Every April is Autism Acceptance month, and although it’s over, it’s always a good time to remind people not to support organizations that are harmful and discriminatory towards people with autism, namely Autism Speaks. Autism Speaks is the world’s most well-known autism advocacy organization as well as one of the largest, but it is certainly not the most helpful. In fact, it has sparked several controversies among the autistic community over the years.
Autism Speaks was founded in 2005 by Bob and Suzanne Wright after their son was diagnosed with autism. Its mission is to seek treatments and cures for autism spectrum disorders, and it spends lots of money on researching the causes of autism. On April 2, President Donald Trump made a statement supporting the organization and commemorating their annual event, Light It Up Blue, which is meant to spread autism awareness.
The clear problem with this is that Autism Speaks spreads stigma and prejudice against autistic people. They see autism as a disease and have even compared it to AIDS and cancer. In reality, autism is simply a mental condition that makes certain people go through life differently than those who are considered “normal” by society. Autism Speaks also has no autistic members on its Board of Directors, so a group of people with flawed perceptions about autistic people are making huge decisions about their entire community without their consent or input. It caters more towards parents of children with autism, hoping to alleviate the so-called “struggles” of raising a child with a developmental disability. Very few of their funds actually go to helping autistic people, with most of their money spent on research and marketing. Most of their advertising spreads harmful stereotypes about autistic people. Furthermore, Autism Speaks has been working to advance prenatal testing so that if a fetus is autistic, its mother can choose to get it aborted. This is similar to the prenatal test for Down syndrome and, in a worst-case scenario, could end up eliminating autistic people for good.
While autism can definitely be hard to deal with, Autism Speaks’ motive is certainly not the solution. Most people with autism would prefer not to be cured, because although autism does not define them, it plays a large role in who they are as people. In addition, autistic people don’t want “awareness.” They want acceptance. Plenty of people know what autism is, but not as many go so far as to understand and help people with autism. We need people to be more understanding and supportive, especially since Autism Speaks sees autistic people as less than human.
If you’re looking for alternatives to Autism Speaks that actually support autistic people themselves, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) is a great choice. Many of its members are autistic and their goal is to find ways to spread autism acceptance and to provide autistic people with better ways to cope in our discriminatory society. You can also donate to the Autism Women’s Network (AWN) and Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE), and be sure to educate yourself and others about autism so that you know what’s most helpful to the autistic community.