Tony Attwood is a clinical psychologist, an author and well known in the field of autism. I cite his work often in my writing. He is very well respected and brings large crowds to conferences, so can command a large fee. He is not autistic and speaks about us from this perspective (I am aware some speculate that he is autistic but either way he others us – autistics particularly those in denial can be ableist too).
Tony Attwood is coming to Sheffield, my home town. I am very unhappy about this. I have seen him speak twice at National Autistic Society conferences and I believe he has a negative impact on the autistic population. Many of his descriptions of autistic people are based on false stereotypes and he makes sweeping generalisations that are not based on evidence. He is very charismatic and witty and that is probably why he is so popular as a speaker. The problem is he gets his laughs by making jokes about us. I saw him jokes about suicide, autistic virgins and the ‘risk’ of falling in love with us. I was sat in the audience as a newly diagnosed autistic person. It was the first time I realised what people thought of us. It wasn’t just the jokes that hurt, it was also the reaction of the professionals sitting in the audience – the room erupted with laughter. I tried to stay as I didn’t want to make a scene but I ended up leaving in tears.
I do not want this event with Tony Attwood to go ahead. There is not much I can do to stop it but I am going to at least make sure that as many people as possible know why I am unhappy so those who attend will listen to what he says more critically. Times are changing, autism understanding is improving. Tony Attwood needs to keep up. We are not going to accept professionals ridiculing us for entertainment or contributing to the spread of inaccurate stereotypes which further stigmatise us.
What can we do about it?
Firstly, I intend to blog. I am going to use a recent interview to highlight some of his views and his jokes and why I believe this harms autistic people. It is an hour long interview and so many topics are covered and there is a lot that needs to be challenged. I will blog about some of these topics individually. I will ‘fact check’ some of his assertions using the literature and my own experience as an autistic parent and autism researcher who engages with autistic people every single day.
Secondly, if this event is to go ahead we need autistic people there. The prices are astronomical (£200) and even with a discount for parents of autistic children (which only applies to some autistic people – no discount is advertised for simply being autistic) the tickets are still very expensive. We are often priced out of the market. Therefore I have set up a crowdfunder to get tickets for autistic activists. I want autistic people there, tweeting, broadcasting, critiquing, blogging and challenging. Already three people have volunteered to do this.
Thirdly, We need a protest outside the event with people handing out leaflets. I do not want to organise this. If anybody else wants to please go ahead, I will help in the background with any research or promotion that is required.
Future blogs will go into much more detail but here are just a couple of examples of the kinds of things that need challenging.
Tony Attwood Quotes from this interview
Tony Attwood: One of the issues is emotional maturity, this is someone who intellectually is PhD, nobel prize winning but they have the emotional maturity of a 15 year old so this can be quite embarrassing at times
Richard Fidler: (laughing) How about the kind of degree of romantic attention a man with Asperger’s might be able to give to a partner, a potential partner
Tony Attwood: Part of Asperger’s is having intense interests, usually for knowledge and information but it becomes a person and is called stalking.
Tony Attwood (on ‘aspie’ mums): … but again it maybe the cold touch of affection, rather than the genuine one and so that is more expected from a mum and we often find that an aspie mum marries an extreme neurotypical dad and so it is Dad who gives the affection, so when a child is upset and falls over who do they run to? They may run to Dad not mum.
Tony Attwood: … one of the characteristics of Asperger’s is having a favourite child who can do no wrong and the others feel very jealous that this one has a lot of attention
Richard Fidler: To reach that man, particularly the man with Asperger’s do you then have to explain to them the logic of the need for change.
Tony Attwood: Yes if you don’t change you are going to lose your housekeeper
Richard Fidler: (Laughter) Presumably you don’t say that when she’s in the room
Tony Attwood: No I do, and she says ‘yes you will’. (Laughter from Richard Fidler) Or she’ll say ‘Look, you’ve got to get a diagnosis because if you haven’t got Asperger’s, you’re a mean bastard and I’ll leave you’
An example of a false claim
I assume that his views on our marriages and parenting have come from his clinical work as the literature does not support his assertions. For example Tony Attwood claims that we marry ‘extreme’ neurotypicals – that is not what I see amongst the many autistic people I know and research shows we are more likely to marry other autistic people (Nordsletten et al., 2016 ).
How do these sorts of events hurt autistic people and their families?
This will get a full blog post but here is a short version: When a speaker, particularly one who is considered an ‘expert’, goes on a stage and talks about us in a derogatory fashion, othering us, laughing at us and encouraging others to laugh at us too, they send a message to the audience that this is ok. Autistic people are often bullied and excluded for their whole lives – is it any wonder when those who are supposed to be supporting us do it too? The lack of outrage from the audience at the NAS conference upset me as much as Tony Attwood’s jokes? They laughed along.
False negative stereotypes engender stigma and discrimination. This discourages openness about being autistic, and voluntary identification (diagnosis). The goal should be to create a society where it is safe to be openly autistic, so that our autistic children can have visible autistic role models. We know that ‘masking’ (trying to act like a non autistic person whether that is conscious or not) is linked to higher suicide rates (Cassidy et al., 2018). Autistic people (Asperger’s syndrome) are 9x as likely to report suicidal ideation compared to the general population (Cassidy and Baron-Cohen, 2014). Any one who is ok with autistic people being publicly mocked by well paid professionals who are supposed to support us would do well to bear that in mind.
Attwood has a large reach. People listen to his talks and believe him. Humans generally are not good at critical analysis. One talk from Tony Attwood can undo many hours of unpaid work done by autistic activists who are trying to teach about the diversity of autistic people and who are fighting for our human rights. I want to put pressure on organisations to stop hiring any non autistic speakers who treat us like this. I want Tony Attwood to change his talks so they are respectful.
I would love to hear my readers’ opinions on his views, please leave a comment. Does anyone have any other ideas about what we should do to protest this event?