An old “friend” learns an old lesson

21 Dec

15 years ago I went online to find out information about autism. Like many parents, I didn’t know much before my kid was diagnosed. And like many parents, I’m still learning.

With the rise of the internet and, later, social media, advocacy by and for autistic people was increasing. It wasn’t new (for example, Jim Sinclair‘s “don’t mourn for us” was published in 1993). There were multiple autistic led online discussion groups, with perhaps the largest being Alex Plank’s WrongPlanet.net. It was the heyday of blogs and there were blogs by and about autistic people. It wasn’t uncommon to find out that a person who had very important things to say, and who was saying them well, might be nonverbal.

At the same time, this was a time when the anti-vaccine faction of the autism parent community was loud and the press was still looking to them as a primary source on autism related questions.

The anti-vaccine movement gained a lot of power with the false message that there was an epidemic of vaccine-induced autism. Their message was one of fear. There was a “tsunami” of autism that would ruin the world. And it wasn’t just autistics as a group that should be feared; autistics should be feared. I’ll give one example but I could give very (very) many: one anti-vaccine researcher tried to coin the phase “mad child disease” (a play on mad cow disease) to describe autism. Remarkably, a group of autism parents celebrated this researcher. The very sad reality is that these parents placed attacking vaccines on a higher priority than the dignity of their own children. They were willing to promote false and damaging ideas about autism in order to create fear about vaccines.

One of the loudest and most strident voices in that anti-vaccine autism parent group was a man named JB Handley. Mr. Handley founded Generation Rescue on the idea that vaccines caused autism and that healing vaccine injury would cure or treat autism. Mr Handley was a commenter on, and a topic of discussion of this blog since before I even read it.

Which brings us to the image above. Mr. Handley is writing a book with his son. His son has taught him that nonverbal autistics can be brilliant, and they can think, feel and learn like everyone else. And “we’ve” been dead wrong.

I’m very glad that Mr. Handley’s son was able to teach him this lesson. I’m not sure who the “we” are in Mr. Handley’s comment. It certainly doesn’t include the autistics (and many others) who’ve told Mr. Handley this over the past 15 years. Mr. Handley has always considered himself an expert on pretty much everything. Which is to say, I’m not surprised that the idea that autistics (verbal and nonverbal) can feel. That they learn.

This is a step towards acceptance. Something Mr. Handley and his community have mocked and fought for 15 years. For someone like Mr. Handley, admitting a mistake (even if he won’t admit it as his own mistake but that “we’ve” been mistaken) is a huge step.

By Matt Carey

4 Responses to “An old “friend” learns an old lesson”

  1. Sullivan (Matt Carey) December 21, 2020 at 23:04 #

    If one wants to interpret Mr. Handley’s statement not that autistics can feel and learn, but they can feel and learn “like everyone else” I will say this: the value of a human is not in whether they can feel like “everyone else”. People who feel and learn in very different ways are still people. Still valuable.

  2. Broken Link December 22, 2020 at 16:30 #

    Nice job, Matt. Do you plan to read the book when it comes out? I sometimes come across our old “friend” on Twitter, where he has gone full-blown covid conspiracy. It’s to be expected of one who is anti-science, and believes he is smarter than anyone in the room.

    All the best for the holiday season.

    • Sullivan (Matt Carey) December 23, 2020 at 22:48 #

      I’m not planning on reading the book as of now. First, giving even a small amount of money to Mr. Handley is irritating. Second, his framing of this as an “autism miracle” is even more irritating.

      I’m not surprised by his stance on COVID. He wants very, very much to be special. It’s hard to be special by agreeing with the obvious. So he takes other people’s ideas, does some high school math, pats himself on the back for reframing “herd immunity” as “herd immunity threshold” (an example of other people’s ideas) and tells us that what what’s happening right now isn’t happening because we met herd immunity 6 months ago. What a guy.

  3. Dorit Rubinstein Reiss December 22, 2020 at 18:00 #

    I am glad he decided to acknowledge his son’s abilities.

    I do not think that removes the fact that he subjected his son to things like chelation and MMS, and worked to have other autistics subjected to those.

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