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.
On Disabled People’s Right to Privacy (Especially Those With Caregivers) and Media Misrepresentations
- Privacy vs. Popularity by Amy Sequenzia at Ollibean
- Autistic Girl Dangerous: When Big Magazines Promote Perilous Stereotypes by Kerima Cevik
- On Digital Exhibitionism by Autism Parents by Kerima Cevik
- The Dangers of Misrepresentation by Lydia Brown
- Autistic Representation and Real Life Consequences by Elizabeth Bartmess at Disability in Kidlit (on representation in fiction but still very useful)
- Social Media and Privacy for People With Disabilities by Amy Sequenzia at Autism Women’s Network
- Meltdowns and Privacy by Emma Dalmayne
- The Mighty and Disability Representation in the Media by Meriah Nichols at Two Thirds of the Planet
- ASAN Statement Refuting Media Claims Linking Autism and Violence
- A Question by A Diary of a Mom
On Responsible Reporting and How to Respond to Media Narratives of Disabled People
- PADSA Webinar, “Same Old Story: Strategies to Combat Media Misrepresentation” (YouTube video)
- PADSA Resource Guide, “Same Old Story: Strategies to Combat Media Misrepresentation” (PDF)
- DREDF Media and Disability Page (includes links to other resources)
- ASAN’s Anti-Filicide Toolkit
- The Inspiration Porn Resolution by Alice Wong, Liz Jackson, and R. Larkin Taylor-Parker
For Parents on Autism Acceptance, Meltdowns, and Aggression
- Meltdowns: reduce them in the ones you love
- What is Autism? On the Autism Acceptance Month website
- For Parents – on the Autism Acceptance Month website
- Respectfully Connected: Journeys in Parenting and Neurodivergence
- Parenting Autistic Children with Love and Acceptance
- This is what it’s really like to have an Autistic child by Somewhat Amanda
- A Checklist for Identifying Sources of Aggression at We Are Like Your Child
- The Dark Side of the Stim: Self Injury and Destructive Habits by Kirsten Lindsmith
- When Autistic Kids or Teens Are Aggressive or Self-Injurious: An Overview at the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism
- If you feel like you are about to hurt or kill the person you are caregiving for, PLEASE call 911 or relevant authorities
- ASAN’s Anti-Filicide Toolkit
- On Our Backs, We Will Carry Them by Ari Ne’eman at ASAN website (2015 Day of Mourning)
- #DDoM2015 Speech by Kit Mead at ASAN Atlanta Vigil 2015
- Disability Day of Mourning 2015 by Amythest Schaber at ASAN Vancouver Vigil 2015
- Parents by Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone
- The Loss of Innocence by Leah Kelley
- Killing Words by Zoe Gross
- Disability Memorial (TW: Ableist Killings)
- List of Murdered Disabled People of Color at the Autism Wars
- When a Child is Killed by their Parent the word “But” does not apply
- Whitewashing the Brutal Murder of Alex Spourdalakis
- Mourning and Advocating for Autistic Murder Victim London McCabe
- Changing Conversations: When Parents Murder Disabled Children
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