Ethics in Journalism: Autism and Fear

Late last week, The Guardian published a piece by the mother of an autistic boy with a clickbait headline that she’s afraid her 14-year-old son will kill her. You can Google the piece if you like. She describes a child who is prone to violence, mourns the lack of respite care, and claims to fear for her life and the life of the rest of her family.

The piece is descriptive, offering a portrait of her life, rather than persuasive. It doesn’t ask you, the reader, to do anything. It doesn’t ask the government (UK, I think) to implement more respite policies explicitly. The woman does suggest that she needs more respite care – and surely she does – but respite care a few more nights or afternoons a week is not a response to what is being presented here as a life-threatening situation.

Again: I have nothing but sympathy for this woman. I also have sympathy for her son, who is not given any kind of opportunity to be represented here. All stories deserve a chance to be told, but told how? With what consequence? If you are going to risk spreading stigma against autistic people, which is the major risk here, what’s the payoff for doing so other than clicks and the pornographic feeling of feeling sympathy for someone else’s tragedy?

Kit Mead (follow them on Twitter!), who is autistic, wrote a response: “I Fear for My Fellow Autistic People.” Please go read the whole thing. In it, they point out that while autistic people killing their parents is rare (it has happened, for example in 2009), caregivers killing their autistic children is distressingly common.

And also what I fear almost more than anything, the murder of another autistic or disabled person by their caregivers or family members. Let’s talk about filicide. Let’s talk about how the same story occurs over and over again. A disabled person is murdered by a caregiver or family member. The media picks up the story. Sometimes they report on it as a mercy killing. They almost always talk about the burden of caring for a disabled person. The victim is a throwaway in their own story. Many people have already explained this in countless blog posts. It should be beating a dead horse, but it’s really not. Many people act on their wishes. I have heard of far less, if any, killings of caregivers by autistic people than killings of autistic people by caregivers. This is why I fear the death of autistic people at the hands of caregivers and family members far, far more.

I don’t think The Guardian made the correct ethical choice in publishing this story in this way. It’s not going to result in policy changes that make this woman’s life better. It is going to increase stigma around autism.

Go read Mead’s post and note especially the outstanding list of resources at the bottom.

Action: Contact the Guardian Reader’s Editor over Email or Twitter.

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