I am 18 years old, and a rising senior in high school. I am the younger sister of a 21 year old brother with low verbal autism. Anthony just aged out of special education in June, and is now home full-time with my mother. I just spent a wonderful four weeks away attending precollege at the Ringling College of Art and Design. I want to make visual effects and animation my career and Ringling is my first choice for college. This experience meant the world to me and helped me prepare for my future, which includes caring for Anthony in our later years as brother and sister.
As with every experience in my life, Anthony’s autism is never far from my mind. During my free time at precollege, I stumbled across an article in which the rap artist ‘50 Cent’ used the term “autistic” to insult a follower of his on Twitter. To add to the degradation, he posted, “I don't want no special ed kids on my time line follow some body else.” Shortly after that, there was an MSNBC report on the theatre shootings in Aurora, Colorado at the midnight showing of Batman. Joe Scarborough of MSNBC, while discussing the young suburban gunman, stated that, "these people are somewhere, I believe, on the autism scale." Reading these statements made me cringe to think that these influential people reach a large audience, and used their status to further this kind of ignorant chatter. Even though both men publicly apologized, the damage was already done.
I have noticed a trend among younger entertainers to use the term “autistic” as the new R-word. As it has become socially unfashionable to use the term “retarded” as a negative descriptive, the term “autistic” seems to be taking its place. I have heard internet personalities refer to someone as “autistic” when they want to insult their intelligence or mock their behavior. I live in a world where it is close to impossible to get proper help for my brother, and now his condition is being trivialized to being nothing more than a term used to insult. I fear the word autism will become as meaningless as current slang. With the epidemic growing, this is especially troubling to think no one will take it seriously. I face a lifetime of being a caregiver for my brother and therefore social attitudes and trends affect my life.
Celebrities have more impact than ever with the 24 hour power of the internet and social media. The trivialization of autism is impacting my generation. I have noticed it in the terminology of my peers. Shocking, thoughtless, and insensitive comments about special needs are masquerading as edgy and bold. I hear commentary that imitates trendy social attitudes, and it feels fake, harsh and irresponsible to me. Witnessing this trend makes me feel isolated. Twice at precollege, I was faced with the choice of holding in my feelings when I heard thoughtless chatter or expressing my concerns and risk ridicule. Both instances occurred during mealtimes when precollege students were expected to bond and socialize.
In the first occurrence, I heard a male student remark with laughter about a girl with autism who had psychological damage and had suffered sexual abuse. Without hesitation, I responded angrily stating that my brother has low verbal autism. With my upset obvious, he quickly explained that he was talking about a character in a movie he had seen. He looked genuinely concerned to have offended me and his expression of genuine remorse prompted me to apologize to him privately for misunderstanding him. I explained that most people are offensive with no remorse and he responded with sincere understanding. While I was happy to see a rare demonstration of humanity, I felt exposed and needed assurance from home that I had acted responsibly.
The second occurrence didn’t end as compassionately. I had made a humorous observation that I was the only one at the table without a Smartphone. One girl remarked that I was a “special snowflake” which was meant to be a playful insult. Even though she had not meant to offend me, the significance of using the term “special” as an insult was not lost on me. I cautioned her that using the word ‘special’ as an insult in social situations could offend someone and explained that I had an older brother with special needs. She casually remarked that her uncle had special needs, and she makes jokes all the time. My heart sank and I was speechless. No one seemed to notice how upset I was. I simply left the table with no explanation. I did not know how to relate to someone that could make special needs jokes while having a family member with special needs. Again, I had to reach home for guidance. My mother advised me that the population of people with special needs is just as diverse as any other population. She too had made the mistake of assuming that everyone would share the same level of sensitivity only to find out she was wrong. My mom told me I didn’t have to advocate for my brother and expose my privacy in every social situation. She reminded me that I had better ways of expressing my devotion to Anthony and that I should make the most out of my precollege experience while I was there.
I can’t relate to a “go along with the crowd” mentality that dehumanizes my brother. I end up feeling alone frequently, but I am alone for the right reasons. I could ignore my responsibilities toward my brother to imitate behavior and make acquaintances, but it would feel wrong. The dismissive attitude toward autism is at best, fleeting, and at worst a prevailing attitude – but my devotion to my brother is lifelong. I am not immune to thoughtless banter. I cannot sacrifice my integrity for shallow acceptance.
Calling all siblings -- please share your thoughts. Our voices are unique, and they matter.
Natalie Palumbo is Contributing Editor to Age of Autism.