Hello, assorted directors of Autism Speaks.
We assume you have you have heard the news, recently, about the investigation into the death of Jeremy Bostick, an eleven-year-old autistic boy, at the hands of his father. In case you have not, we shall fill you in. Jeffrey Bostick took his eleven year old son, put him in a sealed room, sat down, and opened a canister of carbon monoxide.
This was a tragedy, as I’m sure you would agree. Another tragedy, however, is the way this story has been covered. As we have seen happen again and again, the news stories have provided a sympathetic angle on Jeremy’s killer. Stories have focused on how much a burden Jeremy must have been, how much stress the family was under, how very understandable the murder was.
Autism Speaks, this is not an isolated incident- neither the murder, nor the rhetoric that surrounds it.
Charles-Anthoine Blais, 6, was drowned in the bathtub by his mother in 1996. The media made sure everyone knew just how devastating it was to have an autistic child, and how understandable this murder was. The murderer was showered in letters of support from parents of autistics. The court ruled that this murderer could be employed in advising parents of autistics, and she was offered a job at Société de l’autisme. The judge said that she did not represent a danger to society- autistics, it seems, are apparently not a part of your society.
Casey Albury, 17, was strangled to death in 1997. Her mother, if such a loving word can be used to describe her murderer, was sentenced to a measly five months. Before she was out, they were writing plays sympathizing with Casey’s killer, and newspaper articles titled ‘Loved to Death’.
Dale Bartolome, 27, was killed by his father in 2002. The news speculated, as usual: “What kind of pressures, however unintended, must the son have brought to bear on his parents?” One finds it hard to imagine that such pressure was equivalent to the pressure of the bullet Dale took through his head that July night.
This is a fraction of a fraction of the murders perpetrated on autistics. Remember Katie McCarron, Matthew Goodman, Mark Ownens-Young-Rogan, Pierre Pasquiou, Wayne Winter, Jim Helm, Stephanie Jobin, Daniel Luebner, James Joseph Cummings, Patrick Markcrow, Willie Wright, Jason Dawes, Terrence Cottrell, Tiffany Pickney, Nozuma Shinozaki, Angelica Auriemma, Casey Collier, Gabriel Britt, Eric Bland, Rylan Rochester, Jeffrey Bogrett, Maggie Caraballo, Brahim Dukes, Justin Malphus, Charles Mancill, Abubakar Nadama, Matthew Vick, and all the others. Remember their brutal murders, the slap-on-the-wrist sentencing for their killers, and the media response. We must remind you to remember them, because we found no mention of them on your site, despite the plentiful articles of any breakthrough towards prenatal testing or elimination of autistic traits. Why is Autism Speaks more interested in getting rid of us, than protecting us?
A pattern is clear. When an autistic murders a neurotypical, the media blames autism. When a neurotypical murders an autistic, the media blame…. autism. If a gay man is beaten to death, do we blame homosexuality? If a black man is murdered, do we blame blackness? When a parent commits sex-selective infanticide, do we blame femaleness? No. Such victim-blaming would be unacceptable; those who engage in it would be condemned in the eyes of all decent society, and rightly so. But, when an autistic is murdered, we blame autism. We blame the victim.
We charge that there exists a pervasive pattern of victim-blaming, shifting the responsibility for the killing of autistic people away from the bigotry, hatred, and murderous impulses of those who butcher us, and onto autistics ourselves- we who face these murders. Again and again, the cry, when an autistic is murdered- if only parents had more support! We won’t deny this point; more support is needed; in a society designed to meet the needs of one type of person, it is difficult to be responsible for a child whose needs, modes of thought, and ways of communication, are often radically different from those of other people. We advocate for more support and better, more respectful support. But, the lack of support does not excuse the murder of autistic people. It does not make murder any less murderous. It does not excuse the sick victim-blaming of the neurotypical press. This devaluing of autistic life and sympathy for our killers constitutes a culture of death aimed at our very existence.
Where does this culture, this apologism for the murder of autistics, this degradation of autistic lives and perspectives, this image of the autistic as the tragic burden whose murder is understandable, come from?
It may behoove us to take a look at the rhetoric used by those who dominate the national discussion on autism- chief among those groups being Autism Speaks.
Autism Speaks has been criticized and condemned repeatedly by autistic self-advocates for their portrayal of autistic people. The most visible and memorable of these was, of course, Autism Every Day, a film in which a mother declares, in front of her autistic daughter, that she wishes to kill that daughter and herself- but won’t, because of her neurotypical child. It’s bad enough that the life of an autistic is so worthless- but to say that it is worse to leave a neurotypical child deprived a parent, than it is to actually murder an autistic, is appalling and disgusting. Autism Speaks has never apologized for this video or removed it from circulation, and in fact prides itself in the film’s realistic portrayal of ‘heartbreak’. It surely warms every child’s heart to learn that his existence is a cause of heartbreak. What does that tell us, about what this organization thinks about the worth of autistic people?
Even when not explicitly making excuses for and sympathizing with the murderers of autistics, Autism Speaks’ rhetoric and message disenfranchises and disempowers autistic people. We hope that by now you are familiar with these complaints, but we will reiterate them in short. Time and time again, we are portrayed as burdens. We are infantilized and presented always as ‘children with autism’ as our default state. The focus is always on the parents and families of autistics, and how autism effects them, rarely if ever, beyond a few sanitized and neutered token cases, on the wishes, perspectives, or ideas of autistic people. Autistic self-advocates are ignored or marginalized- a trend dramatically illustrated by the total lack of any people on the spectrum in the board of directors. The organization focuses proportionally little of its energy on accomodation and empowerment, and great resources on prenatal testing and the elimination of autistic behaviors which inconvenience neurotypical people. The message of Autism Speaks is clear. We are a burden. We are not wanted. In the all too many narratives, it is better that we die or are never born, than that we burden you any longer. Such thought and messages are exactly what lead to media apologetics for murder, and enable and empower those who would kill autistic people.
Autism Speaks, we will not beg. We demand, as autistic self-advocates, that you cease this rhetoric against autistic people. We demand that you enfranchise autistics within your organization, that you listen to and value autistic self-advocates (including, especially, the majority who are critical of you), that you cease this focus on ‘families with autism’ and ‘autistic children’, and that you cease your pervasive, profoundly (and ironically) un-empathetic and dehumanizing portrayal of autistic people as burdens. We demand an apology for ‘Autism Every Day’, and a general apology for your disenfranchisement of autistic voices. We demand that when this sort of hateful speech and murder-apologetics pops up, that your organization move to condemn it, as it should be condemned.
We are the autistic. We will not stand another murdered friend. We will not stand being blamed for brutality perpetrated upon us. We demand human respect and dignity. We will not apologize for being ‘burdens’ in your lives; your hate, your contempt, and your murders are a greater burden that we must bear. We are sick- sick of being murdered, sick of dehumanizing rhetoric, and sick of excuses.
Autism Speaks, until you change, the blood of the murder of our autistic brothers and sisters flows from your tongues to stain red your hands. Remember Jeremy, and all the others, and change your ways.
Freak Liberation Front
The Freak Liberation Front Manifesto
We hold self-evident, the truth that any society which, purposefully or by default, excludes and marginalized some part of itself, without warrant and cause, and which makes impossible the celebration of the potential and empowerment of people of all types within it, is a society that is failed, morally and ethically bankrupt, and structurally unjust. In response to the age-old development of such a society, we do hereby establish and pronounce the Freak Liberation Front.
What is a freak? A freak is someone who does not naturally conform to the ‘normal’ way of thinking, communicating, acting, and being. A freak is someone whose mental or physical blueprint is deviant from the dominant accepted form. A freak is a person singled out and victimized, abused, or dehumanized for not fitting into the box of normalcy. You call us disabled. We call ourselves freaks, because we promote the unity of all such people, not as individual and separate movements for deaf rights, or wheelchair rights, or neurodiversity, but as a single alliance against the apparatus and culture that is the source of our exclusion. We call ourselves freaks because we will not use the powerless language of ‘differently abled’ and ‘people with disabilites’, but opt instead to seize and reclaim those words used to marginalize us and remake them into tools of our empowerment. We take up the word freak as a badge of pride, of unity, and of open, naked sedition.
We maintain that the greater part of the difficulty and disenfranchisement of the freak is due, not to the inherent weakness of the freak, but to the exclusive structures of the unfreak world. Your society, your culture, has shaped itself in such a way as to exclude us. When a wheelchair user cannot access your building, have you not excluded them by default? If a blind person cannot study because there is no Braille in your libraries, has your system not disenfranchised that person? If an autistic cannot bring forward their abilities because they cannot utilize your unspoken social rules and methods of communication, have you not robbed them of their right to contribute? In each case, whether or not you have openly established an exclusionary policy, the very structure of your society (and of your structures!) sets a de facto segregation against those who do not fit your model of normalcy. That is the very definition of structural and institutional injustice.
This is an injustice that permeates every facet of how the freak is treated in society. This injustice is present, when prenatal testing seeks to weed out the abnormal. It is present when the parents of the freak pray for a cure, and an end to their child’s freakishness, and in every freak that internalizes that hatred and begs for the abolition of their personhood. It is there when we are subjected to compulsory medication and abusive therapy, segregated in both public and private schools, forced into dehumanizing institutions, degraded in self worth in public dialogue and media, and disproportionately both victimized by and convicted of crime. It is present, when we look for work, and find positions, regardless of disability legislation, closed to us, forcing us once more into the ranks of the unemployed and the powerless. It is present when the art and literature of our culture, and when means of communication, tailor themselves only to the sensory and interpretive needs of one type of person, and when the physical environment is shaped to accommodate only one body type. It is present when our self-appointed advocates perpetually infantilize us, presume to speak for us, and take upon themselves the normal man’s burden, to patronize and pity us. It is present when, against all odds, a freak triumphs and achieves, and is congratulated for overcoming themselves.
What we demand to end these injustices, the end of these and other abuses against us, the end of the exclusionary culture and institutions by which these injustices are propagated, and the end of any and all systems that implicitly confirm these injustices, is the establishment of a culture and structures based on inclusion, acceptance, and dignity, which accommodates the needs and desires of the freak as well as it accommodates the needs and desires of the privileged normal.
We ask not for cures. We will not and cannot forsake who we are- it is an inseparable, integral part of us. We will not seek to annihilate what we are, and become that which we are not, to kill ourselves and allow strangers to move in behind our faces. We demand, and continue to demand, not the reconstruction of our personhood, but the reconstruction of a social system that serves the needs of one model of person, and one model of person only, that treats all other types of person as defective trash, and that throws us, and our potential, into the dustbin of freakishness as punishment for our unchangeable, unchoosable nonconformity.
We recognize that these changes can only come about through the multi-tactic and multi-tendency coalition of all freaks, directed by and for the freaks themselves. The neurotypical and normal-bodied ‘advocates’ for us, the quislings who in claiming our best interests would destroy our identity for their own convenience and privilege, have neither our best interests at heart, nor the understanding of our lives, struggles, wants, and needs necessary to help us. The place of a neurotypical, a beneficiary of that system which disenfranchises us, in our struggle is, at best, the ally- never the leader. What is needed, what justice demands, that we ourselves arise, each community of freaks with its own nuances and interpretations of our common demand for inclusion (never assimilation!) and enfranchisement, in solidarity with one another, and demand to be heard. Demand to be heard first and foremost, not as a footnote. Demand to be heard entirely and wholly, before any member of the privileged normal class takes the floor. Demand that our voices, and our wishes, guide any conversation about what is best for us, and defend that rallying cry: Nothing about us, without us!
Across this world, the age of supposed acceptance and pluralism, the age of alleged individuality, tells us to think outside the box. What is the box, but lines- lines which must not be crossed, lest one stray from that box of normalcy? The sick farce, then, is that while we are encouraged to think outside the box, those who truly lie outside the box have crossed the line, and must be corrected, by coercion, or excluded from the treasures of the box itself. This is a box whose structure does not serve us- a box meant to contain only one way of being. We have tried to conform to this box, and it is hostile to us. We have tried to bend and expand this box, but it is stern and unyielding. We have tried to live outside the box, or to construct our own boxes, but in the face of the dominance and power of the box, these efforts are meaningless. We are left with but one recourse in our grievances, one strategy left in our struggle. Let us unite, freaks of the world, against abuse, against stigma, against prejudice, reprogramming, and assimilation! Let us come together, not to find a way into the box, not to find a way to make the box bigger, not to change the box’s shape, but to tear down the very walls of the box itself!