Campus Free Speech

Harvard Students Slam Autism Awareness Panel as 'Violently Ableist'

The event was postponed in order to mollify students who said trying to treat autism was "hateful, eugenicist."


The Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is a teaching hospital affiliated with Harvard University. It was slated to host a panel on autism titled "Autism Awareness: Thinking Outside the Box"; that event has now been postponed due to an outcry from students.

While such subjects as "alternative ways to treat autism" and "communicating with people on the autism spectrum" probably sound benign to most people, a petition created by Harvard students accuses the panelists of promoting "violently ableist" views.

"Autism is a neurodevelopmental and neurobiological disability that is not treatable or curable," wrote the petition's authors. "It is not an illness or disease and most importantly, it is not inherently negative. Autistic people at Harvard and globally have advocated in the face of ableism to defend ourselves from such hateful, eugenicist logic.

"By supporting such an event, Harvard is signaling that its campus is unsafe for Autistic people, and that is unacceptable. We call on organizers and attendees of this event to learn from Autistic self-advocates during this time."

The petitioners do make the reasonable point that perhaps the panel should have included an autistic person. One of the panelists—Marcia Hinds—did have experience raising an autistic child, though she was the expert the students objected to the most. Hinds' bookI Know You're in There: Winning Our War Against Autism, is an example of "violent misinformation" about autistic people, according to the students.

In an interview with The Harvard Crimson, Hinds said that the title refers to her personal war against her son's condition.

"Every once in a while, on a good day, I would catch a glimpse of the kid he was supposed to be before he slipped away again," she said. "That's the reason for the title, 'I Know You're In There: Winning Our War Against Autism.' Autism was trying to steal my son and I couldn't let that happen. And that's why for me it was a war."

The petition, which was signed by more than 1,500 people, describes this thinking as "eugenicist."

The criticism worked; the center announced yesterday that the panel would be postponed and retooled.

"We are grateful to those who brought important aspects of the event to light and always intend for our actions to be respectful and inclusive," said the center in a statement. "We are pausing, deeply reflecting and learning before we consciously take next steps."

It certainly would have been worthwhile to include the perspectives of autistic people. But the student petitioners make assertions that are simply not true: Autism may be incurable, but it's certainly treatable. Some people with the condition benefit from behavioral therapy or even medication. It's a broad disorder, and people who have it experience widely divergent symptoms. Discussing strategies for treating it is not wrong—and it is certainly not ableist, violent, or eugenicist.

Incidents of activist-oriented students at elite college campuses successfully preempting discussions that do not conform to an intersectional progressive mindset are by now so common that it's impossible to report on all of them. But more such incidents are occurring every day—and feckless administrators, perpetually afraid of giving offense, are letting them have their way.