If you’ve been reading my blog, you probably know my stance toward Autism Speaks by now. It’s an organization I’ve always had my share of issues with; see my past posts on the subject for some idea of why.
But this time, they’ve really outdone themselves.
Before I explain what they’ve done to make me say that, I have to provide a bit of background information. You see, back in early August, Autism Speaks sent out this press release encouraging people to submit videos of autistic individuals for use in an upcoming film project. This project had huge names behind it— most notably, award-winning movie director Alfonso Cuarón, the man behind both Children of Men and the third Harry Potter movie— and was to be titled “I Am Autism.” According to Autism Speaks co-founder Suzanne Wright, this project was intended to “shine a bright spotlight on autism,” and was to be unveiled at the United Nations World focus on Autism on September 22.
Seems pretty harmless, right? “I Am Autism.” Sounds like it might be some sort of “We Are The World”-type production, about how we’re all affected by autism in some way. And “shining a bright spotlight”? I actually had a small gleam of hope that Autism Speaks was finally shedding their doom-and-gloom message for something more positive.
Yesterday was September 22. The final cut of that video was not only played at the United Nations meeting, but also released to the world via YouTube. And it was not what I was expecting. In fact, it was worse than even the worst-case scenario that I could think of.
This is the video that they released. I’ve transcribed it below, because of course, the video isn’t captioned (something, incidentally, that I’ll get back to later):
– man: I am autism. I’m visible in your children, but if I can help it, I am invisible to you until it’s too late. I know where you live, and guess what? I live there too. I hover around all of you. I know no color barrier, no religion, no morality, no currency. I speak your language fluently, and with every voice I take away, I acquire yet another language. I work very quickly. I work faster than pediatric AIDS, cancer, and diabetes combined. And if you are happily married, I will make sure that your marriage fails. Your money will fall into my hands, and I will bankrupt you for my own self-gain. I don’t sleep, so I make sure you don’t either. I will make it virtually impossible for your family to easily attend a temple, a birthday party, a public park, without a struggle, without embarrassment, without pain. You have no cure for me. Your scientists don’t have the resources, and I relish their desperation. Your neighbors are happier to pretend that I don’t exist, of course, until it’s their child. I am autism. I have no interest in right or wrong. I derive great pleasure out of your loneliness. I will fight to take away your hope. I will plot to rob you of your children and your dreams. I will make sure that every day you wake up, you will cry, wondering ‘who will take care of my child after I die?’ And the truth is, I am still winning, and you are scared, and you should be. I am autism. You ignored me. That was a mistake.
– woman: And to autism, I say…
– man: I am a father…
– woman: A mother…
– woman: A grandparent…
– man: A brother…
– woman: A sister…
– man: We will spend every waking hour trying to weaken you.
– woman: We don’t need sleep, because we will not rest until you do.
– woman: Family can be much stronger than autism ever anticipated, and we will not be intimidated by you…
– woman: …nor will the love and strength of my community.
– man: I am a parent riding toward you, and you can push me off this horse time and time again, but I will get up, climb back on, and ride on with the message.
– woman: Autism? You forget who we are. You forget who you are dealing with. You forget the spirit of mothers…
– all: …and daughters, and fathers, and sons…
– (crosstalk: several people calling out “We are” and the names of different countries)
– all: We are the United Nations.
– man: We are coming together in all climates.
– woman: We call on all faiths.
– woman: We search with technology…
– woman: …and voodoo…
– woman: …prayer and…
– man: …herbs…
– man: …genetic studies…
– woman: …and a growing awareness you never anticipated.
– man: We have had challenges, but we are the best when overcoming them.
– woman: We speak the only language that matters:
– all: Love for our children.
– woman: Our capacity to love is greater than your capacity to overwhelm.
– woman: Autism is naive.
– woman: You are alone.
– man: We are a community of warriors.
– all: We have a voice.
– woman: You think that because some of our children cannot speak, we cannot hear them. That is autism’s weakness.
– woman: You think that because my child lives behind a wall, I am afraid to knock it down with my bare hands.
– man: You have not properly been introduced to this community…
– all: …of parents and grandparents, of siblings and friends and schoolteachers, therapists, pediatricians, and scientists.
– woman: Autism, if you are not scared, you should be.
– man: When you came for my child, you forgot:
– all: You came for me.
– woman: Autism: Are you listening?
So yeah. That was the video that they released. Not exactly the sort of “bright spotlight” I was expecting; that’s either as dark as a black hole, or else one of those spotlights that’s so bright it’s painful to look at. (Or maybe it’s more like a searchlight…)
Really, there are so many different things wrong with this.
First off, we have the same sort of rhetoric that characterized the New York University Child Study Center’s “Ransom Notes” ad campaign— of autism as a ruthless, evil monster that kidnaps children, takes their voice, and holds them ransom. It was bad enough when NYU used it, but Autism Speaks has taken it to a whole new level. We have the comparisons to AIDS and cancer (yeah, because it’s perfectly logical comparing a non-fatal condition to fatal diseases). We also have false statistics; despite what Autism Speaks seems to think, divorce is actually comparatively rare amongst families of autistics, as measured in a Harris poll which was pointed out by Ari Ne’eman.
And of course, just as in the Ransom Notes situation, there was no consideration that one of the autistic kids that this whole thing focuses on might actually end up watching the video, much less comprehending it. (Perhaps that’s one of the reasons it wasn’t captioned, the cynic in me says…)
Second, we have hasty generalizations designed to make things as absolutely gloomy as possible. Not all autistics make it impossible to attend religious services and parties. Not all autistics cause families to bankrupt themselves. Not all autistics… well, you get the idea. And yet the video’s narration frames all of these things as if they were universals.
Third, once again, there’s a focus on the experiences of parents, and practically none on the experiences of autistics themselves. Sarah at the “Cat in a Dog’s World” blog has a particularly good post on the ableism (and general fail) inherent in such statements.
And lastly, there’s the fact that the use of this footage of autistic kids almost feels like a bait-and-switch operation. If I were, in fact, an autism parent who had signed over video footage to Autism Speaks (and not an autistic adult), I, for one, would be quite irritated at what the footage ended up used for. In fact, I have to wonder if any of the parents who did submit footage are bothered by the context in which it ended up being used.
Oh, and incidentally, there is a reason I brought up the fact that this video wasn’t closed-captioned earlier in this post. You see, just on a whim, I decided to try watching the video on mute— and without the narration, it tells quite a different story indeed. Rather than looking like some dark doom-and-gloom scenario, what I saw in the muted video was footage of a bunch of cute kids, and a few autistic adults, being content to be themselves— something I’m sure Autism Speaks likely wouldn’t stand for.
For more discussion and criticism of this ad, check out the following posts:
- Left Brain/Right Brain: Autism Speaks media campaign…I am autism / The Autism Speaks bait and switch with I am Autism
- Cat in a Dog’s World: Autism Speaks & Alfonso Cuaron: Full of Fail / I Am Autism & The Embarrassment Trope / Harry Potter and the Bigoted Charity
- Turner & Kowalski: I am Autism Speaks
- Asperger Square 8: Responding to “I Am Autism”
- Zachary Lassiter: I’m Pissed!!
- A Life Less Ordinary?: What if someone did this with, say, Down’s Syndrome?
- Club 166: When Will They Listen?
- ASAN Northern Virginia: I Am Autism Video: (Autism Speaks Gets It Wrong Again)
- Ari Ne’eman: PRESS RELEASE: Autistic Community Condemns Autism Speaks’ “I am Autism” Campaign