By now, many members of the autism community are familiar with the controversy surrounding the partnership of Sesame Street Workshops with Autism Speaks. The initiative, entitled “See Amazing in All Children,” started with a photo-op at the Empire State Building with Sesame Street character Abby Cadabby and Bob and Suzanne Wright, the co-founders of Autism Speaks. According to a press release on the Autism Speaks blog, the goal of the initiative is to,
“. . . increase understanding, reduce stigma, and demonstrate the commonalities that children with autism spectrum disorder share with all children.”
Sesame Workshop is also working with organizations such as Exceptional Minds, a non-profit vocational center and animation studio for young adults on the autism spectrum, to create content for the show. While many would agree that these are important goals, others question the wisdom of a show like Sesame Street partnering with an organization like Autism Speaks, an organization that has been repeatedly called out by many in the autism community for being unresponsive to the voices of adults with autism. There have been many articles and blog posts arguing for both sides of this issue, and the three main criticisms that continue to come up are as follows:
1. Autism Speaks is an organization that does not include any people with autism on their board of directors.
2. A high percentage of the money raised by Autism Speaks goes towards paying the salaries of the highest-ranked individuals in the organization. The money that is used towards autism research is used primarily to fund studies designed to “cure” a condition that many claim is not a disability, but rather, a different way of being.
3. Autism Speaks uses propaganda that portrays autism as a tragedy that destroys lives. By portraying autism as an enemy that must be eradicated, parents of children with autism learn to fear and fight the disorder, rather than learning how to work with their child’s natural abilities and gifts. This attitude also poisons the greater culture, leading to discrimination against autistic adults in the workplace and society at large.
The differences in opinion between Autism Speaks and many adults in the autism community are nothing new, but bringing in a loved and respected children’s show like Sesame Street has led many in the autism community to increase their efforts to have their voices heard. A flash blog entitled #EducateSesame has been launched by the group #BoycottAutismSpeaks at http://www.educatesesame.blogspot.com/. The website offers a place where concerned individuals and family members can share their concerns with Sesame Workshop. The main point of contention between Autism Speaks and neurodiverity activists seems to be whether autism is a disorder, or simply a different way of being. Most adults with autism admit that the condition has it’s challenges, and they are not against helping children and adults gain access to medical interventions and approaches that enhance their quality of life. What they are offended by, however, is the assumption that autism, in and of itself, is a “disease” that destroys lives and families. Autistic minds are wired differently, and these differences have led to many advances and different ways of looking at the world. On the other side of the debate, you have parents of children with severe symptoms, who would give anything to stop their child’s suffering, and who feel harshly criticized at the implication that their support of Autism Speaks is selfish. The difficulty lies in communication. At the end of the day, both parents and activists want the same thing – a world where people with autism can thrive and prosper, where they will be embraced and accepted, and where they have the tools and skills to follow their dreams. There are strong feelings on both sides, and these can get in the way of constructive communication. The controversy surrounding the partnership of Autism Speaks and Sesame street offers an opportunity for both sides to share their perspectives, in the hopes of finding common ground.