Autism SpeaksU Initiative


Autism Speaks has launched a series of college/university chapters, a program that started at the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year. My university, Ohio State, is currently in the process of forming its own chapter. Over the past month, three people have tried to “recruit” me for it. My unabashed disgust for Autism Speaks notwithstanding, I think I’ve been tactful and rhetorically “appropriate” in my conversations with these people — conversations in which I’ve tried to communicate why Autism Speaks is a harmful organization. Unfortunately, my appeals have not been persuasive thus far.

In December, an NT grad student in the autistic¬†group I belong to forwarded me a notice from the Autism Speaks faculty advisor. My grad student friend knows of my disdain for Autism Speaks and suggested I write the faculty advisor, or possibly consider joining the group to provide balance. I opted for letter-writing, of course, because in no way do I want to be affiliated with Autism Speaks. In my letter, I explained neurodiversity and Autism Speaks’ problematic foci on cure and prevention. The faculty advisor, in response, said that although she empathized with my position, the group would maintain the vision of Autism Speaks.

In the faculty advisor’s “defense,” I’m fairly certain that she was well-meaning in her statement and that she has nothing but so-called “good intentions” concerning her involvement with Autism Speaks. I think that many people involved with this organization, as harmfully misdirected as it is, have good intentions despite their woeful ignorance. However, the moment I saw the word empathize in her letter, something in me snapped. Obviously, she was not empathizing with me, and her remark came across as quite patronizing.

I’ve reached the point in life — in my growth as a person who has accepted and embraced being autistic — where the “good intentions” excuse just doesn’t cut it for me any more. If a bunch of autistic people are telling an organization that their group’s vision is hurtful, harmful, and unrepresentative, and they just keep chugging along obliviously, how does that make them well-intentioned? Or empathetic for that manner?

Empathy is such a charged, loaded word in autism discourse. By popular autism definitions, I am pathologically (and negatively) unempathetic. The inverse of this statement, if we herald the lovely NT/autistic binary that so many people love to herald, is that NTs are normatively (and positively) empathetic. Hence, the assumption is as follows: I can’t understand their minds or motives, but they can clearly understand mine, and, moreover, they’re so in tune with me that they understand my mind and motives better than I do. Empathy becomes the ultimate bodily displacement: the dominant discourse-wielders fit better in my shoes than I do.

In my graduate class on digital literacies, we’ve been exploring various research methods, one of which is discourse analysis. Our professor assigned us a book chapter by Thomas Huckin, “Critical Discourse Analysis and the Discourse of Condescension.” I’ve found myself employing his method of analysis on most everything I’ve read for the past five days — especially conversations concerning Autism Speaks’ role at my university. In his piece, Huckin shares correspondence between himself and a Utah state senator. Huckin wrote a letter in protest of the legislature’s plan to cut the higher education budget in order to fund highway construction (164). In response, the state senator used a sickeningly and politely patronizing tone, a tone Huckin defines as being discursively condescending:

“…the discourse of condescension has three main characteristics: First, it contains nothing overtly critical or negative, and often proffers insincere praise; second, it assumes a difference in status and worth between speaker and listener (cf. Goffman on ‘alignment’); and third, this assumed difference is disputed by the listener.” (167)

In the spirit of Huckin, I’d claim that the response I received — as well as Autism Speaks’ general behavior as an organization — is mired within a discourse of condescension. For example, in response to my embrace of a social approach toward disability, as well as the list of problems associated with Autism Speaks’ “vision,” the advisor wrote:

Thank you for your kindly worded letter.

[#1: polite praise of my original letter]

I am very familiar with this stance and I completely empathize with your perspective. However, this group will maintain the same standards and vision as that of Autism Speaks.

[#2: The power differentials are firmly rooted in an appeal to empathy. As described above, within the context of autism discourse, claims toward empathy invoke a rhetorical power play. She knows that, as an autistic, I am supposedly “mindblind,” and that, as a neurotypical, she supposedly has mental ESP. By invoking empathy, she dons discursive condescension and places her perspective regarding autism on a pedestal far above mine: she supposedly has the cognitive capacity to understand what it’s like to be an autistic person who is continually told that she’s an empty shell who’s unworthy of existence, and, because she supposedly understands what it’s like to be thought of as a mindblind, burdensome human being, she can segue into the “however” clause and uphold Autism Speaks’ combative ideology.]

The letter goes on from here: she continued by saying that Autism Speaks was “moved” by the October 2008 campus walk, and she also expressed her desire for greater community involvement and “working together” with other campus autism groups. However, #3 arises in that I, as the recipient of this letter, dispute our postulated difference in “worth” as “functioning” humans — she asserts a hierarchy of empathetic worthiness; I don’t. In this letter, the writer employs rhetorical tools common to (neuro)typical autism discourse, and she employs those tools to make light of her opposition’s opinions and experiences.