This article is a companion piece to The New Idealist Issue Six: The Autism Issue which you can download here.
Please note: This article was originally published in The New Idealist section of The Intelligent Review site in August 2014 before being transferred to this new site in July 2015.
On May 9, 2006, the charity Autism Speaks released its first public service announcement, a video in which then-Vice President Allison Tepper Singer said that she seriously considered putting her autistic daughter, Jodie, in the car and driving off a bridge. The only reason she refrained was because she has another, non-autistic child. On May 13, 2006, four days later, an Illinois mother murdered her autistic daughter, Katie McCarron, by smothering her with a garbage bag. During later police interviews, Karen McCarron said that she murdered Katie because she would become complete and cured in heaven.
Later that year in November, two upstart autistic students, Ari Ne’eman and Scott Robertson, founded the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), now widely recognized as the leading disability rights nonprofit run by autistic people. While ASAN initially tackled issues like restraint and seclusion of disabled students in schools, they would later emerge at the forefront of the national fight against ableist-motivated crimes against people with disabilities, including autistics.
It was Autism Speaks’ founding in 2005 that spurred American autistics to action. An organization that has never had a single autistic person in its leadership, Autism Speaks cemented itself as the opponent to our movement with its 2006 PSA.
Our movement first rose with Jim Sinclair’s speech “Don’t Mourn For Us” at the 1993 International Conference on Autism in Toronto. Sinclair founded Autism Network International (ANI), the first autism organization ever led by autistic people, around the same time. The impetus for ANI developed from the frustrations of autistic people struggling to organize under existing parent-run autism organizations that stymied their efforts and co-opted their self-advocacy. The revolutionary writings of autistic activists like Amanda Baggs and Cal Montgomery laid further foundations for the autistic rights movement.
It was Autism Speaks’ founding in 2005 that spurred American autistics to action. An organization that has never had a single autistic person in its leadership, Autism Speaks cemented itself as the opponent to our movement with its 2006 PSA. The short time between the release of that video, and Katie’s murder was the beginning of a long train of cases reported in the media in which autistic people had been murdered by their parents or other caretakers.
Since 2006, we have learned of hundreds of cases in which disabled people were murdered by family members.
Since 2006, we have learned of hundreds of cases in which disabled people were murdered by family members. The perpetrators frequently face minimal criminal charges like manslaughter, and often serve little prison time, especially when compared with cases where parents are accused of murdering non-disabled children. This profoundly disturbing trend became central to the autistic rights movement with the March 6, 2012 murder of George Hodgins, a 22-year-old autistic man, whose mother shot him. Autistic activist Zoe Gross organized a vigil in Hodgins’s hometown on March 8. That same night, a Canadian man who had murdered his disabled daughter in 1993 and served seven unrepentant years in prison, made a live appearance defending his crime. He spoke alongside a mother of two disabled children who expressed dismay that it wasn’t legal for her to kill her children.
Later in March 2012, ASAN worked with Gross to organize vigils nationwide in memory of disabled people murdered by family members. The day after those vigils came another murder—this time the victim was a four year old autistic boy, Daniel Corby, whose mother killed him. Since then, the list of names that we read at each vigil has grown exponentially with each new story of a tragically stolen life. What we autistics have learned is that even as we mourn our dead, more of us fall victim to ableism.
until it is possible for autistic children to be born into a world where they cannot be murdered with impunity, it’s hard to say we’ve made too much progress yet.
There are many issues of grave importance to the autistic community. We face significant barriers to accessible housing, inclusive education, meaningful employment, or even life-saving medical care. Organizations like ANI, ASAN, the Autism National Committee, and the Autism Women’s Network have fought on all of these issues. But until it is possible for autistic children to be born into a world where they cannot be murdered with impunity, it’s hard to say we’ve made too much progress yet.
About the Author
Lydia Brown is a queer, disabled activist whose work focuses on hate crimes, police brutality, prisoner abuse, and other violence against disabled people. Lydia is president of the Washington Metro Disabled Students Collective, board member of TASH New England, and Disability Affairs Undersecretary for the Georgetown University student government. Lydia was formerly Patricia Morrissey Disability Policy Fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership and project assistant for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. You can find out more at www.autistichoya.com.
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Footnotes & References:
Lauren Thierry (Director & Producer). (2006). Autism Every Day [Film]. Originally retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0vCz2KWMM0. Full quote: “I remember that was a very scary moment for me, when I realized I had sat in the car for about fifteen minutes and actually contemplated putting Jodie in the car and driving off the George Washington Bridge. And that would be preferable to having to put her in one of these schools. And it’s only because of Lauren, the fact that I have another [non- autistic] child, that I probably didn’t do it.”
People v. Frank-McCarron, 934 NE 2d 76 – Ill: Appellate Court, 3rd Dist. 2010.
Jim Sinclair, Autism Network International: The Development Of A Community And Its Culture, in Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking, 22-70 (Julia Bascom, ed., 2012). Available online at http://autreat.org/History_of_ANI.html.
Kane, W. & Bulwa, D. (2012, March 8). Sunnyvale mom kills autistic son, self, police say. SFGate. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com/crime/article/Sunnyvale-mom-kills-autistic-son-self-police-say-3388400.php#ixzz1pfCm56hz.
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