How Salon.com Can Fix Its Aspie Problem
Dear David Talbot,
I'd like to ask you to make a significant change in your editorial policy regarding people with Asperger's syndrome and other types of autism, but first I want to thank you for a few things. As founder and CEO of Salon.com, you have made the media better, both for me personally and in general. Salon hosts several of my favorite writers, including David Sirota and Joan Walsh.
I want to thank Salon especially for the support it has given Alex Pareene, who is consistently entertaining and smart. His analysis of politics is often downright hilarious, but he always seems to come from a perspective where people and morality matter.
And, of course, I am most grateful for your support of Glenn Greenwald. I care very much that our government respect the rights of our citizens, and his work is crucial in getting people to at least notice that it is subverting civil liberties in ways that should alarm us.
My domestic partner Max and I were lucky enough to see the talk that you recently hosted in San Francisco with Glenn, and I also want thank you specifically for making that event free.
And I want to say thank you for the way that Salon has treated Glenn and other gay writers. His sexual orientation is part of what he writes when it is relevant, but he is never pigeonholed by it. You've really modeled media with a respectful attitude toward gay people, both as readers and as writers. I hope that you will continue to expand your coverage of gay issues, especially as gay publications are closing and losing staff.
And I hope that you will begin to encourage in your writers and editors an attitude toward autistic people that is similar to the one Salon takes toward gay people. Your site shown more responsibility than some other media outlets, especially in taking down Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s piece connecting autism and vaccines.
But I wish you treated autistic people in the same way you treat gay people: as real human beings whose voices deserve to be heard and who deserve respect. I am both gay and autistic, and I wish your site would adopt the same sort of progressive attitude toward me as someone whose neurology is unusual as you have toward me as someone whose sexual orientation is unusual.
I was very disappointed yesterday to read this update to Andrew O'Hehir's story about why Brett Ratner needed to do as he finally did, and step down from the Academy Awards:
UPDATE: See the comments section below for a discussion of my reference to Asperger's syndrome, which has now been rephrased.
O'Hehir had initially suggested that Lars von Trier's behavior was similar to someone with Asperger's syndrome when von Trier said he was a Nazi and sympathized with Hitler. It is to the credit of Salon's readership that criticism came quickly and strongly when he did this. It is to the writer's credit that he revised the piece when he recognized that he had given offense.
But the reasoning he gives for doing doing disappoints me almost as much as the original insensitive comment:
Here's what I need to apologize for: Introducing a loaded term like that in such a vague context that it distracted at least some readers from a post that was supposed to be about Brett Ratner. So I'm going to rephrase it.
None of this is relevant to the Ratner issue at all, but like Silenced I know about Asperger's from immediate family experience. Let's leave it there.
I believe that he did not intend to give offense. But I don't think he understands that he casually said that members of a despised minority group are somehow inherently similar to people who identify with Hitler. I don't think he realizes the extent to which the media unfairly propagates negative images of people with Asperger's syndrome, or the extent to which family members of people with autism, like himself, are the primary sources of those negative images.
When Autism Speaks launched, one of its first major media projects was a film called "Autism Every Day". I've written a lot about this movie, which deliberately depicts having a child with autism as being a fate worse than death. And it was produced by the family members of autistic people. So was the truly terrible special series that Robert MacNeil came out of retirement to do last year for PBS. So was the awful essay by Kristina Lakes that Salon chose to promote a couple of months ago.
This week, Salon also posted yet another piece about how having a child with autism is a fate worse than death. "Autism Every Day" still shapes the narrative that defines people with autism to the outer world. And in this case, we aren't talking bout a nonverbal child. This is a difficult four-year-old aspie:
I take him to the pediatrician. I have to tell elaborate lies about where we're going, because by that time, doctors scare him. When he got his shots for preschool, he cried and screamed for a half-hour straight. Once we pull into the parking lot, I have to bribe him with money -- a lot of it -- just to get him out of the car. "I want paper money. No metal," he says.
After I explain the bathroom problem, the pediatrician tells me I should make my son sit on the toilet after each meal for approximately 10 minutes. I pay my $50 copay and walk out the door. That night, I find out that 10 minutes is a long time when you're yelling, "Sit there, damn it! Sit there!" When he finally does go, the toilet is smeared with feces. I assure my husband that it was just a mistake; our son is not smearing feces, he is not destined to become an ax murderer. I believe this to be true. No, I need this to be true. Desperately.
I don't have any real problem with Kristina Lakes writing this. It's her life. I hope that when her son reads it, he doesn't hate himself, but she has the right to tell her story on her own terms.
My problem comes in Salon choosing this as the story they want their readers to get about what kids with Aspergers are like and how their parents feel about them.
And then there's the shit. He is sitting on the toilet, with his mother literally yelling and swearing at him. He smears his shit around a little. Here's a hint: if he grows up to be an ax murderer, it will have a lot more to do his mother lying to him, bribing him, swearing at him, and yelling at him than what he does to try to communicate to her that that is not a nice way to act, even if shit is the only medium she is allowing him to express himself with.
And just as I think Salon should be proudest of Glenn Greenwald's work, I was especially disappointed by the casual bigotry about people with Aspergers that was part of his award winning coverage of Bradley Manning. He referred to aspie Adrian Lamo as a mental-illness sufferer, and suggested that Aspergers itself is just a fad:
Lamo claimed he was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a somewhat fashionable autism diagnosis which many stars in the computer world have also claimed.
Another problem with Salon's approach to Asperger's syndrome is that you tend to ignore positive stories about us. I do not believe that Salon's writer's made any mention of Laurent Mottron's commentary in Nature last week, which said that autism brings advantages and should not always be thought of as a disability. It's not a big deal that Salon ignored it (and I'm not positive that you did), but please notice how many media outlets thought the story was worthy of consideration.
Also please look at the difference between this profile of Dan Harmon by Brian Raftery of Wired and the one that Matt Zoller Seitz wrote for you. Raftery talks about how Harmon believes that he is on the autism spectrum, and lets readers see how that gives the producer of Community both advantages and challenges. Zoller Seitz ignored the issue of Aspergers entirely, even though one of Community's characters, like its creator, probably has it.
Please take the time to read Mottron's piece, and please encourage your editors to read it as well. Ask your writers to keep their eyes open to stories where autism is a positive.
And keep please give consideration to letting autistic people tell our own stories to your readers.
I would like to see l reputable publications adopt as a standard that they would always talk to people who have autism or Asperger's and include our opinion, whenever they write about us. Instead, they tend to feel that their duty has been done if they talk only to experts and family members.
And that's not right.
The ultimate authorities on autism are people who have it. Our opinions are always relevant when people write about us. We should always be given the chance to give our side of the story.
And we rarely are. The same issue of Nature that featured Mottron's commentary also had articles about two of the most polarizing figures in autism research, Alison Singer and Simon Baron-Cohen. And in neither case did they bother to include the opinion of a single person who actually has the condition they study.
Please, do for autistic people what Salon has done for gay people: include us in the conversation. Take us seriously. Listen to us, even when we aren't talking about autism. Give our voices space.
Again, I will appreciate Salon, even if you nothing changes in your coverage of autistic people. Everybody has blind spots. I just happen to live in one of yours.