Wednesday, I was hungry and walking to the Chick-Fil-A truck. Sitting next to the truck were two joined stands: at one stand, people were passing out shirts, at the other there was food and an advertisement for Autism Speaks. The stands were advertising an autism awareness fundraiser.
As I stood in the Chick-Fil-A line, I watched people walking up to the Autism Speaks stand and asking for information. It hurt to watch the damage being caused by well-intending people.
April is Autism Awareness Month, and it’s great to see events like the student parade that was on the front page of Wednesday’s Daily Mississippian and even fundraisers like the one I learned about while walking to Chick-Fil-A. It shows that the greater community cares about its autistic members.
But the problem is that having a good intent does not necessarily lead to having a good impact.
In this case, good intent has had quite the opposite effect.
A vast majority of the autistic community, from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) and the Autism Women’s Network (AWN) to autistic individuals themselves, have long labelled Autism Speaks as a hate group.
There are several reasons for this, far too many to list in this short article, but the key reason is that the money it puts towards research (of which Autism Speaks only spends about 30 percent of its total funding) is spent on trying to “cure” or “prevent” autism rather than actually improving the lives of autistic individuals.
This preventative approach to “dealing with” autism is in direct conflict with many of the findings of the scientific community, which has come to view “curing” autism as implausible.
Much more importantly than that, Autism Speaks’ fundraising perpetuates autism’s stigmatization in wider society. It produces dialogue on autism that is centered around “tragedy and fear” rather than around “acceptance and inclusion.”
Just as electroshock therapy, which was historically purported by non-gay politicians and “pseudo-scientific” researchers, was made to appear to the non-gay mainstream as an “effective” means of “curing” homosexuality, the non-autistic leadership of Autism Speaks is making similar appeals to the non-autistic mainstream.
The presence of Autism Speaks on campus is oppressive and even violent to its autistic community — the very community this fundraiser suggests it is “helping.”
Yet, when I asked people at the stand about their understanding of Autism Speaks (which, admittedly, was only two people), they seemed to be aware of very little about what the organization actually does and I was abruptly sent away after being “thanked” for “bringing up” information on the organization.
They claimed they were raising money for “autism research” and “awareness;” they claimed they were helping the autistic members of our community. They had great intent.
But, because they did not critically investigate the organization, because they assumed that a well-known group like Autism Speaks must be legitimate and valid, because they did not listen to the autistic community itself, they unknowingly encouraged well-intending people to donate to a group that is trying to do anything but promote autism acceptance and inclusion.
A quote from Wednesday’s DM—Eliza Mulherin’s statement that “We’re trying to show that being different is not something to be ashamed of”—is particularly relevant.
Whether participating in the Speech and Hearing Center’s student parade or in the Autism Speaks fundraiser, whether advocating for autism acceptance, LGBTQ+ acceptance or something else entirely, Mulherin’s statement is representative of the goals of all of these activists.
But, depending on the route that you take in achieving that goal, that identical mindset can produce drastically different results.
That’s why it’s so important to remember that before you can enact truly positive change, you must first listen to the voices of those you hope to help.
Brandon Lynam is a senior Chinese and international studies major from Knoxville, Tennessee.