Protesting Autism Speaks

A delayed post on my end, but I have my candidacy exams as an excuse. (I’ve completed the written portion, and I move onto the oral this Thursday, yikes.)

On October 11, I helped to lead an ASAN protest against the Autism Speaks walk at Ohio State’s campus. As I now have the benefit of being three weeks removed from the protest — as well as reading/hearing/seeing reports of other ASAN-led protests across the country — I feel a sense of accomplishment. I’d certainly never organized a protest before — and I’d only attended my first protest this past June, which was a disability rights protest against Ohio’s proposal to cut funding for community supports (and Ohio’s proposal to increase funding for nursing homes, ack). In June, I took notes about chanting and marching, and the chorus of Our homes, not nursing homes! is still present in my brain. (We were loud. And we were quickly hoarse.)

I suppose, on some level, I feel perpetually frustrated here at Ohio State. Our protest didn’t receive media coverage, which was a disappointment — though, to be honest, I’m not the sort of person who likes to be noticed, per se. (I’m not media material. I’m quiet-and-behind-the-scenes material.) But I also suppose the good news is that, really, Columbus’s Walk Now for Autism hardly received any media coverage itself. There was a quick spot on NBC4 (which was to be expected, given that one of their anchors has an autistic son and the station itself co-sponsored the walk), as well as a photo slideshow on The Dispatch website (the Columbus newspaper). Though my search for pro-Autism Speaks media coverage wasn’t entirely exhaustive, I doubt there was any other coverage (at least any other coverage of note). I taped all the news shows that evening, and no one else mentioned the walk. NBC4 seemed to monopolize it.

But back to the frustration: On campus, Autism Speaks seems to be everywhere. And it’s partly a matter of manpower and resources — they’ve got more than we do. By far. And our university president keeps uncritically singing their praises (to the point where we’ve drafted a petition and plan on standing on a street corner and asking passersby for signatures). I tire of seeing their flyers daily — flyers that variously portray autism as an epidemic, a puzzle, a burden on taxpayers, a fate worse than a combination of fatal situations. And I grow even angrier when I see flyers that read Got questions about autism? We’ve got answers!

Dear god. My colleagues, students, and professors might go to these people for answers?

I also love (not) how some of their past campus fundraisers have included things like Mary Kay parties, sorority cookouts at midnight, or shop-a-thons. Their events sound so autistic-unfriendly that, if it weren’t so egregious, I’d find it utterly hilarious.

I’ll end this post with photos. Several of these photos have circulated the blogosphere by now, so I’ll try and post those that weren’t featured (that I know of) in other blogs. The protest was very successful: nineteen people braved the throngs of “puzzled” walkers. We endured angry honks, middle fingers, haughty walking mothers, and entitled white men yelling, “You’re a bunch of f—ing idiots!” But we also had productive conversations with parents, and we were even thanked by autistic people who had been dragged to the walk.

This is me holding a sign reading Autism Speaks does not speak for me
This is me holding a sign reading “Autism Speaks does not speak for me”
Tim Jensen holds an orange sign that reads “Nothing about us without us”; Chris Lindemann holds flyers; Kate Comer holds a sign that reads “Diverse NOT Diseased”; and Jonathan Buehl holds a yellow sign that reads “Nothing about us without us”
Jonathan Buehl; Brenda Brueggemann with a sign that reads “Disability Rights”; me with a sign that reads “I can speak 4 myself”; Jason Smith with a sign that reads “First class autistic, second class citizen”; Justin Rooney with a sign that reads “Nothing about us without us”

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.