ASAN-Central Ohio/Ohio State

I’m slowly starting to get this whole “chapter director” thing into my routine, with hopes that I will pick up where I left off with blogging regularly. The ASAN-Central Ohio group is going well, very well. We rotate between meeting face-to-face and online: our aim is to be as inclusive as possible. Many in our group (including me) tend to get overwhelmed by too much contact and socialization, or just find text to be more preferable for communication.

Right now, our group has two big plans. The first is event-planning for Autistic Pride Day, which falls on June 18. The whole of April is dedicated to autism awareness, but the awareness preached in April tends to be of the medical sort, the sort that hyperfocuses on cure and prevention and alarmism. Our plans for the event have not been solidified yet, but we’re aiming for something that celebrates autistic culture. We’d been tossing the idea of holding an autie picnic in some prominent locale (e.g., the capitol lawn) and printing up a bunch of pamphlets that describe autism positively for passersby. We also have artists, writers, and possibly musicians in our group, and we’ve thought about asking those individuals to showcase their work, if they feel comfortable. We’ve decided to combine this picnic idea with another: we’re hoping to meet with a few state reps on the morning of June 17 and talk to them about ASAN, neurodiversity, and Autistic Pride. After that, then we’ll segue into the picnic and fun stuff.

The second item we’re planning is going to require a good deal of elbow grease: we want to visibly protest the Autism Speaks walk in Columbus on October 11. For a number of reasons, Autism Speaks doesn’t coalesce with neurodiversity activism. First of all, none of the Autism Speaks leadership positions are occupied by autistic people. Moreover, Autism Speaks frequently employs alarmist rhetorics in their depiction of the spectrum, e.g., comparing autism to lightning-strike stats, pediatric cancer, and AIDS. According to their organization, inviduals on the spectrum are inherently suffering and pitiable people who present an excessive burden to families and society. Autism Speaks’ main goal involves cure and prevention, and instead of directing their funding to support autistic individuals in their everyday lives, the group focuses on eradicating autism (or eradicating autistic people).

Our goal is for this protest to be peaceful: we hope to gather a large number of people and stand on the sidelines with large posters and signs. We also plan to write letters to the local Autism Speaks chapters, as well as their sponsors, before the event takes place. In our latest ASAN meeting, we discussed the difference between being “strong” and “militant” in our goals — strong having the better connotation. Given the events happening on the Ohio State campus recently, many of us are incredibly frustrated with Autism Speaks. Those of us who have written to them have been ignored or brushed off, and any disagreement we have with their methods or end goals is chalked up to us being so-called black-and-white or unempathetic or literal-minded disabled people who don’t know how bad we (or they, the poor families) have it.

A bit hard to read because of the wind, but the banner is hanging from a sorority house. It has a puzzle piece and Autism Speaks written on it, and is hanging for a fundraiser called "flippin fuzzies."
A bit hard to read because of the wind, but the banner is hanging from a sorority house. It has a puzzle piece and Autism Speaks written on it, and is hanging for a fundraiser called “flippin fuzzies.”

How are autistic people supposed to react when we see people wearing t-shirts like this? “Grateful” that people think of us as puzzles, as missing a few cognitive pieces? In what way is that not insulting?

How are we supposed to act when campus Greek life displays banners like the one above, or gives interviews like this one? Or when local grocery stores claim that a pseudo-eugenics organization aligns with their core values? I shudder at the thought that my peers, professors, and students might think of me and other autistic people as diseased, devastating, and lacking in “proper” brain function — everything a matter of deficit, deficit, deficit.

…hence, the protest.

Where I’ve been

It’s been a month. A hectic month, to say the least. This evening, at 5:45pm, we’re holding our first official meeting for the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network at Ohio State. Benzion Chinn and I are co-chairing the group. I’m quite excited, though I’m also quite nervous. We have no idea what the turnout will be like. I’m hoping for a moderate number of dedicated people. Too few people would be sad, and too many people would be overwhelming. Alas, we shall see.

[For more details about the meeting, you can read the ASAN-Central Ohio blog.]

I’ve also [finally] finished writing my program of study, a massive document that describes my field and focus areas and contains my reading lists for exams. I just found out that it passed, and I’ll post the document here in the next few days as it’s quite relevant to this blog.

Lindt Chocolate partners with Autism Speaks

I’m a little bit late in posting this (PhD life has caught up to me, it seems), but the issue is still ongoing: Lindt Chocolates has partnered with Autism Speaks for a fundraising campaign. Lindt plans to donate funds from the sales of its gold chocolate bunnies and bunny ears to Autism Speaks.

One of the things I love about the newly vamped is its actions feature: there’s a growing community of neurodiversity advocates there, mostly due to the blogging efforts of Kristina Chew and Dora Raymaker, and the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network has been able to create form letters/petitions via the interface. In short, it is now incredibly easy to send protest letters to various organizations and companies. ASAN provides you with a stock letter for the controversy du jour, which you can edit, and ASAN sends the letter as an email to the desired parties. It’s pretty cool. You can view the Lindt action here.

Back to Lindt…

Apparently, their support of of Autism Speaks has been going on for a while now. And, I’ve just learned that Toys R Us has additionally been partnering with Autism Speaks. Starbucks began printing blurbs about Autism Speaks on its coffee cups two years ago, and Hulu receives some of its sponsorship from Autism Speaks.The list of Autism Speaks’ BFFs seems never-ending.

Autism Speaks has a tremendous amount of corporate and media support. It’s little wonder that the autism controversy isn’t even rendered as a controversy in popular discourse. When I try to explain the concept of neurodiversity, for instance, to someone new to the autism fold, a typical remark resembles the following: “That’s stupid. Why wouldn’t someone want a cure?”

Autism Speaks’ toehold on autism discourse in popular media de-de-de-controversializes autism, de-de-de-ideologizes autism, re-re-re-pathologizes autism, and re-re-re-silences autistics. (And yes, I tripled the prefixes on purpose — something, anything, to effectively represent my emphatic tone here.)

Additionally, because of cure-minded groups like Autism Speaks (they aren’t the only one with media clout), neurodiversity comes across as some sort of fringe group of fame-seekers. Last year’s New York Magazine feature on the movement sported the following byline: “A new wave of activists wants to celebrate atypical brain function as a positive identity, not a disability. Opponents call them dangerously deluded [emphasis mine].” Moreover, a fairly recent Good Morning America segment on neurodiversity — which featured wonderful spots with Ari Ne’eman and Kristina Chew — ended with an incredulous Diane Sawyer showcasing both her doubt and her journalistic ethos.

I think the frustrating thing here is that, to the public masses, neurodiversity seems so new, so “out there,” so contained and so rare. Neurodiverse advocates are either painted as too disabled or too autistic to understand how badly they’re “suffering,” or as too high-functioning to know what “real” autism is. It’s a frustrating catch-22, to cite the novel that my book club recently finished.