Trigger warning: Contains a quoted example of disability hate speech.
I am finding it difficult to begin this piece.
It’s not that I can’t find the words. When I’m writing, I can almost always find the words. It’s that what I want to write about is painful almost beyond words.
In the wake of Joe Scarborough’s uttering the falsehood that autism is linked to mass murder and his erroneous statement that most mass murderers are autistic, well over 11,000 people signed a petition demanding a retraction. To date, Mr. Scarborough and MSNBC have still not seen fit to fulfill their journalistic obligation of setting the record straight. Autism Speaks put out an absolutely useless statement that did not, in any way, refute Mr. Scarborough’s remarks; the organization might as well have remained completely silent. Only the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, the Autism Society of America, and the Autism Society Canada spoke up in protest.
In the wake of these failures of conscience, people in the autism and autistic communities have been left to deal with the fallout. And yes, there has been fallout. I have been talking with autistic people, autism parents, and allies about this issue for nearly two weeks, and the constant refrain I hear is, “We are afraid of what will happen to us, to our children, to our loved ones, and to our friends.”
Like them, I have feared the impact of Mr. Scarborough’s words. And then, last Monday, one week after the Morning Joe broadcast, my fears were realized. I found the following on the Facebook page of my friend and colleague Karla Fisher, who an autism educator on the autism spectrum and the general manager of a professional women’s football team in Oregon:
This weekend I hosted my football team at my farm for a camp out. They asked me questions about my autism work and I told them that autistic people grow up to be lawyers and doctors and teachers and janitors and Moms and…. I was uninterrupted by one of the girls who said, “And mass murderers”. I asked her if she was kidding. She was not. EVERYONE thought Holmes is autistic and that link was connected very clearly in that room.
This is real life folks and real bad for all of us.
I don’t have enough to words to describe how disturbing I find this story, but I can tell you why I find it so disturbing: Karla’s teammates know her, and they know that she is autistic. Karla is very open about it, and her teammates provide all manner of accommodations in order to be inclusive of her. They consider her a friend. They respect her as an athlete. But she was standing right in front of them, and what mattered more was a media representation of autism than the reality of Karla’s life and being. The disconnect is terrifying — as is the fact that someone would say such a thing to an autistic person, anywhere, without any consciousness of the hurt it would cause.
The truth of the statement was taken entirely for granted. The utterance of it was acceptable.
No one said a word.
But there is more. On August 2, ten days after the Morning Joe broadcast, my friend and colleague Lynne Soraya, who writes a blog for Psychology Today called Asperger’s Diary, received a comment that can only be described as hate speech. It came in response to a piece that she wrote in April called Stigma and the ‘Othering’ of Autism. The commenter took the time to find a four-month-old post in order to comment on the Colorado shooting and express the opinion that all of us on the spectrum should die:
“Neurodiversity”? F*ck you! You have no right to tell me that ‘tards are people if I don’t want to believe that. Grow up and stop believing in fairy tales, nerd.
Hey, one of you DnD faptards just shot 72 people in a movie theater, and 15 of them DIED. Jimbo the Joker Holmes has “special rights” because he’s an “emotionally sensitive” neuroscience geek who probably gets “excited” by Batman/Robin slashfic? He wants to see his brain light up, give him a special seat with ol’ Sparky!
I hear there’s a new movie out about you f*ckwits that someone else can have a free-for-all with: It’s called Eat Sh*t Die. Tagline: Read. Follow. Repeat.
Needless to say, given its content, the comment has now been taken down. But the message is clear: The writer believes James Holmes to be autistic, that autistic people are not human, and that autistic people don’t deserve to live.
In the space of a week, two of my friends have encountered people who believe that autism predisposes people to mass murder. Two people in my own circle of friends. I have not scoured the Internet looking for this information; it’s happening to people I know. How many more have had this experience, but are too afraid or in too much pain to speak up?
I have been aware of the stigma of autism for a long time, and much of my work on autism and empathy has been driven by the desire to dispel the myths that plague us. The idea that someone would think that I am not an empathetic person has been the source of enormous pain to me, but it is as nothing compared to having now been stigmatized with the mother of all stigmas. The lack of safety that I feel cuts right through me. Perhaps this stigma will never rise up to greet me personally. Perhaps it will rise up tomorrow. Perhaps it will rise up just when I’m starting to feel comfortable and welcome in a group of people. I don’t know when it will rise up, and that is what is so dangerous and so vicious about stigma — it is entirely unpredictable.
I’m sure that there will be people who will pass off my feelings by saying, “Oh, autistic people are always fearful. It’s just part of the condition.” They will tell themselves such a convenient lie only because they do not want to face the reality that we are fearful because we live in a world that not only scapegoats us and maligns us, but remains silent when it happens. They will tell themselves such a story because they want to ignore the fact that, when these things happen, we stand up for ourselves, but very few stand up with us. Most people would rather flee stigmatized people than run the risk of being stigmatized by association.
Over the past two weeks, as I’ve felt this fear permeate my being, I’ve realized that I have a choice. I can either let the fear make me fearless, or let it make me hide.
I choose to be fearless. It doesn’t mean that I’m not afraid sometimes. It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel the gravity of the situation. It means that I don’t let the fear stop me. It means that I take the fear and transform it into courage and power.
I’m not sure anything can fully repair the damage done by Mr. Scarborough’s remarks. His words went out to a half million people, and have been passed on by millions more. There is no way to reach every one of those people and make this wrong right. But conscience demands that people speak up. Joe Scarborough, and MSNBC, and Autism Speaks may remain silent. But autism parents, autistic people, allies, friends, and loved ones will keep on speaking up. And we will put them all to shame.
© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg