By now, I would be rich if I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen a story along these lines: “Johnny is autistic. When he was 4 years old, he ran around the house babbling meaningless sounds. Now Johnny is 24 and has a university degree and a professional career. It’s a miracle.”
Well, no. It isn’t. Frankly, it boggles my mind that the media, after deluging us with thousands of stories like this, still haven’t figured out that what they’re describing is, and has been all through human history, a fairly common developmental pattern. “Mute” children were often mentioned in Victorian literature. In medieval times, there were many stories about “changeling” children who had little or no speech and who were believed to have been left in cradles by fairies.
Amazingly, media companies and politicians don’t even seem to be aware of how offensive it is to describe the existence of a competent autistic person as a miracle. Just imagine what would happen if a journalist used language like that to describe any other minority group: “an intelligent black man is a miracle,” or “a Jew with empathy is a miracle.” In the unlikely event that such a story made it into print, every reader who saw it would be outraged, and rightly so. The journalist’s career would be over, editors’ heads would roll, and bloggers would denounce the appalling bigotry of the story for months. And yet, in the cause of “autism awareness,” mainstream society considers it perfectly acceptable — even noble and charitable — to describe millions of autistic citizens using this sort of insulting language. It’s truly revolting.
The only sort of autism awareness that I want to see from the media is an awareness that they are talking about human beings. But it looks as if I’ll have to wait a long time before I see any of that.
To all the reporters out there who have jumped on the autism-awareness bandwagon: When you encounter a child or young adult on the autism spectrum who can fairly be described as a bright and creative thinker, a caring and socially responsible person, a conscientious and self-disciplined honor student, and a valued member of his or her family, by all means say so. But give some thought to basic journalistic ethics, and refrain from using the word “miracle.”
Site owner’s note, July 2011: This article was written and posted in 2005, and it reflects the conditions then existing. The media have improved their language considerably since then.