I feel obligated to say something about Joe Scarborough’s suggestion that Aurora spree killer James Holmes was autistic. I’m obligated to point out that his statements were offensive, degrading, inaccurate, and harmful to the autistic community. I’m obligated to add that his apology, which referred to autism as a burden and praised Autism Speaks, made things worse, not better. I don’t mind pointing these things out, because they’re true. And I’d enthusiastically encourage anyone who hasn’t already done so to sign the petition urging a retraction of his statements.
But rather than producing another pro forma condemnation, I’d like to mention what I’ve found encouraging about this incident. Scarborough isn’t the first person to publicly insult autistic people; anti-autistic slurs and ridicule from prominent people occur with surprising regularity, from 50 Cent’s insulting a friend by saying “you look autistic” to the controversial movie trailer using “are you autistic?” as an insult. These insults always set off a flurry of condemnation from parents of autistic children and parent-run organizations, who are deeply offended that anyone would trivialize the struggles and sufferings and pains and burdens of the parents of children tragically afflicted with autism. The outrage is often more degrading than the original insult.
So when I heard of Scarborough’s rant, I inwardly groaned twice—once because he said it, and once because I knew that any backlash would be the standard dehumanizing parent-centered pearl-clutching. I was perfectly content to stay out of what I assumed would be the predictable response.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the media circus. Autism Speaks, the leading parent-centered autistic-demonizing propaganda outlet, had a preexisting relationship with Scarborough and his NBC employer. Therefore, they gave only a mild opposing statement that affirmed their media partnership.
Without Autism Speaks sucking up airtime and attention, an unexpected thing happened: reporters turned to actual autistic people for an opposing perspective. Radio & Television Business Report cited the petition of real-life autistic writer Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg (of Disability and Representation). Mediaite published the statements of real-life autistic journalist Mike Elk (of In These Times) and the video of real-life autistic advocate Kerry Magro (of My Autism My Voice). The Big Picture with Thom Hartmann featured real-life autistics Mike Elk and Ari Ne’eman (of ASAN) as representatives of the autistic community. Tommy Christopher of Mediaite, who heavily promoted this story, even acknowledged existing hostilities between Autism Speaks and the autistic adult community.
And I am impressed. Impressed, first of all, with Rachel and the other autistics who worked so hard to get the message out there, but impressed also with a mainstream media that is beginning to give autistic voices a chance. That’s quite an improvement from a time when the very existence of intelligent, competent autistic adults was considered purely speculative. It’s not as good as Scarborough’s head on a stick or Autism Speaks disbanding in disgrace, but it’s cause for hope nonetheless.