My friend Karla Fisher is a Senior Program Engineering Manager at Intel, an autism educator, the General Manager of a professional sports team, the mother of two thriving adult children, and the owner of the excellent Facebook resource Karla’s ASD Page.
On October 17, Karla attended the Autism & Asperger’s Syndrome Conference in Eugene, Oregon. Karla had worked with the sponsors of the conference and, as a successful autistic woman, had written a piece for one of their books. She was especially excited about the prospect of attending the talk given by Tony Attwood.
I’m tempted to say that Karla was disappointed in Attwood’s talk, but disappointed doesn’t begin to cover it. In fact, what Karla saw and heard that evening was deeply offensive to her. Following is her narration of the events; the speaker she refers to is Tony Attwood.
The session began well with the speaker talking about ASD versus NT as a culture. I was happy to hear this opening. I also know that I had some influence on this perspective as I had given this to him privately in email and also through at least one of the clinicians that he works directly with. From there, however, the cultural perspective thing sort of went downhill. The speaker was dynamic, quick, fluid and exceedingly witty. Humor was his main way of reaching his audience and he delivered well judging by the audience who was laughing several times each minute. He was very good overall as a speaker. The problem was that he used humor about autistic people primarily and he spoke ONLY to the NTs in the audience despite the fact that he knew we were there.
An example of this is when he talked about how he knows when a Mother (or Father) of a child is autistic during the session where he delivers the message about autism diagnosis for their child. He said, “I have a good picture of how it looks when an NT Mother hears this message…” (and here he does NOT describe what that looks like but assumes that I will just know so I sit there with a blank picture) Then he goes on to say that he knows the parent is autistic when he sees the following… He stiffens his body up then and puts on his robot voice and he says, “Okay, so let me see if I got this. I need to see about OT, ABA, understand about sensory integration….etc…).” As he is going through this I am thinking to myself that YES, this is the good way to approach the information that there is a diagnosis. Facts will help the child and this person was seeking facts… But my thoughts are disrupted by an audience who is in full belly laughter at this person’s imitation of an ASD person. I found myself wondering what was so funny. Then I wondered if I said anything if it would not be turned around on me as not having humor. My heart grew heavy as I realized that these people were supposed to understand and accept me. That these are the people who are committed to making my life better.
Ironically, I was wearing the same black hoodie that I wore earlier in the week when I was interviewed and accepted into this key job at one of the largest high tech companies in the world. And yet the goodness of my new position and all the praise and accolades by my coworkers and friends was completely lost in the moment that the room burst into laughter when this professional speaker made fun of the “ASD uniform” (the one which I was clearly wearing).”
If I may summarize: Attwood was mocking autistic people at an event for parents and professionals who wanted to learn more about how to help autistic people. To put his statements in the proper context, Attwood knew that Karla was in attendance. In fact, he made specific reference during his talk to the fact that there were several autistic people in the room. He knew they were there. And yet he engaged in such mockery anyway.
I know what some of you are thinking: “Oh, Rachel. You’re overreacting. Mockery is much too strong a word. It was just good-natured fun.”
No. Good-natured fun is between people of equal social and political power. When you have a position of greater power and privilege, and you satirize people who comprise a stigmatized, vulnerable, and misunderstood minority, it’s not good-natured fun. When you parody the speech and the body language of people who are considered social burdens, walking tragedies, and quasi-humans, it’s mockery, and it drove a tough 50-year-old woman who plays contact football to tears. You don’t do it no matter who you are or where you are — especially when you are making fun of people whom the world feels it perfectly acceptable to laugh at anyway. With your power, you put the imprimatur of respectability on such behavior. In this case, not only does Attwood have all the privilege that comes with being white neurotypical man; he also carries a great deal of authority in the world of autism. So when he makes fun of autistic people by grotesquing a stereotype, he sends the message that autistic people are here to be laughed at, to be mocked, and to be parodied simply for being who we cannot help but be.
By way of analogy, could you imagine what would happen if a well-known Protestant minister, in a public religious forum, satirized the difference between Christian prayer and Jewish prayer? What if such a minister gave as an example of Christian piety the Lord’s Prayer, delivered in a sober and restrained voice, and then, in contrast, put on a yarmulke, tzitzis, a fake beard, and sidecurls, and started rocking back and forth madly, mumbling incomprehensibly in a sing-song voice, in order to elicit raucous laughter from the congregation? He’d never hear the end of it. The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith would be all over it. The network pundits would hold forth. Internet memes of every variety would appear. Someone would start a petition demanding an apology and his immediate resignation.
But none of that happens in the world of disability. Because the average person does not think that anything is wrong what-so-fucking-ever with making fun of disabled people. Because the average person thinks of disabled people as broken and therefore worthy of scorn. Because it’s still acceptable to laugh at physical and cognitive difference. Because disabled people are considered damaged goods ready for the trash heap, and anyone who thinks they’re worthy of reclamation and respect ends up having the same mockery cast upon them.
One of the most telling things about Karla’s description of Attwood’s performance was that he did not satirize what happens when non-autistic, neurotypical (NT) parents receive an autism diagnosis for their child. There is a stereotype of what happens, and since he was in the business of exploiting stereotypes for cheap laughs, he would have been free to exploit that stereotype as well. He could have parodied the NT autism parent as becoming hysterical, as believing the world was ending, as losing all hope. That’s the stereotype. But he didn’t. And do you know why he didn’t? Because the NT parents in that audience would have risen up in all their glory and shouted him down. And rightly so. No one wants to see their fear and pain for their disabled children mocked, even if they have journeyed past that fear and pain. People would have been irate, and some of them would have stomped out of the conference hall in protest.
And yet, somehow, it didn’t occur to him that the autistic people in attendance would feel the same way. He didn’t think about the fact that Karla Fisher would be sitting there in her favorite black hoodie, driven to tears.
But you know, this isn’t about Karla’s hurt feelings. It’s not about one person. It’s about her hurt being a signal that something in that room was very, very wrong — that the power relations were awry, and that the flow of empathy and respect were going in directions that favored some and mocked others. It wasn’t just about that room and it wasn’t just about Karla. It was about a world in which it is still acceptable to mock disabled people, in which it is still acceptable for people to laugh uproariously at it, and in which it is still acceptable for people to dismiss it by saying it’s just all in good fun and there was no harm meant.
Perhaps there was no harm meant. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that harm was done. Harm is done by such behavior every single day — on school playgrounds, on television, in workplaces, in families, on buses, and in classrooms — for public amusement and for the infliction of private anguish. And when someone with authority engages in it, it only empowers people to go out and do it some more.
It’s not just autistic people who care about this. It’s disabled people. It’s the parents and friends of disabled people. It’s all of us.
This disrespect in the thin guise of humor has to stop — for the disabled people who are now here, and for the rest of humanity vulnerable to becoming disabled, through illness or injury, in the blink of an eye.
The fates may ordain that one day, Dr. Attwood, you are the person with a disability, struggling against the ignorance and prejudice of the world, and that you have to sit in a room and listen to someone mock your voice, your movements, your perspective, your pain, your struggle to speak. I hope you never have to go through that kind of disrespect. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
But imagine how you would feel. Just imagine it. And then stop contributing to a world in which it happens.
© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg