By Kayla Rodriguez
I’m the vice president and chief ambassador of Autistic Self-Advocacy Atlanta (ASAA), which is an affiliate group of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN). According to ASAN’s Anti-Fillicide Toolkit,
ASAN held the first Day of Mourning in 2012 [on March 1] as a response to the murder of George Hodgins, a 22-year-old autistic man from California, by his mother. ASAN has continued to organize the event each year, partnering with other disability rights groups including Not Dead Yet, the National Council on Independent Living, the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, ADAPT, and the American Association of People with Disabilities. Day of Mourning is a national event, with 30–40 participating cities each year. Little public attention is paid to the disabled victims of these violent acts. Media coverage and public discourse about such killings frequently justifies them as “understandable” and sometimes “merciful,” rather than appropriately condemning these crimes and those who commit them. The national Day of Mourning is a time for the disability community to commemorate the many lives cut short.
It’s a shame that it’s 2020, and autistic people are still being added to the list of victims even as we speak. Like misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-semticism, and other evils of this world, ableism kills. Ableism is the discrimination against people with disabilities.
Ableism can be as simple as slurs like the r‑word, to disability organizations claiming they are for us but their actions show that they are not, to harmful practices like applied behavior analysis (ABA) and electroshock therapy at the Judge Rotenberg Center, to downright murder.
Violence and Abuse Against Autistics
Ever since becoming an advocate, I’ve seen articles about autistics being abused, tortured, or killed. Last month a Missouri couple was charged for locking their autistic son in a bunk bed cage for hours. In the same month, a North Carolina teacher was accused of bruising a autistic boy.
I see stories like this a lot, and I also see how some of the victims I will honor(below) were treated and killed in brutal ways. New York, a police officer and his wife locked their 8‑year-old autistic son, Thomas Valva, in the garage and the poor boy froze to death. If you think these crimes only started happening in the past 5 years, then as you’re about to see, that is incorrect.
This has been happening for decades, but either because the media hasn’t covered it until recently, or society hasn’t been paying attention and/or doesn’t care– or both– this phenomenon is only just now getting attention. The media portrays autistics as violent and aggressive, when in reality that couldn’t be further from the truth. Autistics and people with disabilities are way more likely to be victims of violence of any kind than to commit it themselves.
What frustrates me when I hear these stories is why do we as a society see these stories and then go on with our lives like everything is fine? Why do we let this slide all the time? Why don’t we do something about this? Why don’t we try to save lives?
Autistic people and people with other disabilities are people, and we have lives, and they DO matter, and they are as important as the lives of people without disabilities. Society NEEDS to listen to autistic people and people with other disabilities.
We Have Been Speaking. Listen.
The disability slogan is “Nothing about us without us,” because we know what’s best for us. We’re not without hopes and dreams and preferences, we’re not the r‑word, we know what we need to live happy and successful lives. We’ve been speaking, now society needs to listen.
I resent that the narrative surrounding people with disabilities, specifically autism, is that the parents and their “struggles” take all the attention instead of their child or adult with the disability. It is especially very common in stories featuring autistic children or adults. Now, I’m not saying that parenting a child with a disability is easy. Being a parent of a child without a disability is very hard to begin with so being a parent of a child with a disability is even harder.
I will not try to belittle all that the parents of people with disabilities go through to make sure that their child can be successful adults, and what these parents do is very much appreciated. However, not every child/adult with a disability is so lucky. If you cannot accept that your child might be autistic or have any other disability, or might be in any other way different than you thought they would be, then you need to seek help and do some soul-searching to bring yourself to acceptance. That is not your child’s responsibility.
When these murders take place, the media often shows sympathy for the parents and/or caretakers who commit these murders instead of the child or adult they just murdered. When 12-year-old Max Benson was murdered by his teachers, the media portayed him as being nearly a foot taller and more than fifty pounds larger than he actually was.
The media show sympathy to parents, because to them and to society, their “struggles” in raising their child justified them outright killing the child. Their “struggles” are more important than the lives of the children and adults with disabilities. Lives that do, in fact, matter.
Even those parents who would never kill their child fall victim to making their “struggles” the center of attention instead of their actual child. I’m not saying that parents don’t actually have struggles raising children because they do, whether their child has a disability or not. But are those “struggles” really that important to silence and diminish your own child?
A Somber Start
My first event I ever went to for ASAA, back when it was ASAN of Atlanta (we’re still an affiliate group for ASAN), was the 2016 Day of Mourning vigil. I will always remember this day because not only was it where I was introduced to ASAA and advocacy in general, it inspired me to become an advocate in the first place. Hearing all the victims and the various ages they were when killed made me realize that something was wrong– and it made me want to help change that.
The murder of autistic people was the first of many problems that I learned that the disability community has, but that event was an important first step. That’s what I hope this event will inspire some of you to do: to help in any way make change so someday this won’t keep happening.
We’ve made progress over the last 40 years thanks to some amazing disability advocates like Judy Heumman, but there needs to be so much more progress made because we need allies in addition to advocates that will help us make change. You can give your thoughts and prayers, and they are welcome… but we need action, too.
One way that everyone can help is to vote. Elect officials who have a comprehensive disability plan. For reference, here are the disability from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. If you’re not sure if you’re registered to vote, you can click here to find out.
Much of the autistic community prefers the infinity symbol over the controversial puzzle piece that many “autism organizations” use. I use quotation marks because many of these organizations aren’t really for us behind closed doors, like they try to “prevent” and “cure” autism. I prefer it, too, because to me the infinity symbol means that autistics have always been here and always will be here, no matter how many times society tries to cure, prevent, and kill us off.
The life expectancy for autistics is only 36–54 years old. That is short already, but a lot of autistics don’t even make it to that age due to being murdered by their families and/or caretakers. So I consider myself lucky that my mother didn’t kill me, and I shouldn’t be.
At the bottom of this article is a link to autistic people who have been killed, and if you are able, I would like to ask you to read it and honor those people in your own way. It is very upsetting and triggering. If you feel upset or angry, you’re not alone, and whatever you’re feeling is extremely valid.
I think what was said at the March for Our Lives to honor those lost at the Parkland shooting two years ago applies perfectly here on how to remember the victims today:
“We remember them with love. We honor them with action.”
Names of autistics killed and causes of death (courtesy of ASAN).