The Dehumanization of Autism
I haven't posted in a while due to changes at work and new projects. But tonight, as I was browsing through the news, I read this article from Forbes on the murder of Alex Spourdalakis at the hands of his mother and god mother. Alex was a teen with autism who had been the subject of a media frenzy to raise awareness of alternative "treatments" by various groups. In the past I have posted my opinions of these treatments, but for now I want to talk about the perception of autism when framed in this brutal murder.
The comments that I have read, and the very subject of this article, was the impact Alex had on his mother. It was all about her, the struggle she was having with his autism, the difficulty she experienced. Sympathy was given to a mother who was "at the end of her tether", unable to cope with autism and finally brutally murdering her child and her cat. Autism was made the enemy, the mother the victim, and no mention of what her son, Alex, would have felt, wanted, or experienced. Given the same consideration as the cat, her suffering was the center of attention.
Now, indulge me for a minute while I take you through an historical journey to medieval times, between the 10th to the 15th centuries. Jews, having made their way throughout Europe, began this period with the inability to purchase land. The concept, as per Professor Smelser's Holocaust class taught every April, was that the jewish people "could not live amongst us as Jews". They couldn't purchase land unless they converted to Christianity, and the Spanish Inquisition was very dilligent in making sure Jews converted. Jews who would not convert would often disappear, and few were concerned. They were different, not one of them, and so the average person in Medieval Europe would not be concerned.
The next period saw the Jews segregated into cities, often in very specific neighborhoods. No longer asked to convert, they were isolated from the rest of the Christian community, because the creed against them had changed to "You cannot live among us". Ghettos, slums, and dense urban living became the norm for Jews, while Christians worked in the fields and owned large tracts of land. By default, Jews developed the businesses of banking, jewlery, and shopkeeping that abound in urban environments because they had no other outlet for vocations. Jews were further dehumanized, pictured with distain and distrust, as dishonest with money and only out for money.
Finally we arrive in the early part of the 20th century that saw the rise of Nazi Germany, Italy, and the systematic extermination of Jews. No longer content with segregation, the creed changed to "you cannot live". Death followed for 6 million Jews, thousands of Romini (gypsies), and 12 million Russians and Slavs. TIme and distrust had finally dehumanized these peoples, and millions of people were murdered without another thought.
During that same period, thousands of mentally disabled people, many of whom would be diagnosed with autism now, were housed in cages. They would be strapped to chairs, often bolted into place. Many would be electrocuted on a regular basis in an attempt to "reset" their brains. Pain, suffering, anxiety, frustration, and abuse were commonplace for those who were least likely to defend themselves. They didn't behave as was considered "normal", and therefore were treated little better than animals, and often worse.
My point is that the minute we start regarding those with autism as less than human, we run the risk of losing our own humanity. We become indifferent, uncaring, or downright brutal to those who are less able to defend themselves, simply because they are different. In a day and age when diversity is celebrated, often forced through public displays, demonstrations, and rallys, we as a people are seeing more murders of innocent disabled people and pity the murderers. Those who are disabled are forgotten beyond the label, their identity being taken by their disability or diagnosis. They are being robbed of their humanity, and it's not because of the diagnosis. It's because people focus more on the label than the person.
Alex deserved better than he got. His story needs to be told, his life needs to be valued. Only then will this horrific event be cast in the light it truly deserves.