whatsoever, that they are inclusive.  They have gone back to being 100% against the disability rights’ movement’s mantra: “Nothing about us, without us!”  Finally, they have thrown away any possibility of being able to have a dialogue with autistic individuals about how to improve our lives.

Are you listening now, Autism Speaks?  I doubt it.  So, you can go on with your fear-mongering, your dehumanization, and your ignorance.  We’ll move on without you.

“If you won’t listen to reason, there’s always…Towanda.”

On “Tolerance”

The word “tolerance” gets thrown around a lot in many different circles.  Often, in debates, one side will call the other intolerant of their views, and vice versa.  In the United States, many people who subscribe to liberal views want to be viewed as tolerant of opposing views.  However, when they critique the views of conservatives, conservative people will try and identify a hypocrisy in liberal’s views, saying they aren’t truly tolerant because they don’t agree with their views.  I feel this whole dichotomy over-simplifies the use of “tolerance” when it comes to debate, and it’s time that is changed.

The most important thing I want people to realize is that blanket “tolerance” is not a virtue.  Some seem to think that being tolerant of something is synonymous with being good or being right, but that isn’t always the case.  There are obvious things that people should be intolerant of, like genocide, rape, exploitation of people, starvation, and poverty, among other things, but things get a little more nuanced when we talk about “culture war” issues or neurodiversity.

So, are there things I am intolerant of?  Yes, absolutely, and that’s not a bad thing.  There are a lot of things I am intolerant of.  A few examples: I am intolerant of the idea that religious beliefs should dictate public policy, I am intolerant of people who will blame rape victims for their rape, and I am intolerant of the idea that autistic individuals should spend their lives trying to act “normal” in order to appease society.  Intolerance is part of forming any argument of belief you may have.  You don’t have to be tolerant of everything in order to put yourself in the right.  A degree of intolerance provides evidence of applying critical thinking skills into forming your argument.  The important thing is striking the right balance of tolerance and intolerance.  When arguing, you must show enough tolerance to critique ideas, and not people.  Critiquing people and showing blanket intolerance for them does not get your point across and show a lack of critical thought on your part.  In short, do your research, know what you’re talking about, and solidify your position on an issue.

So, my final point is that intolerance is not something you should be afraid of.  It is a tool, but it is one that must be used carefully and with a lot of thought.


“If you won’t listen to reason, there’s always…Towanda.”

No, Seattle Children’s Hospital, Autism is not like Cancer or Diabetes

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.”

The Disability Catch-22

Many people with cognitive disabilities and differences get caught in this position.  They identify themselves as having a disability and speak about how it affects their lives, only to have the people they are speaking to dismiss what they say.  They will say things like, “This person has this label and he/she/ze can’t do A,B, and C and you can.  Therefore, your problems aren’t so bad and you’re not really disabled.”  The person’s opinion doesn’t count in these people’s eyes.  On the same end, these people will speak about the their opinions about the disability.  The person with the disability will bring up points they disagree with or they find inaccurate.  The response to that is often: “Your disability precludes you from really understanding what we are trying to say or do.”  or “We’re not talking about you, we’re talking about those people.”

Wrong.  You are talking about that person.

There are many points I need to address about these scenarios.  I’ll first start with the idea that a person is not really disabled if they are able to do A,B, and C.  It assumes that all people diagnosed with a certain disability have the same strengths and weaknesses.  They do not seem to recognize the individuality of people who are diagnosed with a disability.  A common phrase in the autism world is “Once you’ve met one person on the spectrum, you’ve met one person on the spectrum.”  People abilities and disabilities are going to be different, regardless of what label they are given.  The whole premise is false.  I also need to address how the person saying that the person they are talking to can do A,B, and C, when they do not really know if that is the case.  In speaking with my advisor at my undergraduate college, I brought up how autism researchers don’t always listen to autistic individuals.  She responded by saying that these people are working with people who bite themselves and not really the people who are speaking out.  Part of me wanted to say “I bite myself” back, but, I wasn’t willing to be open about my more personal issues, for a multitude of reasons.  I’ll say this now:  there are times where I do bite myself.  It helps me to relieve anxiety.  I have never broken the skin, though. I admit to having things easier than most other people who share my label.  However, the fact that I do have it easier than other people does nothing to diminish the issues I do face.  The facts that I graduated with honors from one of the best colleges in the United States doesn’t inherently make me remember to always make eye contact.  You can’t just dismiss me as not being disabled or different enough when I make my opinion heard and then turn around and say I am too disabled or different to question some of your motives.  This happens too often to too many people, and it needs to stop.

People need to be aware that high educational achievement and cognitive disability or difference are not entirely mutually exclusive.  Temple Grandin is autistic and has a PhD.  Einstein was believed to be autistic.  John Nash, one of the greatest mathematical minds of our time, has paranoid schizophrenia.  People shouldn’t assume that a person’s ability to do one thing easily does not necessarily mean they can do another thing, or that they don’t have certain issues of their own.  I say, let’s get rid of the disability catch-22 and start having real conversations about disability.

“If you won’t listen to reason, there’s always…Towanda.”

On “passing”

The concept of “passing” is not just a concept that relates to autistic people.  Throughout history, many different groups of people have had to pretend that they are something they are not in order to be accepted in society, or, to simply survive. Jews having to pass for Christians, gay people having to pass for straight, trans* people having to pass for cisgendered, among a multitude of other example.  I can’t possibly name every example, but I think you get my drift.  A majority of people have, at least, a precursory awareness of the examples of “passing” I have stated above.  However, that it not the case when it comes to autistics.  Most are not aware of the amount of time and effort many people with autism put into “passing” for neurotypical.

From a young age, often times, between the ages of 18 months and three years old, children who a labelled as autistic are placed into behavioral intervention programs.  These programs teach these individuals acceptable behavior and how to act in certain social situations.  Although it is the case that all children are taught proper manners and behavior when they are young, they are generally not expected to act in ways that are unnatural for them.  They will only be punished for behaving badly.  On the other hand, autistic children are punished not only for behaving badly, but also for behaving in benign, yet atypical ways.  If a person flaps their hands, they are punished for it.  Sometimes, the person gets their hands held down in tacky glue for flapping their hands.    If an autistic person doesn’t make eye contact, a teacher grabs their chin and makes them make eye contact.  The fact that eye contact makes many people with autism uncomfortable (Dalton, et al., 2005) doesn’t matter.  Making eye contact makes a person look “normal”, and that is all that matters.  The person ends up spending their entire life trying to remember all of the rules for looking and acting “normal”, going through painstaking processes daily in order to keep up appearances.  There is no other option.  In this day and age, people are required to do this if they want to get anything substantial out of their lives:  To go to school.  To go to a store and buy something without stares.  To go to college.  To get a degree.  To get a job (and by job, I don’t mean a minimum wage job stacking boxes).

Autistic people are, generally, not free to express their emotions in a way they see fit.  They are expected to conform and make changes that most others are not expected to do.  This isn’t because their behaviors are detrimental to themselves or other people, it is because the behaviors simply “look weird.”

What occurs isn’t fair.  There is no distinction between bad behaviors and atypical ones in most people’s minds, and that had to be changed.  My general point to therapists, parents, and others who care about autistic children is this: replace bad behavior, not atypical behavior.  Learn the difference between the two.  Yes, at times, these terms are not mutually exclusive, but there are times when they are.  If you make this distinction, you will be doing more to affirm to your child that it is ok to be them, and that’s a good thing.  To others, I’m asking you to acknowledge the amount of work autistics have to do every day in order to fit into the world.  Practice tolerance.  Be affirming.  Understand that there is no one correct neurology and no one correct way to behave.  Be an ally.  Be a friend.

That’s all for now.  Until next time, “If you won’t listen to reason, there’s always…Towanda.”


What Is Wrong With Autism Awareness Today

As I was writing my last post, I got a little worried.  I was worried about whether or not my representation of Autism Speaks reflected how they were today.  Much of my information reflected data and videos from a few years ago.  So, I was worried about being looked at as a shill who was pedaling old information to support an agenda….until I saw this video.

This 43-second video not only alleviated my worries; it also encompasses everything that is wrong with autism “awareness.”  The video is of a simulator created by Autism Speaks to show people what it was like when their child did not make eye contact with them.  It looks innocent enough, but when it is explained in proper context, that innocence is replaced with frustration and anger.  It shows how Autism Speaks is a group run almost exclusively by neurotypical people, doesn’t consult autistic people in their decision-making, spreads fear and stigma of people with autism, and does not always make wise choices with their funds.

This video is all about neurotypical people.  It is all about their feelings about autistic people not making eye contact.  Not once does it speak to how autistic people may feel when they make eye contact.  This is most likely the result of nobody asking an autistic person about eye contact.  Although there are some who have no issues with eye contact, there are many who do.  There are many who will lose their train of thought when forced to make eye contact.  For others, eye contact causes anxiety.  In a study by Dalton, et al. (2005), they showed that eye contact would cause activity in the amygdala of an autistic person’s brain, causing an emotional response.  However, with neurotypical people, eye contact would activate the right fusiform gyrus in their brains, eliciting no emotional response.  Apparently, this isn’t important to Autism Speaks.  To them, being neurotypical is the right way to be and being autistic is the wrong way to be.

This video also speaks to another important idea worth noting: neurotypical privilege.  It speaks to how autistic people are often told that they have to change their behaviors to appear more neurotypical.  It is like having to put a mask on every day in order to go outside.  Neurotypical people never have to worry about that mask because they have never been told to significantly change their behaviors in order to be accepted in society.  The implication from this video is that more needs to be done to get children with autism to make eye contact and to work on neurotypical terms.  These ideas do nothing but spread the idea of the autistic person as an “other.”  Somebody to be feared.  Somebody they need to get rid of.  It does nothing to help autistic people.

It bewilders me that Autism Speaks decided to spend money on this.  I don’t know how much it cost, but I imagine it cost a pretty penny to make.  I think of all the places it could have gone, and yet, it was wasted on a stupid and useless piece of technology.  Shows where Autism Speaks priorities are!

I would like to conclude with my two most important points.  The first being that this video and this piece of technology shows that Autism Speaks isn’t about autistic people at all.  It is about the people around autistic people.  It is run by neurotypical people to serve the needs and desires of neurotypical people.  The goals they have reflect neurotypical people’s desires for autistic people.  It is clear that Autism Speaks does not really care about the desires and needs of people with autism.  If they did care, there would be more money going to supports and services for autistic people and their families.  They certainly would not have wasted money on a piece of technology meant to demonize autistic people for something as harmless as not making eye contact.  My second point I want to make is that this video and this piece of technology shows that many of the behavioral changes expected of autistic people aren’t for the purpose of advancing an autistic person; they are for the comfort of the people around them.  The piece of technology Autism Speaks shows in the video was made for eliciting discomfort in neurotypical people.  It shows that Autism Speaks is more concerned with their comfort than they are of autistic people’s.  The fact that eye contact makes many people with autism feel uncomfortable does not seem to matter to them.  As long as neurotypical people are happy, Autism Speaks is happy.

“If you won’t listen to reason, there’s always…Towanda.”