Yes, this needed saying. Thank you Kyriolexy for saying it so well.
I didn’t want to write this post. I didn’t want to write about the Sandy Hook massacre of 27 people, 20 of them children. I don’t typically write about strong emotions, and what is the aftermath of the death of children but strong emotion? I didn’t want to. But here I am.
When I heard of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, I was horrified and viscerally sickened. I imagine that most people felt similarly, especially those of us who are parents. I thought about my friends and acquaintances in Connecticut and worried for their safety. I thought about my children–my nine-year-old son, who at that moment was in an elementary school classroom exactly like that of the Sandy Hook children. My seven-year-old son and my not-quite-six-year old daughter, so close in age to the young victims. My firstborn daughter, who follows current events and could not…
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Dear Mr. Attwood,
I’ve heard a lot of good things about you over the years, including from autistic people. I looked at your website and was greatly encouraged by the language you use describing autism, by the way you seem to view it as an acceptable difference rather than a disease or a failing or a tragedy. And then, I read this post (http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2012/10/21/making-a-mockery-of-disability/) about your speech at last year’s Autism & Asperger’s Syndrome Conference, and it bothered me. I also followed up with some of the people involved, and read what some of them wrote to you and your responses, which also bothered me. And it’s been bothering me ever since.
Here’s why: I have a lot of autistic friends, many of whom I met through general disability rights discussions (I am not, to my knowledge, on the spectrum; I came to disability rights work because of other disabilities I have). Every one of my autistic friends has a sense of humor, and most of them have pretty good senses of humor, at that. They also know the difference between “laughing with” and “laughing at.” So do I– I was teased a lot as a child, though I never faced the sort of violent bullying most of my autistic friends experienced. I know how to tell the difference between social bonding and bullying. If you make a joke about fat people, and only the skinny people in the audience laugh, that’s bullying, no matter how funny the joke was.
What you said in your talk about autistic parents was also bullying. It shouldn’t have been– I know that, and I know you didn’t mean it that way. The fact that it wasn’t funny has nothing to do with the words you used; it has to do with the context you used them in. In a better world, the world as it should be, autistic parents in the audience would have been chuckling right along with the rest, and saying “yup, that’s us!” If an autistic person had made the exact same joke you did, to an autistic audience, in a safe space for autistic people, there would have been lots of laughter.
But you made the joke in front of primarily neurotypical people, in a world where neurotypicals have a frightening amount of power over autistic people. The autistic people in your audience were hurt because they don’t have the luxury of feeling safe enough to “laugh with” people who can lock them up, take away their children, exclude them from almost all public discourse about their own condition, and otherwise marginalize them on a daily basis at both individual and societal levels. A joke about the difference between two groups is only funny when those groups have equal status. When one group laughs while the other fears for their basic rights, something is very wrong.
And then you compounded this error by not taking seriously the complaints that you got from these autistic people who felt threatened by the laughter they heard. Instead of acknowledging that they have a valid point, you attributed their lack of amusement to an autistic failure to recognize social humor rather than to the fact that we live in a world where autism and autistic traits are still heavily stigmatized, to say the least. And that is where you really hurt a lot of people who have already been hurt far too many times in far too many ways.
Mr. Attwood, please be the decent fellow we all thought you were, and apologize for what you have said that caused pain, and try to explain to your neurotypical audiences why their laughter was misplaced. Please think carefully in the future about how your words, as an authority on autism, affect the people you are trying to help. Please listen to and believe those people when they object to something you do or say– they want to work with you, to help you help them, but that requires that you are willing to treat them as equals and take their concerns seriously. Only when you (and many others) do so, can we make the world a better place for people on the autism spectrum.
Thank you for your time.