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  • Writer's pictureChris Wingate

Don't frame autism as a tragedy

Many of us do it, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. But, as we continue to accept and normalize autism and being autistic, we should seek to stop framing autism as a tragedy.

It is largely a neurotypical viewpoint to see autism as a tragedy–I don't think I'm speaking particularly out of line when I say that most people with autism reject the idea that they are walking tragedies and that their lives are significantly worse simply for having autism. (And if they do believe their lives are significantly worse, their reason for that is probably because they have to exist in a world which doesn't accommodate or understand them–not because they're autistic.) There is a diversity of opinion among autistic people, but not on this subject. If you're on the fence about whether autism should be framed in this way, simply being respectful of how autistic people feel about this should probably be sufficient to move you off of the fence.

But even if we exclude (for whatever reason) autistic people's judgements on whether or not what they experience is a tragedy, framing autism in this way is simply not good.

Even at its most harmless, when we treat autism as a tragedy, we are essentially saying autism cannot coexist with a better world–and in doing so we perpetuate the stigma of being autistic in the first place. Instead of working with the good and overcoming the bad, we reinforce the perception that autism as a whole must be solved or cured. We communicate that the only "good" autistic person is one who suppresses being autistic entirely or conforms to what is expected by neurotypical society.

But at its worst, treating autism as a tragedy can lead to devastating consequences, particularly for children with autism. When autism is framed in this manner, we give room for meaning parents to hurt or kill their own children in an effort to "spare" the child from a hypothetical worse life or to spare themselves a headache of raising an autistic child. And, alarmingly, such an outcome is more common than you might think. In a previous blog article, I quoted an article titled Does Language Matter? Identity-First Versus Person-First Language Use in Autism Research: A Response to Vivanti, which noted:

Autism is a risk factor for ‘altruistic’ filicide and in a review of 26 filicide-suicides reported in newspapers between 1982 and 2010 in the USA, 54% of victims were autistic, despite making up between only 1 and 2% of the population. In the past five years ‘over 650 people with disabilities have been murdered by their parents, relatives or caregivers’.

The same article also observes how such murders are often specifically inspired by a fear of autism or a motivation to free an autistic child of their autism by killing them:

McGuire highlights how in cases of filicide, parents often fall back on the same linguistic separation—I loved my child very much, but I hated autism, and wanted autism out of my life. More disturbing, was an ideology that by killing an autistic child, the child would somehow be complete (non-autistic) in heaven. This is clear in testimony on the killing of Katie McCarron, in which the mother claims she was not killing her autistic daughter, but rather autism itself.

So this is not merely an isolated series of incidents, and it is easy to see how framing autism as a tragedy can play into a parent's belief that their child must be saved from being autistic.

With this in mind: why frame autism as a tragedy, and play into something potentially harmful which is done over the voices of autistic people themselves?

Why not instead celebrate autism for the uniqueness it can give a person, or for the abilities it can give them?

As Jim Sinclair said in Don't Mourn for Us:

Autism is a way of being. [...] It is not possible to separate the autism from the person--and if it were possible, the person you'd have left would not be the same person you started with.

I and many others cannot be separated from the autism that makes us who we are, and we are not tragedies for being that way. For our sake, and the sake of other autistic people, consider this small tweak in your language when speaking about autism.


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