Whenever I address the subject of prejudice I’ve experienced in the 18 years following my diagnosis with Asperger Syndrome, I tend to get a lot of skepticism. After all, I’m a verbose, erudite intellectual. Who questions my capabilities? I’m respected by my coworkers and friends. Despite that, I concede sadly that I do indeed face a great degree of prejudice when I note my status as a high functioning autistic. Immediately one of two things happens from the ignorant: either they start to look for the signs of the disorder in me or they respond by noting I’m apparently not that autistic. It’s all too common of an experience for me.
I bring this up as a preface to my thoughts on the comments made by political commentator Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on autism. In a speech on vaccines, he remarked: “They get the shot, that night they have a fever of a hundred and three, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone, This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.” Kennedy was then forced to apologize after invoking the Holocaust, saying “I want to apologize to all whom I offended by my use of the word holocaust to describe the autism epidemic, I employed the term during an impromptu speech as I struggled to find an expression to convey the catastrophic tragedy of autism which has now destroyed the lives of over 20 million children and shattered their families.”
Kennedy is a rabid anti-vaccine advocate. He’s funded films and edited books on the matter. It shouldn’t be unexpected that he views people like myself with such disdain. Anti-vaccine advocates have at their core a fundamental bias against autism. Kennedy in particular has credibility in the public eye due to his work and his name. He reflects the views of millions of Americans sadly. So in addressing his words, I really intend to address the millions. His words require this response so that maybe one person will wake up.
First, I need to address the elephant in the room of his holocaust comment. It was inexcusable. The Holocaust was a very specific event which should be addressed lightly if at all. Comparing it to another genocide? Fair. Comparing it to Stalin’s purges? Fair. Anything else, it should never be invoked. Systematic genocide is a very specific thing. So yes, the media furor over his remarks was perfectly fair.
But I must turn to his comments. As Kennedy stakes his career and his livelihood on the link between vaccines and autism, I have no expectation of ever changing his or any of their minds. There is no link whatsoever. The science is in on that. I believe the cause of autism is most likely genetic. I see it in my father who saw it in his. Other factors may exist and merit study. Autism is not linked to vaccines though. The reason for increased cases isn’t an epidemic. It’s far greater skill in diagnosing the disorder.
I must pause on his image of a child having a fever and their life is destroyed. Inadvertently, Kennedy did a fine job of summing up the effects of measles and polio which do in fact work that way. Those diseases killed millions of children and crippled countless others. In that light, I stress: vaccinate. I was vaccinated and my life is better for it.
The image of an autistic person having their brain “gone” has to invoke a violent rage in me. I’m active on Twitter in the autism community. I know a great number of diagnosed cases who are as gifted with words as myself and many who are better. We have profound, active inner lives. We do not struggle one bit in that regard. Are our minds like neurotypical minds? Of course not, but they’re different, not worse.
Kennedy refers to the idea of shattered families in his apology. This is unmistakably the rhetoric of the hate filled yet ironically mistaken by the public as an advocacy group Autism Speaks. Autism Speaks frequently raises money by invoking the image of families struggling to deal with the burden of an autistic child. I won’t lie, autism is going to stress a family. In childhood it isn’t easy. But you know what? A lot of things about childhood are stressful. That’s how it is, Kennedy and his peers, probably without knowing malice, use this image to vent their frustration at us. “Things would be easier if you were normal.” Ignoring that teenage rebellion is a trope born of reality. In point of fact, I actually had dinner with my mother, father, aunt and her family, my grandfather, and most importantly my wife on Tuesday night. My relationship with them is fantastic! Love them all and get along great with them. Had a great time.
All of his words outraged me, but one specific image required I speak up. My life has not been destroyed by autism. It has been defined by it, yes, but I was autistic at birth. There was nothing t destroy. Furthermore, I look at my life and I can’t see how I should feel victimized by my disorder. I’ve had rough patches yes but everybody does. I graduated high school with a strong GPA. I went to college on a full scholarship and graduated with honors. I’ve turned my lifelong love of newspapers into a career. I have a great number of friends. I am close to my family. I am happily married. My life is good. I have no regrets.
Mr. Kennedy speaks of the false image of autism that society has, the Rain Man unable to function in the “real world.” It’s not inaccurate to some of us, but it ignores the multitudes of us who are perfectly happy. Even those the world fears are really doing quite well in their lives even if they aren’t what society expects.
Autism is a challenge. I mean I wouldn’t be on this blog if it wasn’t. But it’s the pulse of our lives. We are who we are and that’s great. Our lives are not destroyed. Our families are not shattered.
Our minds are not gone.