Bearing Witness: The Impact of Media Misrepresentation
August 4th, 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

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


10 Responses  
  • Ben Stansfield writes:
    August 4th, 20124:39 pmat

    I am continually surprised that knowing this stuff doesn’t make me fearful, but fearless. Normally, hearing about this would have me, still, in the same space you started out in. Perhaps it’s the years and years of exposure to this kind of thinking re: gays, and I am partially immune.
    I do get a bit scared when I think of how many times I’ve posted bits about autism and my relationship to it on Facebook, and not one friend or family member who is not autistic has commented on it. That’s when I start to think along the same lines as you, that I may be confronted by this ignorance and misunderstanding tomorrow, or one day after that. Of course, dwelling on this possibility does me no good, and fortunately, I am so easily distracted I don’t think about it for long. I do hope I have your presence of mind to say something or do something meaningful or at least clever :-)

  • Autism & Oughtisms writes:
    August 4th, 20124:39 pmat

    I hadn’t written a post on this disturbing topic because I was worried it would just bring more attention to the claim, particularly because the country I live in doesn’t appear to be very aware of the comment at issue. However, after reading your post, I think I must. And if it means some people are thereby exposed to the claim when they otherwise were unaware of it, I take solace in the fact that they will be hearing about it in a way that immediately puts rubbish to it.

    I know this was a hard post for you to write, but it was important that it gets heard, so thank you, on behalf of my son and myself.

  • sanni writes:
    August 4th, 20126:55 pmat

    we autistik s deserve every right tu live abn we deserve equality as ppl -scaroborough needs tyu sapologise tu us an a sincere an tru apology fr his degrading an damaging comments as his werds wil caus ppl tu harm us even mor

  • Aspie Dad writes:
    August 4th, 20127:20 pmat

    Thank you for keeping the heat on Joe Scarborough, and MSNBC for their damaging failure to set the record straight on this issue. Autistic people are already victimized all too much from rejection and bullying by people who don’t understand them.

    Autism has never been connected with mass murder. However, Autistic people have been murdered simply for being Autistic, or even suspected of being Autistic in some cases. Joe’s damaging comments have the potential for increasing the violence against Autistic people. His comments certainly don’t help anything.

    Joe Scarborough needs to work very hard to repair the damage that he has already done to the Autism Community. Unforgivably, he seems to be ignoring the pain and damage that he caused. He needs to step up and correct the record!

  • Autism: The Wrong Answer to the Question of Mass Murder. | Autism & Oughtisms writes:
    August 4th, 20128:00 pmat

    [...] wouldn’t be heard or need to be dealt with here. But I’ve changed my mind after reading a pained post by a friend, about how the purported link between autism and mass murder is affecting her and her [...]

  • Karen Weaver writes:
    August 5th, 201212:07 amat

    I wrote a piece after the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida about fears for my own black boys, who walk around looking black, perhaps suspicious because of their odd behaviors, lack of eye contact, and anxiety. I fear that they may be picked out of a crowd and perhaps harassed by law enforcement simply because of the color of their skin, but not only that, how they may react to law enforcement. An issue like this only compounds the stigma. I never published the piece because I wanted to put it somewhere where it would get more traffic than on my blog. I think I’ll pull it out, polish it up and publish it. Thank you Rachel!

  • Alicia writes:
    August 5th, 20126:29 pmat

    I’m not surprised, this is hard to live with, I wish I was able to be fearless.
    Normally I feel the weight of being considered a monster because I’m mentally ill, we are normally the first people to be blamed for such tragedies but now as autistic I feel this again, here we have less focus on autism so not many people know of this kind of comments against us but few think we are human.

  • Makayla Serniotti writes:
    August 5th, 20129:50 pmat

    I first heard about this issue on when I was emailed a petition relating to this. After that, I looked up the footage from that newscast to see for myself exactly what he said. His ignorance is astounding to me, actually… it’s making me furious! I can’t believe that he would just say a fancy version of “Autistic people are going to be mass murderers sometime in their lives.” And what’s worse, he won’t admit his mistake and retract his statement, even though the evidence doesn’t support his claim!

    Okay, now that I have that out of my system, I will say that this gives me another reason to fight for social acceptance. It’s these ignorant fools with a god-complex, as well as many uninformed people around the world making these generalizations about people on the Autism spectrum, not even taking into account how it makes us as a worldwide community feel, that are making this a losing struggle! I personally fight for neuro-diversity at my school and my community (I’m a Junior in high school) so that my other friends on the autism spectrum are better understood and not stigmatized. And it’s been working, too. All of them, and many other people affected with different disorders, have made new friends who accept them for who they are.

    On a personal note, this new development in the world of Autism doesn’t scare me at all. It could be arrogance that comes with being a 16 year old, but hey, I stand for what I believe in, and I’m not afraid to be myself. I’d be happy to correct an ignorant person, even if my words fall on deaf ears.

    ~Makayla Serniotti
    Portland, Oregon

  • Heather Clark writes:
    August 6th, 20126:49 amat

    Rachel, I just wanted to reach out and let you know that I am still thinking about you, the community, and also this awful second crime. I am healing myself because being new here, I just did not expect such a bold move of hate to be our new reality. I still can’t believe it, and I can’t believe the way others with power have made it acceptable by refusing to correct or challenge it in any way. I am working on healing myself, because I know I cannot go on fighting for my family and friends, wounded by the stigma the way I am right now. Drying my tears now…Lots of love to you.

  • Sheila writes:
    August 8th, 20122:04 pmat

    Rachel, Thank you very much for your brave post.

    I also wanted to tell you that I appreciate your new website format. I find it much easier to read and appreciate the effort you took to make your blog more accessible.


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