Bad Disability Journalism: Autism as “Genetic Devil”

Notes: Ableism and extremely stigmatizing language follow.

Note 2: Looking for autistic responses to this piece, if any. Mostly folks I follow on Twitter just seem tired and really, what else is there to say? Let me know if you see something I should link to here to signal boost.

UPDATE: @Erabrand on Twitter produced an angry thread. Quoted at the bottom of the post with permission.


The San Diego Union Tribune has published one of the worst pieces on autism that I have seen in awhile, right up there with The Guardian’s my autistic son is going to kill me piece. Both pieces report on the intense fears of parents of autistic kids. I believe that those parents genuinely said the terrible things that they are quoted saying, but argue that the ethics in journalism mandate two possible options.

1) Quote the parents, but also quote autistic people.
2) Don’t write the piece at all

I lean towards one, because I think it’s important to track and report on attitudes, even hateful and harmful ones. But as a journalist, one’s job is not DO MORE HARM through one’s reporting, but to provide context and nuance. I want journalists to take these extreme perspectives on disability with the same care that they might reporting on an ardent racist or sexist. You interview. You quote. You try to understand where they are coming from. But you do not write their narrative without framing it in a responsible way.

Instead, we get this:

Rene is not a criminal; rather, a crime has been committed against him by a genetic devil called autism. It’s an affliction that seems to be growing in society like mushrooms under an autumn moon.
Causes and cures are still elusive, although experts have learned a lot about this complex group of brain disorders over the years.
Autism is a disease with a broad spectrum of symptoms that can start in the womb and last into adulthood. In one common definition, it is “characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.”
That’s putting it more nicely than it deserves. You can bet Sonia didn’t write that.

Genetic devil.

This should never have been published. It’s a sign of a bigoted opinion columnist without editorial oversight, in large part, I suspect, because ableism isn’t even recognized as a real thing by vast swathes of the public.


@Erabrand’s reactions start here:

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