Seattle Area Hospital in Hot Water Over Autism Ads

Q13 FOX News

Seattle Children’s Hospital was forced to pull its new ads from King County buses after complaints about its call to eradicate autism. The cherubic face of a young boy gazed out from the side of a bus which read, “Let’s wipe out cancer, diabetes and autism in his lifetime.” 

The juxtaposition of autism with tragic and often fatal diseases captured the attention of The Autistic Self Advocacy Network’s Washington chapter (ASAN-WA), who in turn organized an online campaign to galvanize opposition to the message.

Seattle Children’s received scores of emails, phone calls and comments on its Facebook page and subsequently pulled the ad last Friday, posting this comment:  “We are sorry for the hurt and anger these ads have caused – that was never their intent." 

Just like Autism Speaks with its "I Am Autism" video a few years ago, Children’s Hospital made a similar gaffe in not respecting the broad spectrum that is autism.

As Matt Young, co-leader of ASAN-WA put it, “Autism is a disability, but it is not a disease. It is not a life-threatening illness. The idea it’s a state to be wiped out has much negative impact on our lives.” ASAN champions the notion of "neurodiversity,"or autism as a burden/blessing of having your brain differently wired. 

Incidents such as these serve to re-ignite the debate between viewing autism as a disease to be cured versus a disorder to be respected. Parents of low functioning, self-harming children would do anything to cure their children of autism, while at the high functioning end of the spectrum there is more concern for civil rights and equal opportunity.

But at neither end of the spectrum is autism regarded as a life-threatening disease, even though children with autism are more vulnerable to calamities associated with their disorder, such as wandering. Fairness calls for accuracy and Seattle Children’s was rightly criticized for not demonstrating an appreciation of the nuances of describing autism.

On Monday, Katharine Fitzgerald, director of marketing and health promotion at Seattle Children’s said: “It’s been difficult because we do so much to support children, teens, and families affected by autism here at Seattle Children’s, and we’re doing amazing research at our research institute.” 

Children’s Hospital also boasts a "cutting-edge" Autism Center. The bus ad was intended to raise awareness for Seattle Children’s Research Institute and reflect the “breadth and depth“ of the institute’s research arm, according to Fitzgerald. 

They certainly raised awareness, but not the way they intended. Like many others before them, they are now aware of what a minefield it is to address autism from a solely problematic perspective.

About the Author
Susan Moffitt

6 Responses to Seattle Area Hospital in Hot Water Over Autism Ads

  1. Sue Keller says:

    “But at neither end of the spectrum is autism regarded as a life-threatening disease, even though children with autism are more vulnerable to calamities associated with their disorder, such as wandering.”

    Sorry, autism is life-threatening for the 49% of kids with autism who elope and wander away (source: National Autism Association). Add to that, that these kids often have no sense of danger and that creates an exponentially more dangerous situation for them.

    While I’m heartened by the number of high-functioning autistic people who can effectively advocate for themselves (may my son someday join their numbers), they do not speak for all people with autism. They simply cannot. To date, I have seen little empathy or understanding from them for their lower-functioning peers. It appears they really have no first-hand knowledge of the challenges faced by autistic people who cannot take care of themselves, much less articulate their needs.

    I appreciate that autism self-advocates accept themselves and wish others would do so also. That’s a normal human pursuit. However, to say that no one should cure or try to improve the life of a child with autism through whatever therapies or treatments can do so is a bit like saying the playing field is just fine for me…why do you need to try to level it for your child? If we follow that logic, we may as well do away with special education, speech therapy, occupational therapy, etc. since these things also imply non-acceptance of a child as he is now.

  2. Susan says:

    I acknowledged that calamities such as wandering are a life threatening problem for children with autism, and that parents of low-functioning kids would give anything for a cure. And I don’t think that high functioning individuals are necessarily callous or indifferent to the needs of low functioning individuals, it’s more that their needs are wildly different. The spectrum is just so vast that we need to encompass both camps and find a middle ground that is just for all concerned. Having the world at large believe autism is a disease rather than a disorder serves the interest of no one.

  3. Amy Lesemann says:

    I would like to eradicate autism. And asperger’s. And the entire damned spectrum. My daughter is very highly functioning, but I do NOT want to see this go the way of the “deaf culture” where people start arguing that this is somehow a good thing. Please. Any time people with a condition are unable to fully function in society – this needs to be fixed. Yes. Fixed. My daughter is doing well in college, but when she is suffering, hurting… her autistic issues are generally at the root of it. Please. Let’s not slide down this slope.

  4. Susan says:

    It’s very hard to talk about this stuff. Mostly we’re talking about how we as parents feel, and I want to make a safe space for my high functioning kids to weather all the stigma and hardships of autism with their self esteem intact. They like themselves and resent the notion that they need to be cured of something they are proud of. This is but one facet of the whole issue and each point of view is valid and important and they all exist simultaneously.

    My sister was exhorting me to “pray away” my sons’ autism and I told her I would pray away the burden, the crippling dysfunction of it, but not the gifts it bestows.

    This is just me and my sons from our little world and it is not binding upon anyone else.

  5. Im aspie 2 says:

    I do understand the positon of parents of children with Low Functioning Autism.

    I’m High Functioning, but for a couple of years I went to the same Special Ed class that had some Low Functioning children in it. I can certainly appreciate why there is a strong desire for a cure for that type of mis-development. The desire is very valid.

    At the other end, it is generally thought that people like Einstein and Edison and Tesla had High Functioning autism. Scientists speculate that there are a limited number of neurons to go around and that some brains devote more of their resources to the logical mathematical areas at the cost to the social areas. If we cured that type of autism the world could be deprived of some of it’s most brilliant and influential people. So this is the aspect of autism that Aspies are trying to defend. I myself have a very high IQ and may yet manage to accomplish something of significance now that I am finally getting some help to enable me to function better. Even High Functioning Aspies like myself need more resources to be available.

    I wonder if it was a mistake to get rid of the Aspergers Diagnosis?
    Classic Autism is something that it is very desirable to find a way to prevent. But Apergers is a very different critter which bestows certain benefits that are actually desirable even though they do come at a substantial cost.

    A large part of the burden that Aspies face is that they are rejected, attacked and mistreated by the neural typicals who lack the ability to tolerate anything that is not exactly like them. This too is something that needs to be changed.

    Is it even possible to get rid of the Low Functioning autism without also getting rid of the High Functioning autism? And how far are will willing to go to get rid of autism? If it turns out to be genetic does that mean that we would be willing to accept deliberate genetic manipulation with all of it’s Frankenstein and “master race” implications? Ancient mythology has it that there was indeed a previous civilization that did achieve the technology of genetic manipulation, they expiermented with part animal part human hybrids, and that this is what lead to their destruction. Now our civilization has reached the point where it too has started to do the unthinkable. Let us hope that we can find the wisdom to avoid a similar fate.

    It would be easy to dismiss these ancient myths as nonsense, but ponder one thing… These ledgends go back thousands of years but describe a technology that we ourselves have only come to understand within the last 30 years. If there was no substance to these ledgends then how could they have known that such technology was possible, long before we could even conceive of a method by which to do it?

    However, a further consideration is that the rapid change in and high rates of occurence of autism are a strong indicator for an environmental impact. We have saturated our environment — as never before in history — with endless quantities of chemicals and electromagnetic radiations that we truly have very little understanding of how they will impact us. Certain plastic containers which hold our beverages turn out to leach chemicals that affect the reproductive system. Numerous plastics are used everywhere within the food processing system, their use is quite recent. Although we may declare something to be tolerably safe when tested in isolation, nobody is doing the studies to determine what is the combined impact of the multitude of substances that are now found everywhere. Worse yet, corruption has become a large influence on the very systems that were designed to safeguard our health.

  6. Susan Moffitt says:

    Thank you for your very interesting and thoughtful commentary.

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