Sunday, August 3, 2008

Clearing up a few misconceptions

Dayton Daily News staff writer D.L. Stewart wrote a column denouncing the offensive remarks recently directed at autistic children by a certain talk radio host who, according to Mr. Stewart, is so "cruel and tasteless" that he is not even worthy of having his name mentioned.

Mr. Stewart's willingness to speak out in defense of autistic children and to advocate the use of respectful language is most commendable. However, although the column was clearly well-intentioned, it contained a number of common misconceptions about autism, as discussed in the following letter:

Dear Mr. Stewart,

I am a member of the Southwest Ohio chapter of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN). ASAN is an international organization that seeks to improve the representation of the autistic community in public policy discussions, to advance the autistic culture movement, and to raise awareness of civil rights issues that affect the autistic population.

I appreciate your taking the time to write a column condemning the recent hate speech against autistic children. However, I would like to clear up a few common misconceptions about autism that I noticed in the column. First of all, autism is not a disease or illness, and an autistic person should not be described as "sick." Autism is a developmental disability that is characterized by delays and/or differences in speech and communication.

While I recognize that the parent quote mentioned in your column does not necessarily reflect your personal views, please be aware that sensational phrases such as "...looked into the eyes of a child with autism and seen the heartbreaking emptiness" have the unfortunate effect of perpetuating disability prejudice. A child with a speech delay should not be presumed to lack intelligence or awareness of his surroundings; he simply hasn't learned how to talk yet.

Research has shown that about 90 percent of children on the autistic spectrum develop speech by age nine (C. Lord et al, "Trajectory of language development in autistic spectrum disorders," in Developmental Language Disorders: From Phenotypes to Etiologies, 2004). As for the small minority who do not develop speech, many learn to communicate with others through sign language and/or typing, in much the same way that a Deaf person who could not speak would communicate.

Please consider providing a correction to your article to clear up any potential misunderstandings among your readers.


Meg Evans

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