If you haven’t heard of (or don’t remember) Judith Newman, then please read this first.
You’ve gone and done it again. Damaged autistic people, and you’re probably not even aware of it. No doubt you even think you did something good for us. But all you’ve done is proven that you don’t actually listen to us. That we can write and explain and campaign all we like but you don’t listen and you don’t change.
In case you’ve no idea what I’m upset about, I’m going to spell it out. So that maybe, just maybe, you might open your eyes this time round and see what you’ve done. I really hope you do.
My husband has had an annual subscription to National Geographic Magazine since 1990. That’s 30 years of magazines on our bookshelves. A fantastic resource which I like to skim through when I need something to read. Today the May 2020 edition caught my eye. And amongst the articles on insects and habitats and photos of penguins, I spotted an article written by you. Entitled “Coming of Age with Autism”.
My heart sank. Interesting subject but why did they choose you to write it? Why not an autistic adult writer? Or even maybe perhaps a non-autistic person who is known to write respectfully about autistic people? Why you? No doubt you have influence, with your “bestselling memoir” about your autistic son. The one where you disrespect autistic people, both within the book and during the aftermath of the boycott of it by autistic people and their allies. So, even though I was dreading it, I decided to read it anyway, just to see if you’d learned anything.
I needn’t have bothered.
Starting with your near-constant use of Person First Language (“with autism”, “on the spectrum”). I know you know why this is problematic. If you don’t, then I’ve written a handy primer on it here.
But I was expecting that kind of language so it wasn’t a big shock. I was also expecting the tone of the article to be patronising and kinda dismissive and vaguely insulting in a clueless but perhaps well-meaning way. Upsetting, but nothing setting it apart from most articles about autism written by non-autistics.
And then you struck. You named an autistic twenty-something year old, and quoted his mother. Where she mentioned his encounters with a sex worker. Really? Really?!!!
We told you. We told you when you wrote about your son’s sex life, or lack thereof, in you book. We told you. Please don’t write about autistic people’s sex lives, or other private matter, without their explicit consent. And if you did get consent, can you at least have the decency to put that in writing so we won’t make assumptions reading your writing and getting upset.
Because it really is upsetting. Knowing that you and others like you can write whatever the hell you want about autistic people, and people will read it and, even if you don’t intend to, you will promote stigma and misconceptions about us. Like thinking it’s ok to make our private lives public. Because it’s really not.
In an ideal world, articles like this would only be written by autistic people. And would be written with full and explicit consent of the subjects and not mainly consist of quotes of their parents. Autistic writers would be paid a commission by magazines such as National Geographic and would help change the narrative about autistic people.
But until then, dear Judith, could you please do the decent thing and just stop writing about us. And start listening to us instead?