I opened my Facebook this morning and discovered that Suzanne Wright, one of the founders of Autism $peaks, has died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 69. I knew right away that I had to make a blog topic about this.
I am not sure how I should respond to this. Autism $peaks is an organization that is misunderstood by the press and vilified (and rightfully so) by the autistic community. Despite their motto being “It’s time to listen”, they have not once listened to the people they claim to represent. Their platform has always been not helping autistic people, but curing them of autism. They see autism as a disease. They do not wish to understand us. The only way to truly “cure” a person of autism is for that person to not exist at all.
Suzanne Wright started her organization because her own grandson was diagnosed with autism. She felt as though autism had taken her grandchild away from her. But that’s the thing–people like her do not realize that EVERY child is difficult to raise. Would it have been better if her child was born without autism? Not necessarily. Her grandchild would still have difficulties and struggles. And the child would have been a completely different child.
And yet, at the same time, I have to say that I actually pity Suzanne Wright. Yes, she and her organization have done a great harm to the autistic community. They have an incorrect paradigm concerning what should be done about autism. We in the autism have had to speak out against them on a daily basis. But would we have assembled at all if her organization had not existed? I’m not sure. Autism $peaks is far from the only enemy we have. We also have Generation Rescue, headed by Jenny McCarthy. Autism One has peddled snake oil for years, with disastrous results, and not just MMS. But hatred of autism did not start with Suzanne Wright. Before her, we even had Adolf Hitler killing not just Jews, Christians, and others who didn’t fit his vision of a perfect world, but also autistic people. Many of Leo Kanner’s initial findings about autism are now untrue, but for years they were accepted as gospel. But there has been much good that has happened because of that research.
I’m not saying Autism $peaks is a good thing. Far from it. Many children have died needless deaths because their parents felt they were burdens. Every year, ASAN participates in the Day of Mourning on April First. They have a livestream where someone reads the names of every child that has died at the hands of their caretakers. I watched one once and hated that these people were killed. They fund the Judge Rotenberg Center, a facility that has subjected autistic children to electric shocks. They have spread misinformation that has both harmed autistic children and led to these deaths.
But at the same time, I pity Suzanne Wright. She had people who loved and respected her. She had a family. She had children who grew up and had children of their own. But she never learned that autism was not something to be feared. She never listened to any opinion that did not fit her worldview, and that to me is the saddest thing about her. Autism $peaks had the potential to do much good for the autism community. They could have helped us. They could have done research into ways to assist those who are autistic. Instead they chose to spread hate and fear.
So, yes, I mourn the passing of Suzanne Wright. I mourn it because there was still the possibility that she could have learned the mistake she made. I mourn it because Autism $peaks could actually have turned itself around and repaired the damage they have caused. She was a human being, despite her failings.
Hatred of autism did not begin with Autism $peaks. Hatred will continue despite her death. As a community, we still have work to do.