Dear Robert J. Kennedy:
I’ll start by thanking you for your apology for comparing autism to the Holocaust. That was good of you, since likening my child’s existence to one of the most horrific acts of mankind was pretty brutal.
Your apology, sadly, was not directed towards my son, since you went on to say, “I struggled to find an expression to convey the catastrophic tragedy of autism which has now destroyed the lives of over 20 million children and shattered their families.”
I’d wager a guess that you struggle so hard with this because you don’t actually understand autism. I’d also wager a guess that you don’t really care to understand autism; instead, you prefer to believe that autism is caused by vaccines and that autistic people don’t have minds of their own. In fact, in your recent speech in Sacramento, you described autistic children’s brains as being “gone.” It would have been nice had you spoken to any actually autistic people before making these remarks, but I guess it’s more convenient to your agenda to paint autism as the post-vaccine bogeyman who comes in the night to steal your children and ruin their lives.
While apologizing, you said that you were struggling to find the appropriate expression to convey the “catastrophic tragedy” of autism. I’ll be honest here; my struggle right now is to push aside my hurt in order to draft a response to you that is kind and impactful.
I won’t wade into the scientific facts that dispute basically every single thing you are saying about vaccines. Those who are much more educated in this field have tried to change your view to no avail, so my efforts in that regard would be futile.
Let me instead speak to you from the heart about how your words impact my family. My five-year-old son is autistic. He’s a wonderful, energetic, smart, fun-loving boy. Being autistic brings forth a number of challenges to his day-to-day life, but many of those challenges exist because of our society’s inability to take the time to understand him and the way his brain works, and therefore barriers and obstacles are continually put up in the way of his success.
You contribute to those challenges, Robert. Because of your beliefs and the beliefs of those like you, many people are unwilling to accept and embrace autistic kids and adults. Your framing of autism as a tragedy and a catastrophe directly impacts how people treat my son. You need to understand that. When you tell people that my son’s brain is “gone,” you make it impossible for them to accept him the way he is. You foster an environment where parents are afraid to let their neurotypical kids play with autistic peers. Your fearmongering means that employers will hesitate before hiring autistic adults. You frighten people with the idea that they may one day be parents to an autistic child.
My child is not a thing for you to hold up as some kind of warning or scare tactic. He is a person. And when you call him a tragedy, what you are telling him — and people like him — is that they are not worthy to be here.
I want you to imagine what it would be like for my son to someday read your words. I want you to picture him — a bright, thoughtful little kid already struggling to make his way through the world — reading and absorbing the fact that you and people like you think he is a catastrophe. Imagine telling my son to his face that his existence is the reason why families fall apart. Imagine telling my child that he is a mistake, a result of “something gone wrong,” and that he is not deserving of inclusion in his community. None of these are nice images, are they? And yet this is the message that you are putting out in the world.
The thought of my son internalizing that message is my greatest fear.
My hope, however, is that he’ll remember that he is loved, that he is valued, and that he is one of the greatest gifts my family has received in this lifetime (his little sister being the other one). My hope is that I will be part of a community that surrounds my son with so much love that there is no room for the words “tragedy” or “catastrophe.” My hope is that by the time he reads your words we will have made big strides in destructing the perception you’ve created about autism.
What I want you to know is that we will make those strides. Do you know why will be able to make those strides? The answer is simple: because the fear and hate that you spread are no match for hope, love and inclusion.
I have never doubted my son. I’ve never doubted who he is, and I’ve never doubted what he has to offer this world. And I can say with certainty that no mater what he does in life, his legacy will be more positive and more rewarding and long-lasting than the one you will leave behind.
Proud parent to an incredibly perfect five-year-old boy
Allison Garber is a communications professional based in Halifax, N.S. She sits on the Board of Directors for Autism Nova Scotia and is the mother of two awesome kids. You can follow her on Twitter at @allygarbs.