As I watched the trailer for Sia’s recent controversial film, “Music,” my heart started racing. The film attempts to portray a non-speaking Autistic girl — played by a non-Autistic actress — and her caregivers. However, all I could see was mockery — from the exaggerated bodily movements of the protagonist, to the overwhelmingly bright lights and flashing colors, to her caregiver’s use of the prone restraint. I felt the kind of shame I experienced as a child, when classmates would mock my flapping hands and unusual speech — someone was mocking me and people like me again. While “Music” has received widespread criticism from Autistic people and film reviewers alike, it is still the symptom of a troubling cultural trend. This trend, led by neurotypical-run groups like Autism Speaks, portrays Autistic people as pitiable burdens, who need a cure above all — rather than the acceptance and accommodation Autistic people have advocated for over decades.
Autism is a developmental disability that affects how one navigates and interacts with the world. It causes difficulties in social communication, interpretation of social cues, repetitive interests and sensory sensitivities, among other traits. As of 2020, the CDC reports that 1 in 54 children are Autistic. I am opposed to “cures” for Autism for many reasons — but not least among them is the ableist notion that someone is essentially separable from their disability. When people seek to ‘fight’ Autism or to ‘cure’ it, they do so from a position in which the essential nature of an Autistic person — who they “really are” — is neurotypical.
Because of this, Autism is framed as a kind of appendage, a monster devouring the perfect ‘normal’ child — and yes, these conversations are almost always had about Autistic children as if they do not turn into Autistic adults. Thus, the monstrous disability needs to be fought, battled, and removed from the person it inhabits. However, this reasoning is deeply flawed. I was born Autistic, the way my brain sees the world is autistic and my essential self can no more be separated from Autism than it can from my gender, race or any other immutable identity. Thus, curing me would result in the end of me. Not only do I not want to be cured and cannot be cured, but a version of myself without Autism is not myself — just as a male version or a straight version of me is not really me.
As an Autistic person, cure-based rhetoric is deeply troubling. From Sia’s new film, to Autism Speaks, to the Virginia Institute of Autism’s single-minded focus on Applied Behavioral Analysis — a controversial approach described by many Autistic people as akin to conversion therapy — treating Autism is harmful to Autistic people and prevents them from receiving the help they really need. Like many other disability rights movements, the neurodiversity movement argues that Autistic people need access to support, accommodation and acceptance, not the eradication of their disability.
Autism is a disability, but like many others in the Autistic community, I firmly believe that this disabled experience is intrinsically valuable. Yes, an Autistic life is more challenging than a neurotypical life, but so is a female life, a Black life, a gay life. There are a myriad of ways in which lives can be made more or less challenging by various identity categories. However, just because these challenges exist does not mean that those living with them lack inherently valuable experiences. In fact, most Autistic people find their lives to be worthwhile because of their disability, not despite it. Further, the root of these challenges is not difference itself, but rather societal response to difference. Therefore, the answer to disabilities like Autism is acceptance, and the breakdown of prejudice and prejudicial systems, not the end of Autism itself.
Autistic people, from those with lower support needs like myself to those with much higher support needs — like non-speaking autistic activist and poet Amy Sequenzia, and the late advocate Mel Baggs — are adamant that our lives are not full of endless suffering. In fact, we take pride in our Autistic way of processing the world. Yes, we need support and accessibility — but once those needs are met, Autistic people have lives as full and rich as anyone else’s. The idea that Autism is an “epidemic” — espoused by organizations like Autism Speaks — is ridiculous. First, one must bear in mind that Autism is not a disease, but rather a mostly genetic condition that one is born with. Second, Autistic people do not find their experiences to be lesser than the neurotypical alternative.
Thus, when films like “Music” attempt to tell stories about Autistic people without consulting any of us actually living with the condition, the work that results is inherently flawed and often incredibly insulting. When our attention, time and donation dollars go to so-called charities like Autism Speaks — which remain deeply invested in eradicating Autistic experience from the world, and painting Autistic people as subhuman — we guarantee that Autistic people will remain disenfranchised and unheard. Next time, before you attempt Autism advocacy without consulting Autistic voices, remember the slogan of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network — “Nothing About Us, Without Us.”
Emma Camp is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.