Why I boycott Autism Speaks, and you should too

An anti Autism Speaks picture with the Autism Speaks logo crossed out. Under it reads the words “It’s time to shut up”.

Autism Speaks’ senior leadership fails to include a single autistic person. Unlike non-profits focused on intellectual disability, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and countless other disabilities, Autism Speaks systematically excludes autistic adults from its board of directors, leadership team and other positions of senior leadership. This exclusion has been the subject of numerous discussions with and eventually protests against Autism Speaks, yet the organization persists in its refusal to allow those it purports to serve into positions of meaningful authority within its ranks. The slogan of the disability rights movement has long been, “Nothing About Us, Without Us.” Almost nine years after its founding, Autism Speaks continues to refuse to abide by this basic tenet of the mainstream disability community.

Autism Speaks has a history of supporting dangerous fringe movements that threaten the lives and safety of both the autism community and the general public. The anti-vaccine sentiments of Autism Speaks’ founders have been well documented in the mainstream media. Several of Autism Speaks’ senior leaders have resigned or been fired after founders Bob and Suzanne Wright overruled Autism Speaks’ scientific leadership in order to advance the discredited idea that autism is the result of vaccinations. Furthermore, Autism Speaks haspromoted the Judge Rotenberg Center, a Massachusetts facility under Department of Justice and FDA investigation for the use of painful electric shock against its students. The Judge Rotenberg Center’s methods have been deemed torture by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture (p. 84) and are currently the subject of efforts by the Massachusetts state government and disability rights advocates to shut the facility down. Despite this, Autism Speaks has allowed the Judge Rotenberg Center to recruit new admissions from families seeking resources at their fundraising walks. We believe this is not the type of action you anticipated when you agreed to provide support to Autism Speaks events.

Autism Speaks’ fundraising efforts pull money away from local communities, returning very little funds for the critical investments in services and supports needed by autistic people and our families. Only 4% of funds donated to Autism Speaks are reinvested in services and supports for autistic people and our families. Across the country, local communities have complained that at a time when state budget cutbacks are making investment in local disability services all the more critical, Autism Speaks fundraisers take money away from needed services in their community. In addition, while the majority of Autism Speaks’ funding goes towards research dollars, few of those dollars have gone to the areas of most concern to autistic people and our families–services and supports, particularly for autistics reaching adulthood and aging out of the school system. According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Inter-Agency Autism Coordinating Committee, only 1% of Autism Speaks’ research budget goes towards research on service quality and less than one-quarter of 1% goes towards research on the needs of autistic adults.

Autism Speaks’ advertising depends on offensive and outdated rhetoric of fear and pity, presenting the lives of autistic people as tragic burdens on our families and society. In its advertising, Autism Speaks has compared being autistic to being kidnapped, dying of a natural disaster, having a fatal disease, and countless other inappropriate analogies. In one of its most prominent fundraising videos, an Autism Speaks executive stated that she had considered placing her child in the car and driving off the George Washington Bridge, going on to say that she did not do so only because she had a normal child as well. Autism Speaks advertisements have cited inaccurate statistics on elevated divorce rates for parents of autistic children and many other falsehoods designed to present the lives of autistic children and adults as little more than tragedies.

Autism Speaks’ only advisory board member on the autism spectrum, John Elder Robison, announced his resignation from the organization this month in protest of the organization comparing autistic people to kidnapping victims and claiming that our families are not living, but merely existing, due to the horror of having autistic people in their lives. In his resignation letter, he discusses his four years spent attempting to reform the organization from the inside without success, stating, “Autism Speaks says it’s the advocacy group for people with autism and their families. It’s not, despite having had many chances to become that voice. Autism Speaks is the only major medical or mental health nonprofit whose legitimacy is constantly challenged by a large percentage of the people affected by the condition they target.”

The disability community recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act, legislation first signed into law by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The law begins with the statement that, “disability is a natural part of the human experience that does not diminish the right of individuals with developmental disabilities to live independently, to exert control and choice over their own lives, and to fully participate in and contribute to their communities through full integration and inclusion in the economic, political, social, cultural, and educational mainstream of United States society.

Also, they released a commercial called “I am Autism”.

Here is the transcript.

“I am autism.
 I’m visible in your children, but if I can help it, I am invisible to you until it’s too late.
 I know where you live.
 And guess what? I live there too.
 I hover around all of you.
 I know no color barrier, no religion, no morality, no currency.
 I speak your language fluently.
 And with every voice I take away, I acquire yet another language.
 I work very quickly.
 I work faster than pediatric aids, cancer, and diabetes combined
 And if you’re happily married, I will make sure that your marriage fails.
 Your money will fall into my hands, and I will bankrupt you for my own self-gain.
 I don’t sleep, so I make sure you don’t either.
 I will make it virtually impossible for your family to easily attend a temple, birthday party, or public park without a struggle, without embarrassment, without pain.
 You have no cure for me.
 Your scientists don’t have the resources, and I relish their desperation. Your neighbors are happier to pretend that I don’t exist — of course, until it’s their child.
 I am autism. I have no interest in right or wrong. I derive great pleasure out of your loneliness.
 I will fight to take away your hope. I will plot to rob you of your children and your dreams. I will make sure that every day you wake up you will cry, wondering who will take care of my child after I die?
 And the truth is, I am still winning, and you are scared. And you should be.
 I am autism. You ignored me. That was a mistake.
 And to autism I say:
 I am a father, a mother, a grandparent, a brother, a sister.
 We will spend every waking hour trying to weaken you.
 We don’t need sleep because we will not rest until you do.
 Family can be much stronger than autism ever anticipated, and we will not be intimidated by you, nor will the love and strength of my community.
 I am a parent riding toward you, and you can push me off this horse time and time again, but I will get up, climb back on, and ride on with the message.
 Autism, you forget who we are. You forget who you are dealing with. You forget the spirit of mothers, and daughters, and fathers and sons.
 We are Qatar. We are the United Kingdom. We are the United States. We are China. We are Argentina. We are Russia. We are the Eurpoean Union. We are the United Nations.
 We are coming together in all climates. We call on all faiths. We search with technology and voodoo and prayer and herbs and genetic studies and a growing awareness you never anticipated.
 We have had challenges, but we are the best when overcoming them. We speak the only language that matters: love for our children.
 Our capacity to love is greater than your capacity to overwhelm.
 Autism is naïve. You are alone. We are a community of warriors. We have a voice.
 You think because some of our children cannot speak, we cannot hear them? That is autism’s weakness.
 You think that because my child lives behind a wall, I am afraid to knock it down with my bare hands?
 You have not properly been introduced to this community of parents and grandparents, of siblings and friends and schoolteachers and therapists and pediatricians and scientists.
 Autism, if you are not scared, you should be.
 When you came for my child, you forgot: you came for me.
 Autism, are you listening?”

If you would really like to donate to charity, then please donate to these charities instead. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network | The Association for Autistic Community | AANE | Autism Women’s Network |