Tony Attwood’s disparagement humour. Good-natured fun, or bullying, exploitative and offensive?

Kathy carter
May 3 · 6 min read

We have read and referenced clinical psychologist Tony Attwood’s work here on Spectra.blog previously. He’s created useful videos on identifying autism spectrum disorders, and we wrote very enthusiastically about how he ‘frames Asperger’s and High Functioning Autism in a positive light.’ He advocates the term ‘discovery ‘over ‘diagnosis’, saying: ‘[The word] ‘discovery’ concludes that this [autistic] person possesses admirable qualities, abilities, and/or talents.’

Professor Tony Attwood. Photo: ACMAH

Our author Kathy Carter was impressed with Professor Attwood’s focus on autists’ strengths; however, it was recently brought to our attention that he’s also renowned for emphasising false stereotypes about autists, and getting laughs at their (our) expense.

A ‘cold touch of affection’?!

One of the most alarming viewpoints he’s expressed is that autistic mothers, while they can be (in Tony’s words): ‘Remarkable guardians and supporters of [their] children’, ‘They have’, again in his words: ‘The cold touch of affection, rather than the genuine one; and so, we often find that an ‘aspie’ mum marries an extreme neurotypical dad, and so it is Dad who gives the affection; so when a child is upset and falls over, who do they run to? They may run to Dad, not mum.’

(Source — transcript of an ABC radio interview with broadcaster Richard Fidler, on Shona Davison’s website).

In one sweeping statement, he’s disparaged every autistic mother out there!

Is joking about marginalised people OK?

A misguided view? ‘Autistic mothers have the cold touch of affection, rather than the genuine one’.

The ‘cold touch of affection’ comment was seemingly not made as a joke as such; more a (misguided) statement of fact (in Professor Attwood’s opinion); however, he’s well-versed in using humour to attack autists.

Writer, broadcaster and performer Kate Fox wrote an open letter to Professor Attwood following her dismay at comments made during his talk at the National Autistic Society’s 2017 Autism and Mental Health conference. Kate and others believe Professor Attwood deliberately makes jokes at autists’ expense to gain laughs AT them, not WITH them. She quoted social psychologist Thomas Ford’s work on ‘disparagement humour’, agreeing that: ‘When marginalised people are joked about, it gives other people a sense that it’s okay to disparage them too.’

Another writer, Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, wrote dispairingly about Professor Attwood when writing about a talk he made in America. ‘He used humor about autistic people, primarily… An example is when he talked about how he knows when a parent of a child is autistic, [when] he delivers the message about autism diagnosis for their child, and ‘puts on his robot voice’, to imitate the [autistic] parent.’ (Source: ‘Making a mockery of disability’.)

Good-natured fun is between people of equal social and political power. When you have a position of greater power and privilege, and you satirize people who comprise a stigmatized, vulnerable, and misunderstood minority, it’s not good-natured fun. When he makes fun of autistic people by grotesquing a stereotype, he sends the message that autistic people are here to be laughed at, [and] to be mocked,” Cohen-Rottenberg writes.

“It was like a trip in time back to the 70s, where Alf Garnett discovers autism…”

A further writer, Paula Sanchez, said, again in response to Professor Attwood’s talk at the National Autistic Society’s 2017 Autism and Mental Health conference: ‘The worst part of the day was Tony Attwood. His talks were chock-full of jokes at our expense… oh, how amusing we are; oh how the audience laughed at his quips about suicide, special interests, IQ, virginity and robots. Attwood’s presentations came across as exploitative and offensive. It was like a trip in time back to the 70s, where Alf Garnett discovers autism.’ (Source: ‘How not to do an autism conference’.)

He knows that autists may not take the joke well…

On his own website, Professor Attwood quotes a study on youths, that states: ‘The adolescents with autism had significantly poorer comprehension of cartoons and jokes. Subjects with autism had difficulty handling surprise and coherence within humorous narratives.’ So, he acknowledges that ‘Individuals with autism have… difficulties in integrating content across narratives and discourse’, and that ‘Adults with high-functioning autism may not achieve a feeling of surprise, if and when they understand the punch line. If they do achieve a feeling of surprise, it may not be converted to one of humour.’

He knows that autists may not take a joke well. He also knows that, as indicated by his comments regarding knowing when a parent of a child is autistic too, that autism often runs in families, and therefore, that many parents attending his talks may also be autistic.

So why does Professor Attwood continue to joke about autistic individuals IN FRONT OF THEM?

Professor Attwood is increasingly raising awareness about female autists, and has written about important subjects including girls with Asperger’s-type presentations of autism: ‘Slipping through the diagnostic net, and being at risk from developing Anorexia Nervosa, due routines and rituals around food.’ He’s supported the author Liane Holliday Willey in the promotion of her book ‘Safety Skills for Asperger Women’ (and wrote the foreword). He’s also got a way with words, and uses them to his advantage.

But given his apparent support for females, how can Tony Attwood reinforce the terrible stereotype that autistic mothers have ‘The cold touch of affection’? It harks back to Kanner’s early thoughts on ‘Refrigerator Mothers’, now outdated. As neither a diagnosed autistic individual nor a mother himself, it’s a terrible sweeping statement for Professor Attwood to make, and upsetting for the parents who look to him for guidance and inspiration.

A 2019 autism conference

This month (May 2019), Professor Attwood is presenting a conference titled: ‘Tony Attwood — What you need to know about Autism’, (cleverly dropping his usual references to ‘Asperger’s’, now that the term has been merged diagnostically with ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’), in Sheffield. It’s hosted by the ‘Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health’, and it will be interesting to see whether his brand of humour is utilised there, and even endorsed by an organisation pertaining to promote good mental health. Spectra.blog’s curator Kathy Carter is attending the event, along with other #actuallyautistic advocates and writers, including Shona Davison, who has personally crusaded to highlight Professor Attwood’s disparagement humour techniques.

Kathy will be reporting from the event and along with her #actuallyautistic peers, trying to redress the balance, and ‘calling Professor Attwood out’ on his potentially unprofessional and derogatory attitudes, and any mis-judged presentation techniques.

To conclude.. you could argue that we ‘Aspies’ ‘Just don’t get the joke’. Or you could argue that it’s BULLYING…

A little disclaimer — here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Disorders / Conditions; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts.


Originally published at Spectra Blog.

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