By Alison Singer
President, Autism Science Foundation
This post is in response to Marc Rosen’s examiner.com post “Why Autistic People Don’t Like Autism Speaks”. http://www.examiner.com/x-21742-Long-Island-Autism-Examiner~y2009m9d7-Why-autistic-people-dont-like-Autism-Speaks#comments. I am posting here because of the 1000 character limit at examiner.com.
In his blog post, Marc Rosen writes, “Another huge reason why autistics hate Autism Speaks is their film ‘Autism Every Day’, in which they film their then-Executive Vice President, Alison Tepper Singer, saying that when her daughter was first diagnosed, she seriously contemplated driving her car, with her autistic daughter inside, off a bridge… By her own admission, apparently, she would have preferred to murder her own child than to have an autistic child.”
The film Autism Every Day was produced several years ago, and I still get questions about what I meant by my comments, particularly the comment about contemplating driving off the George Washington Bridge rather than put my daughter in a school for kids with autism. Everything I said in the Autism Every Day video was an honest reflection of how I felt at the time. When I went to see the schools that the New York State Department of Health recommended for my daughter Jodie, I was sick to my stomach. It was out love for her that I would never let her be in a place like that. It brought back very difficult memories of when my brother was institutionalized when we were kids. I certainly don’t want to kill my daughter. I love my daughter and am incredibly proud of her and of all the progress she has worked so hard to make. I am part of this community because of my love for her. The point I was trying to make in the film was that the lack of appropriate services and the thought of putting her in a terrible school made me want to drive off the bridge; not that Jodie did. If I had the film to do over again, I would certainly try to make that point more clearly than I did. I certainly did not mean to offend anyone or suggest that Jodie’s life (or anyone else’s) was not valued.
After Jodie and I had visited several schools that day I remember I pulled the car over to the side of the road and just cried. There was just no way that I was ever going to let her be in a terrible school like that. I was overwhelmed and shocked because I thought these were our only options. This was at the start of our journey. When Jodie was diagnosed, I didn’t know what to do. I called the New York State Department of Health, said that the neurologist thought she should go to a special education preschool, and asked them to give me some names. Given the lengthy waiting lists at most schools, try to imagine the type of state supported school that has an opening in March. Fortunately, after this terrible day I connected with other parents in my town and found a great special education preschool where Jodie thrived. We had to wait a year for a spot to open, so before she started we did a home ABA program. That therapy also helped her tremendously. I had no idea these options even existed on my fateful “school visit” day. But the truth is that after I visited the state schools that day I pulled my car over to the side of the road and really did think about whether we would all be better off if I just drove the car off the bridge with the two of us in it, and whether that might spare her the suffering that my brother experienced in Willowbrook. Those thoughts were not rational, although those feelings were real. I am not the only mother to ever experience those desperate thoughts. Fortunately, it didn’t last very long and after a few minutes I drove home. Many parents called and emailed me after they saw the film and said they had experienced the same moments of desperation. Please know that those feelings stem from love and desperation. We love our children.
I have spent a lot of time in the last year or so speaking with members of the neurodiversity community and have learned a lot from these conversations. These relationships have been very productive for me, and I have a much better of sense of the issues now. I have changed my behavior and rhetoric in response to some of the very good points people have made, and continue to speak frequently with many of the leaders of the neurodiversity community. There is still one big issue, however, on which we disagree. I do still feel that genetics research is the best chance we have for understanding the mechanism of action of autism and creating targeted therapeutics. This remains as a sticking point in my relationships with many of the leaders of the neurodiversity movement, although I do think that we have tried to be friends and continue to talk about this issue. I also don’t think that a belief in the importance of genetics research detracts from my eagerness to support research into supports and services and expansion of funding for this critical area. I have been extremely vocal on that issue at the IACC meetings.
I also think a lot of these issues stem from the heterogeneity of the autism diagnosis. I truly pray for the day to come when my daughter can blog or self advocate. She still has a long way to go in overcoming significant cognitive challenges. But I look at the type of work that Dr. Mark Baer is doing at MIT and am really hopeful that Jodie and other kids like her will someday be able to benefit from that type of research.