Is Autism Speaks a hate group?

Autism Speaks is the bane of autism self-advocates the world over. The pernicious and seemingly inescapable organisation has only been around since 2005, but it’s managed to penetrate society quite thoroughly, establishing itself as the authority on autism and perpetuating hateful stereotypes and attitudes about autism and autistics. Which leads me to think that it might be time to consider classifying Autism Speaks as, yes, a hate group. And no, I am not trolling you.

The FBI defines organisations as hate groups if they “promote animosity, hostility, and malice against persons belonging to a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin which differs from that of the members of the organization.” In its work on the issue, the Southern Poverty law Center identifies hate groups as those which “have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”

So, does Autism Speaks qualify? I’d argue that it does, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it positions autism as the enemy, as something to be conquered and destroyed. The organisation is maligning an entire class of people — autistics — for an immutable part of their identity and lived experience. The organisation states: “We are dedicated to funding global biomedical research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a possible cure for autism.” That specifically targets autism as something that needs to be eliminated — eliminationist rhetoric, to use terminology favoured by opponents — and is most definitely both a belief and a practice that attacks autistics.

While the group may not think that it promotes “animosity, hostility, or malice,” I’d argue that it does. The group claims “we work to bring hope to all who deal with the hardships of this disorder,” again perpetuating damaging stereotypes about autism. The kind of work it conducts on a regular basis makes autism seem like an awful and horrible thing, as well as a burden on families and communities. This is hostility¬†and animosity. It is malice. It is discrimination against a group of people on the basis of their disability status (n.b. not all autistics identify themselves as disabled for a variety of reasons) — and, notably, the organisation is about people ‘speaking for’ autistics, not actual autistics, in other words, people with characteristics that differ from those of people within the organisation.

The framework under which Autism Speaks operates is one of hatred for autism, and for autistics by extension. Look at the disdain with which they view the autistic community, with not a single autistic self-advocate on their board of directors, and a definition of “the autism community” that primarily focuses on family members, teachers, medical professionals, and other outsiders. Actual autistic people are nowhere to be seen here, because they, and their opinions, feelings, experiences, and beliefs don’t matter. Instead of putting autistic people at the center, and letting them articulate what they need from society, the group puts the elimination of autism at the center.

Which is rather hateful. Troublingly, autistics have fought back against the organisation, have established their own self-advocacy groups, and struggled to undo the damage Autism Speaks has done to what sometimes seems like no avail. Only recently, for example, did the group decide to put down the ‘vaccines cause autism’ mantle, which was damaging for the obvious public health reason, but also because it suggested that it would be better to be dead of a vaccine-preventable disease than alive with autism. A fantastic message to send to autistics, and a really terrible one to send to parents preparing to vaccinate their children — thanks to the horrific picture of autism painted by Autism Speaks, and the notion that autism is awful and should be prevented at all costs, thousands of parents decided not to vaccinate, and their decisions came at a high cost for people who contracted diseases as a result of failing herd immunity. The ‘better dead than disabled’ argument kills.

It is deeply disturbing to see Autism Speaks accepted as an authority on this subject, but it’s also not surprising. The group appears nonthreatening, not advocating for radical disability politics, self-advocacy, and self-determination. It echoes what nondisabled people commonly understand and believe about autism and disability. It reinforces existing social attitudes rather than challenging — it is not the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, which is unafraid of challenging people who think that autism is akin to a death sentence or some terrible event that is impossible to recover from.

Yet, the voices of autistics identifying it as a hate group — or at least a hateful one — are ignored. There’s a growing understanding in the US that hate groups are a serious problem, that they run a spectrum of political and social beliefs, and that they need to be addressed, posing a far greater risk than external threats like imagined terrorists from overseas. Autism Speaks is every bit as dangerous and awful as the Westboro Baptist Church — but only one of these organisations is routinely condemned as a hate group and broadly considered to be offensive by all but the most extreme of individuals.

Autism Speaks goes merrily on with its blue puzzle pieces and celebrity endorsements and quashing of dissent about autism, muffling of autistic narratives and experiences. The lack of willingness to identify it as a hate group certainly has something to do with notions of autism and disability, but also because it cloaks itself so thoroughly in a veneer of respectability. Who, after all, would want to oppose a group that just wants to help people, and wants to work to build a better world? Why listen to actual autistics saying ‘please stop’?

Image: not a puzzle, Philosophographlux, Flickr