On Autism Speaks' Suzanne Wright, the frustrated savior

Suzanne Wright, founder of Autism Speaks, made some comments at the Vatican (transcribed here at Unstrange Minds), addressing Pope Francis. In her remarks, she practically glows blue herself as she waxes enthusiastic about how awesome she and her organization are for getting people to use blue lights around the world. Throughout, she draws some not-remotely-subtle comparisons to St. Francis, of all people, who was known not only for not Othering his fellow human beings but also for seeing non-human animals as his brothers and sisters. And, lest anyone think she might stray off message, she belittles and demeans and negatively stereotypes autistic people like her grandson. As usual.

Of course, if Wright ever did listen to the autistics speaking to her and her organization, she'd stop using that kind of language. I used to wonder why someone like Wright, who loves an autistic person, would be so hell bent on refusing to seek out and listen to the very people who might have the best insights into what it means to be autistic. Autistic adults have so much to tell non-autistic people about the experience of being autistic. About how complex their inner lives are, even when from the neurotypical perspective, an autistic person can seem "simple," as Wright wants to characterize it. A lack of communicative speech or of communication that neurotypicals can recognize or quantify or understand does not mean--has never meant--a lack of a rich mental life. Intellectual disability doesn't imply an absent rich inner life, either. The inability to understand autistic people doesn't mean they're missing a piece from the puzzle that makes a person whole or missing a vowel. To speak of autistic people--and, I'm inferring, especially autistic people identified as intellectually disabled--as though they had the inner lives of a banana slug is shameful, degrading, demeaning, and shallow. Yet Wright did that. And she got a standing ovation for it, according to Autism Speaks.

As I said, I used to wonder why Suzanne Wright wouldn't be beside herself with joy at the prospect of being able to learn from the autistic people offering their insights--these adults her grandson will someday become. She'd learn that in spite of her claim that autistic people are "free from the burden of money," in reality, autistic adults experience considerable economic struggles because of the need to live off of disability, the difficulty finding jobs, the struggles of maneuvering alone, without supports, through a world that refuses to accommodate them, that harkens to the negative and damaging stereotypes that Wright and others like her perpetuate. She'd learn that rather than having "simple desires" and "simple needs," autistic people aren't reducible to anything simple but instead are people with complex needs and desires that they can't always communicate easily to people like Suzanne Wright. Why wouldn't anyone want to hear and learn from the people who are having the experiences their loved one has had, is having, may have, is likely to have, and learn all of this?

And then I realized why. Her self-aggrandizing yet groveling remarks before the Pope make it clear. If you admit that others can understand the people for whom you claim to speak, then you cannot position yourself as the savior. The Wrights founded Autism Speaks to save their grandson. When others build a bridge to understanding and acceptance, a savior is no longer needed. The raison d'ĂȘtre of their entire organization crumbles if people start building bridges past and through and around them between non-autistics and autistics. With those bridges, those connections, autistic people and their loved ones don't need Autism Speaks to speak for them. They can speak to each other just fine without it. That must be hard news for a soi disant savior to accept.