I Fear for My Fellow Autistic People: On Media Misrepresentation

Recently, a piece appeared in a major news outlet. The main premise of the article described a mother’s fear that her autistic teenage son will kill her, her other son’s wish that his brother would die, and the lack of respite services where she lives. It was a very personal piece. This article more than irks me; it plays into very dangerous stereotypes. It plays into the idea that autistic people are inherently dangerous, that we are burdens. And dangerous stereotypes in the media, whether in fiction or opinion pieces or livetweeting an autistic person’s meltdowns have real life consequences.  

First, let’s talk about autism and violence.

Autistic people have many dangerous stereotypes about violence, particularly mass shootings (the idea that we are likely to be perpetrators) surrounding us; the mass shooting one is false. However, when individually aggressive, we usually have an outside stressor. When I was in school before college, it was people touching me; the overwhelming sensory overload; the frustration of not being able to put words to all my feelings; and the constant wear and tear of terrifying social interactions and bullying. I was flailing hands, panic attacks and tears, bolting down the hall, and slapping anyone who touched me. Fortunately for me, I was not considered intimidating and dangerous for a variety of reasons, just in need of more support. 

But continual aggression is usually a sign that something is very stressful. This is a checklist that can help identify those sources. Tumblr user Lysikan, a non-speaking autistic person, has created a set of posts that can help reduce meltdowns – one of the primary times an autistic person can become aggressive while overloaded and panicked.

Next, let’s talk about her other son’s hatred and death wish for his brother, and media narratives surrounding autism, disability, and our murders.

And also what I fear almost more than anything, the murder of another autistic or disabled person by their caregivers or family members. Let’s talk about filicide. Let’s talk about how the same story occurs over and over again. A disabled person is murdered by a caregiver or family member. The media picks up the story. Sometimes they report on it as a mercy killing. They almost always talk about the burden of caring for a disabled person. The victim is a throwaway in their own story. Many people have already explained this in countless blog posts. It should be beating a dead horse, but it’s really not. Many people act on their wishes. I have heard of far less, if any, killings of caregivers by autistic people than killings of autistic people by caregivers. This is why I fear the death of autistic people at the hands of caregivers and family members far, far more.  

Finally, let’s talk about responsible journalism, disabled people’s right to privacy – and real life consequences.

I will absolutely agree that there is a need for more respite services. I will absolutely agree that more services need to happen! But there are frankly better ways to deal with this than publicly posting in a major news outlet the intimate details of an autistic person’s personal life. There are better ways to deal with this than to promote dangerous stigma. There are private actions that could be taken that would protect the autistic person’s confidentiality and not promote stigma.

One is to actively work to reduce the autistic person’s meltdowns using the strategies linked above. Another, if this resource is accessible, is to see a professional about your feelings of stress or anxiety. And – these kinds of stories are not isolated. They are patterns; “autism parents” routinely post in and on public spaces and blogs intimate details of their child’s life and how miserable their child makes them.

This is extremely dangerous for autistic people.  First, it effectively outs them to the world, and could make it impossible for them to do things without people realizing it and judging. Second, it directly leads to real life consequences. Elizabeth Bartmess notes in “Autistic Representation and Real Life Consequences” that

This is shown in several similar ways in fiction and in real life. Autistic people are represented as burdens on others, particularly their families, when they embarrass neurotypical siblings or have greater support needs. This is more common for characters written to “low-functioning” stereotypes…. In real life, we are presented as burdens as well… This has consequences. At the extreme end, media or other parents justify parents murdering autistic children. Abuse is common, by friends, people on the street, caregivers, and others such as paid service providers, foster care providers, and transportation providers. In general, people with developmental disabilities have drastically higher rates of abuse; abusers may target autistic individuals…

The Pacific Alliance on Disability Self Advocacy (PADSA) resource guide on media misrepresentation states, “Even when people don’t directly cite these stories, they seep into culture. People form their opinions and take their actions based on prejudices.”

Both the autistic teenager’s mother and this major news outlet had a responsibility to autistic people to report in a way that does not increase stigma and cause more consequences for autistic people. They chose the stigmatizing, stereotyped, and dangerous way of talking about autism. I am afraid of these stories and will continue to speak out against them. I am not afraid for myself, but for all my autistic brethren living in dangerous situations. I think of all the people that may make harmful or fatal choices because of this irresponsible news story and fear for all my autistic and disabled brethren.

Additional Resources

On Disabled People’s Right to Privacy (Especially Those With Caregivers) and Media Misrepresentations

On Responsible Reporting and How to Respond to Media Narratives of Disabled People

For Parents on Autism Acceptance, Meltdowns, and Aggression

On Filicide

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