Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Autism, Stigma and Murder: a repost

Note: I wrote this article on 25th April 2014, and it was originally published at The Huffington Post.  It is  similar to an article I posted on Different kids of normal, but written specifically related to Autism.  
Trigger warning for discussion of murder of disabled children, and discussion of the stigmatisation of Autistic people.
April. Autism Awareness Month. And another murder. Sixteen-year-old autistic boy Robert Robinson was murdered by his mother, who then killed herself. News reportssay she couldn't cope with her son's allegedly violent behavior and the lack of support she had in caring for him. So they sympathize with her. They encourage us to feel sorry for the woman who murdered her son. They want us to pity her and justify her ending her child's life by blaming her stress on him being autistic and his "violent" behaviour.
There have been other children murdered by their caregivers over the years. Too many to name.
How do we get to this point as a society? How is it OK to learn that a child has been murdered by their parent and then feel sorry for the murderer?
Are you familiar with the term "stigma"? 
shame, disgrace, dishonor; stain, taint, blot, blot on one's escutcheon, blemish, brand, mark, slur
How about "stigmatize"?
condemn, denounce; brand, label, mark out; disparage, vilify, pillory, pour scorn on, cast a slur on, defame, discredit
There are lots of things that people can be stigmatized for. Some stigma is quite subtle, falling into the "label" category, some is more obvious and in the "denounce" category, and some really noticeable and easy to see as vilification. 
Here's what someone said to me last year when I told them I have two autistic children:
"Oh, no! So what do you do? Are they like real members of the family?"
The reason people feel sorry for me when they find out my kids are autistic is that they don't know anything about autism except that it makes them hard to live with. They know this because the media tells them.
And this is what I'm talking about when I say "autism awareness" doesn't help autistic people, and that the media has no place blaming autistic children for their own murders.
So instead of listening to the facts being spoken by autistic people and their allies, people listen to the media tell them that autistic people are violent and difficult to live with. So society moves down the slippery slope of assumption until it reaches the point where vilifying children based on a diagnosis is acceptable. 
Did you know there are autistic adults all around you? They are working as doctors and nurses, teachers, ambulance officers, cleaners, artists, writers, professors, journalists, pilots, executives, actors, sportspeople, good parents. But many of them don't tell you they are autistic because they don't want to be stigmatized.
When they were younger, they were kids who were just like Robert Robinson and all the other children who have been murdered by their parents for being autistic.
Some were nonverbal as children, some still are nonverbal as adults and are making significant and valuable contributions to society as writers and poets, and some were labeled "violent" as children and are now working with children like them as their mentors.
So why do the media report on murders of autistic children by blaming the children and sympathizing with their killers?
Well, basically, they do it because it sells. 
People want to hear that story. It gets ratings. They do it because the public wants to hear it. And for that we should all be ashamed. We are encouraging the media to help perpetuate the stigma against autistic people.
We accept these stories without batting an eyelid because we have already been primed to believe that disability is bad and we don't bother to question it.
When we sit quietly by and listen to this discourse, we are complicit in the murders of innocent people. 
When we sit silently and fail to question the assumption that mental illness or disability is the cause of violence, we support the media in their continued assault against people like my children, who just want to do what they need to -- and receive the supports they require -- to live their lives as productive and happy members of society. 
Are you happy to let Robert Robinson's death be blamed on him being autistic?
Are you happy to be part of the continued stigmatization? 

1 comment:

  1. The level of ignorance can be quite astounding. Our local paper ROUTINELY publishes pieces that stigmatize autism - and we repeatedly correct them by writing in and so on. Thanks for doing your part!


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