OPINION: Autism Speaks’ rebranding co-opts neurodiversity

A hand holds up a single puzzle piece.
(Natalie Bauer • The Student Life)

Autism Speaks is rebranding.

The organization celebrates its 15th birthday this year and its wish, apparently, is for a “kinder, more inclusive world.” To that end, Autism Speaks is changing its well-known blue puzzle piece logo to include a range of colors reminiscent of a sunset across the bottom of the logo.

Meanwhile, many actually autistic people, myself included, wish that Autism Speaks would shut the hell up for once.

This sunset splash across their logo is clearly supposed to remind people of the neurodiversity pride symbol: a rainbow infinity sign. The neurodiversity paradigm and movement are founded on the ideas that there are an infinite range of brains and minds and that all minds — regardless of neurology, disability or illness — are good and valuable, according to Nick Walker at Neurocosmopolitanism

But no matter how much Autism Speaks tries to rebrand as being neurodiversity-friendly, there’s no evidence they actually are. In the past, they’ve supported anti-autistic anti-vaccination scaremongering.

They spend over 20 times as much on “awareness” and lobbying as they do on “family services” — the actual programs and work that helps autistic people and our loved ones and caregivers, according to calculations by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network

They’ve allowed the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, a school whose practices of electric shocks as punishments for even the slightest infractions have led to “the imminent possibility of [people with disabilities] facing harm of irreparable nature,” as described by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, to table at their events

John Elder Robison, at the time one of very few, if not the only, autistic people involved in major decisions with Autism Speaks, resigned his position from their science and treatment boards in 2013, saying “Autism Speaks is the only major medical or mental health nonprofit whose legitimacy is constantly challenged by a large percentage of the people affected by the condition they target.”

In 2016, Autism Speaks announced that they would be dropping the word “cure” from their mission statement. Not because many actually autistic people have been saying for years that we don’t need or want a cure — but because “science” tells Autism Speaks that there won’t be a single “cure.” Yet this shift to “solutions,” not cures, writes Maxfield Sparrow at Unstrange Mind, is no better than if they had kept the cure language altogether.

Absolutely none of this is indicative of a commitment to neurodiversity or, in the words of Autism Speaks, a “deepened commitment to inclusivity” of “the diversity of perspectives and experiences with autism spectrum disorder.” And while many of these issues happened years ago, there’s been no fundamental change in the group. 

So forgive me if I don’t accept Autism Speaks’ platitudes around (neuro)diversity as genuine. Or don’t forgive me — I’m not looking for non-autistic people’s approval of my opinions on Autism Speaks, because non-autistic people aren’t the ones affected by Autism Speaks’ bullshit rebranding.

This is, to quote autistic activist and employment consultant John Marble, “like putting lipstick on a damn pig.” Autism Speaks must really be naive if they think autistic people will just stay quiet and accept their poor excuse at integrating themselves into a new world where neurodiversity is the name of the game.

It’s not that I want Autism Speaks to get with the program. It’s that I don’t trust Autism Speaks, or organizations like them that treat disabled people like suffering burdens on our family members, to change in any meaningful way or to value neurodiversity without distorting the concept beyond all recognition. I have no time or energy for groups that view me as a parasite or infected appendage on the body of my neurotypical loved ones.

I’m a human, too: autistic, neuroweird, neuroqueer, disabled, brain damaged and all. I don’t appreciate being told I should be thankful for an organization that has literally stood by groups that torture people like me rebranding to be more hip to people like me. 

If Autism Speaks wants to go forward into a bold new era heralded by the kind of radical acceptance and disability justice the neurodiversity movement has worked so hard for, fine. It’s a good goal to work for. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised at how they fix the problems endemic in their organization from the very beginning. 

But I’m not holding my breath. All I’ve seen so far is a logo I could have made in ten minutes in Adobe Illustrator and some generic platitudes about love and acceptance. Those are fine cuddly feelings for Valentine’s Day but they’re not enough to sustain a movement on.

I’m asking for — demanding — autonomy, self-determination and leadership by autistic people. We deserve better than an organization built on our subjugation and silence co-opting our movements and achievements to further its goals.

Autism Speaks, but so do autistic people, and we’re pretty pissed off.

Are you listening?

Donnie TC Denome PZ ’20 is a public health major from Sunnyvale, California. Anyone interested in supporting actual autistic people and advocacy should consider donating to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network or the Association for Autistic Community.

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