Home > Autism, Psychology, Philosophy, and Other Deep Thoughts > A letter I sent recently to Tony Attwood

A letter I sent recently to Tony Attwood

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.


  1. December 18, 2015 at 11:56 am

    About autism humor: There is at least one famous comedian (Andy Kaufman) who I very well think could have been autistic. I have reason to believe this because one of my relatives, who went to school with him and has an autistic child and wife, feels that Kaufman, along with one of his less well-known best friends whose name I shall not mention, acted in many fundamental ways more like his autistic family members and less like the neurotypical people he also knew. When I see Andy Kaufman’s picture, he seems autistic to me as well. Maybe I’m wrong, but if somebody who went to school with Andy Kaufman and knows his autistic relatives very well thinks Andy Kaufman was autistic, then it is worth entertaining the very real possibility that he was. If he is autistic, then we would have to say that the idea that autistics have no sense of humor is patently false (and, since Andy Kaufman was Jewish, it is not as if he knew nothing about oppression, either).


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