Photo illustration by John Lyman



Why Autism Speaks Fits the Bill as a Hate Group

In the wake of the terrorist attack in Toronto, perpetuated by a 25-year-old autistic man who identified as an incel, the Southern Poverty Law Center added a new category of hate groups for groups espousing male supremacy, such as A Voice for Men and Return of Kings, and I applaud them for doing that.

The Southern Poverty Law Center defines a hate group as a group whose beliefs and practices attack or malign an entire group of people, typically for their immutable characteristics. The Federal Bureau of Investigations defines a hate group as a group whose primary purpose is to promote animosity, hostility, or malice against persons belonging to a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin which differs from that of the members of the organization. However, Autism Speaks is currently the largest autism charity in the world to the point where they regularly receive donations from celebrities from both ends of the political spectrum, but a closer look at how they operate reveals that they fit the SPLC and the FBI’s definition of a hate group perfectly.

Autism Speaks was founded in 2005 by media mogul Bob Wright and his wife Suzanne after their grandson, Christian, was diagnosed with autism after they received a $25 million donation from Bernard Marcus, the co-founder of Home Depot, who would go on to serve on Autism Speaks’s board of directors. The group rapidly grew as it merged with three other autism charities, all of which had problematic elements, called Cure Autism Now, the National Alliance for Autism Research, and the Autism Coalition for Research and Education.

The organization is behind multiple awareness campaigns, such as World Autism Awareness Day and Light It Up Blue, along with claims of providing resources, services, intervention, and research for the autistic community, but a closer look reveals something far more sinister, and members of the autistic community have encouraged people to avoid this organization for good reason.

Autism Speaks has faced criticism for its lack of representation of autistic individuals within its leadership. The organization’s 27-member board did not include a single person with autism, with many members hailing from major corporate backgrounds. The CEO of the organization is also not autistic. Initially, Autism Speaks was known for its stance on autism as a condition in need of a cure, a perspective that has evolved over time. Since 2016, their approach shifted towards developing a prenatal test for autism, which has stirred controversy and comparisons to eugenic practices from the past.

Controversy also surrounds Autism Speaks’ media portrayals of autism. Their 9-minute film, Autism Every Day, drew significant backlash for its portrayal of the challenges faced by families, including a disturbing statement made by a parent about thoughts of harm directed at her autistic child, a statement made in the presence of the child. Furthermore, the organization has been accused of siding with caregivers in extreme cases where harm has come to autistic individuals, with some cases resulting in minimal legal consequences for the perpetrators.

Another instance of contentious messaging was the release of a short film titled I Am Autism in 2009, which anthropomorphized autism as a life-altering entity, claiming it had a more rapid impact than AIDS, cancer, or diabetes. The film suggested that autism could destroy marriages and lead to financial ruin, assertions that have been challenged for promoting stigma rather than understanding.

Autism Speaks allocates a significant portion of its budget to fundraising efforts. Furthermore, a notable amount of their funds is directed towards executive compensation, with top officials receiving salaries in the six-figure range. The organization also dedicates resources to lobbying, raising awareness, and research initiatives. It is reported that only a relatively small fraction of their financial resources is spent on direct services for families affected by autism.

Critiques of Autism Speaks include claims that the organization has attempted to overshadow the voices of autistic individuals, particularly when these individuals establish their own advocacy groups, such as the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network. Advocates have noted that Autism Speaks’ marketing strategies are heavily tailored towards parents of autistic children, a tactic shaped by the organization’s founders who had extensive experience in the media industry and understood consumer targeting.

In addition, Autism Speaks has been characterized as a wealthy and politically influential entity. It is alleged that they have garnered bipartisan support by framing autism as an economic burden to appeal to Republicans and emphasizing the need for research to prevent autism to generate support from Democrats. The organization’s financial power, especially in the political arena, has been a subject of controversy, with some suggesting that its influence increased after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC.

Autism Speaks has routinely failed to condemn the alarmist news coverage of horrific crimes committed by people with autism. In early 2014, in Saint Mary’s County, Maryland, an autistic teenage boy was brutally attacked with a knife by two of his female classmates. The older girl was charged as an adult while the younger girl was charged as a juvenile, but both girls got unusually light sentences for the severity of their crimes. However, Autism Speaks failed to condemn this horrific attack, and the victim in this case is lucky to be alive.

Controversies surrounding Autism Speaks have led to debates about the impact of its messaging on public perception. This has coincided with a concerning trend where some parents of autistic children explore alternative treatments, some of which lack scientific backing. In particular, there have been instances of public figures, such as Pastor Greg Locke of the Global Vision Bible Church in Tennessee, espousing views that link autism and other conditions like OCD to spiritual afflictions, referencing biblical passages in support of these claims. Such assertions can be deeply troubling and potentially harmful, contributing to stigma and misunderstandings about autism.

Personal experiences with these narratives, particularly within the context of evangelical Christianity, have raised concerns about the potential for lasting psychological impacts, including religious trauma, which exacerbates the challenges faced by individuals in an already ableist society.

To foster a more inclusive and supportive environment for autistic individuals, some advocates suggest that Western governments, including those of the United States and the United Kingdom, should recognize autistic individuals as a distinct minority group. They argue that such classification could provide greater protection and support. Furthermore, there is a call for oversight organizations like the FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to scrutinize groups like Autism Speaks for their rhetoric and practices. The goal is to encourage support and funding to shift towards organizations run by and for autistic individuals, such as the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network or the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network.

However, there is a belief among some advocates that current political and economic factors, including the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court and the influence of the pharmaceutical industry, may pose significant challenges to these changes. They suggest that these entities have historically supported a medical model of autism, which views it as a disease rather than a part of neurodiversity.