Let’s Wipe Out Ableism, NOT Autism

Imagine it: you’re walking home from school or work, when a local city bus drives by, with a gigantic ad plastered across it picturing a smiling young boy.  The ad cheerfully asks the reader to support a pledge to make sure that you, yes YOU, and anyone like you, the community you belong to, your entire people, would be wiped out of existence within that young boy’s lifetime.

You feel sick, and afraid.  Your world feels tilted on its side as you try to regain your sense of reality.  Why are they doing this? you wonder.  Why are they saying that?  Why do they hate me so much?  And as all around you, people walk by like nothing is happening, you wonder, Why doesn’t anyone see anything wrong with this?

There are some of us who don’t have to imagine what this is like.  For some of us, this is our reality.  A friend of mine, a fellow member of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, had a reaction much like I just described after seeing this ad on a Seattle bus the other day:


(Image description: A green and yellow bus on a Seattle city street, with a huge white and blue advertisement on the side.  The ad shows a picture of a young child, next to the words: “Let’s wipe out cancer, diabetes and autism in his lifetime.”)

Some of you may not see anything wrong with this ad.  It may look to you like a simple message of hope, calling for an end to medical conditions that destroy lives.  But despite popular opinion, that’s not what autism is.  Unlike cancer or diabetes, autism is not a life-threatening condition.  Autism itself often enriches lives; it is the fear, desperation and hatred that our culture currently holds for autism that can and does destroy lives.

In fact, many autistic people regard our autism as an integral part of our self-identity.  We draw strength from understanding ourselves as autistic people, as individuals and as a community.  It is part of our brains, a fundamental part of the way we see, think, and experience the world.  It is a part of what makes us who we are, and cannot be separated from us.  When we read a sentence about “wiping out autism”, we experience that as equivalent to saying “wiping out autistic people.”

Our community is still reeling from the death of Alex Spourdalakis, a 14-year-old autistic boy, who was brutally murdered last month by his mother and his caregiver.  This kind of killing is far too common, almost a monthly occurrence.  These kinds of murders happen because parents of autistic children are taught to hate and fear autism, and see it as something to wipe out and get rid of.  Ultimately Alex’s guardians were so desperate to get rid of it that they killed their child, because when it comes down to it, you simply can’t eliminate autism without killing autistic people.

Rhetoric about autism as something to be wiped out, like a terminal disease, equating it to degenerative conditions such as cancer, functions as a very real form of hate speech that leads to disability-based hate crimes like the murder of Alex Spourdalakis.  In the interest of the physical safety of the community of autistic people, the Washington State chapter of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network calls upon Seattle Children’s Hospital to immediately remove these ads from circulation, everywhere they have been placed.  They are not merely offensive; they constitute extremely dangerous hate speech against a vulnerable minority population.  And they make us feel very unsafe walking Seattle’s city streets and riding its buses.

We don’t need or want campaigns to wipe out autism, we need a campaign to wipe out ABLEISM.  Care to join us in that campaign, and support our call to have these insensitive ads removed?  Please voice your displeasure with the ads and your support for Seattle’s autistic community by commenting on the Facebook page of Seattle Children’s Hospital (linked here), and watch for an upcoming Change.org petition, sometime in the next few days.

Autism is a lifelong disability for us to adapt to, not a medical infection to be overcome with some kind of “cure.”  Please remember this when creating ads that refer to autism, or when speaking publicly about autism.  It is not okay to talk about autism as a purely negative thing to be eliminated or wiped out.  Remember, when you talk about autism, you’re not talking about a faceless, mindless disease, you’re talking about autistic people.  Respect that fact.  Respect our community.  Respect us as people.

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