Autism, Apologies, and My, How Times Have Changed

I’m behind on all my podcasts, and just this weekend I listened to The West Wing Weekly’s discussion of The Stackhouse Filibuster (Season 2, Episode 17). It was a live show, Bradley Whitford was the guest, and it was so hilarious I was screaming with laughter. Brad reprises his pratfall in that episode (“I wore the new shoes you got me”) with a slide and fall on stage, and although I couldn’t experience that visual humor through the podcast, it was delightful to be reminded of one of the best comedic falls in all of television. That doesn’t have anything to do with the story I’m about to tell you, I’m just saying; this shit is fucking funny and you should listen to it.

If you haven’t seen it (go watch it), or if you need a refresher (go watch it), The Stackhouse Filibuster is about a Senator from MN who filibusters a children’s health care bill because it doesn’t include funding for autism research. In exploring the episode, this provided a springboard for some substantive discussion of autism, and we heard from parents/grandparents of autistic kids who were strongly impacted by this episode back when it aired in 2001. Autism skyrocketed in prevalence in the 1980s and 1990s as recognition and diagnosis improved. Understanding of ASD* and coping strategies lagged far behind diagnosis, however, and and in 90s and early Aughts, many parents focused their efforts on “treatment” and cure.

One of the mothers who called into the show spoke movingly about her strenuous, unceasing efforts to find a cure for her severely autistic kid through the mid-90s and into the early 2000s when this show aired. She talked about experimental treatments her boy underwent as they chased down any hope of a cure all over the country. One part of me understood and sympathized with her – if my child had been diagnosed with what I was told was a severe neurological disorder, wouldn’t I move heaven and earth to find a cure? The other part of me, the one that knows and loves so many kids on the spectrum, cringed at such unintentionally hurtful words.

We’ve learned over the last decade and a half that there isn’t anything wrong with autistic kids that they need to be cured of. They don’t have a disease or even a disorder – they simply process the world in a different way than a lot of other people do. All we need to do, as parents, friends, teachers, and co-workers of folks on the spectrum is respect their differences. We can make reasonable accommodations for each other. Moreover, their non-typical approach to the world is indispensable to the vitality of a community. Many individuals with ASD have extraordinary capacity for creativity, logic, focus, and more, and they make tremendous contributions to our society through those gifts. “Curing” autism would rob us all of something very special and irreplaceable.

After The Stackhouse Filibuster aired, many fans of the podcast reached out to let Josh and Hrishi know that they’d missed some very important context. Although that episode, and the discussion of it on the podcast, reflected the fear and lack of understanding of the spectrum in 2001, it was disappointing to many listeners that Josh and Hrishi never took a moment to say, “Of course we realize all of this is terribly offensive to autistic people, who do not need to be cured of who they are, but this is where we were as a country in 2001.” In a subsequent episode, Josh and Hrishi shared the feedback that they got, apologized for not doing better in the first place, and gave a woman with autism, Jill, a platform to speak for herself and set the record straight.

THAT’s how to screw up right. Listen to the feedback you get from the people who are in a position to know more/better than you, adjust your outlook or behavior as needed based on the new information, and then apologize. Incidentally, it’s what colleges and universities and employers around the country need to do when we tell them how shitty they are at dealing with reports of assault/harassment. It’s not that difficult – it just requires a little bit of humanity.

Good job, Josh and Hrishi, and thank you to Jill for schooling all us fools! The Prez would be proud. 🙂


*ASD stands for Autism Spectrum Disorders, the term used by the National Institutes of Health (and, therefore, in the broader medical community) to describe a wide range of “symptoms” or behaviors that often cluster together in individuals with ASD. Because a person’s experience with ASD can run a whole range from severely limiting to barely noticeable, “spectrum” has been a useful descriptor. I use ASD in this post because that’s the commonly used term and other uses of language to reference it can be a bit clunky. But I want to note that I strongly object to it because it marks these individuals as disordered, diseased, and/or disabled. They are not any of those things. They’re just different.

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