Last Friday, Seattle Children’s Hospital took down advertisements from local buses that had offended a significant portion of the autistic community. The ad read, “Let’s wipe out cancer, diabetes and autism in his lifetime,” a marketing campaign meant to raise awareness and funds to research cures for cancer, diabetes, and to find ways to help people on the autism spectrum. But it failed to communicate well.
The co-leader of Autistic Self Advocacy Network in Washington (ASAN-WA), Matt Young, posted a blog to protest lumping autism with diseases and urged his readership to petition Seattle’s Children to remove the ads. Young leads the neurodiversity movement among autistic people, a mentality that sees autism as an identity, another way of being. He expresses concern that linking autism with conditions like abhorrent cancer maligns the integrity of an autistic person. It causes people to associate cancer-like feelings with autism, such as fear. Young writes, “Respect us as people.”
In his blog, Young referenced a recent case in which a mother killed her severely autistic son. The mother chose to “wipe out” her son’s autism by murdering him. He also expressed concern that if people understood the tagline the way he did, hate speech and harmful acts done out of fear of autism inspired by the message might result.
Autism Speaks, a national advocacy organization, takes a different stance. They recognize that the spectrum of autism includes individuals who are extremely debilitated and do not have any hope of living better lives without the help of institutions like Seattle Children’s Hospital. Although Young rejects the idea that any autistic person needs a “cure,” Autism Speaks says that a cure can be understood to mean whatever treatment known or to be known that will improve the quality of life of low functioning autistic people. For some, it’s not a matter of personal identity; it’s a matter of being able to speak to other human beings.
KIRO Radio host Luke Burbank and co-host Tom Tangney represented this same dichotomy of viewpoint. Luke also sees that some autistic people really need intervention. It seems “weird” to him that a hospital endeavoring to treat autism would also want to hurt those with autism. It is possible to both respect autistic people and to acknowledge autism as a syndrome. But Tangney believes that autistic people don’t see themselves as needing help; in fact, they can resent it when neuro-typicals want to try and change them because autism is a part of who they are.
The marketing director of Seattle Children’s Hospital has apologized for the miscommunication, and issued the following statement:
“We are sorry for the hurt and anger these ads have caused – that was never their intent. We at Seattle Children’s fully support the autism community, and have therefore made the decision to remove these ads starting next week.”
The ill-fated bus ad instigated a discourse that has served to clarify autism in the media and to avoid potentially harmful misconceptions. Autism is not a disease, and some autistic people view their autism as part of their identity, rather than something to change. On the Seattle’s Children’s website, the ad now reads, “Let’s Wipe Out Cancer, Diabetes and Cystic Fibrosis in This Lifetime.”