A controversy erupted this week in Britain because of a Conservative Party politician's remark that sounded like he was insulting a rival for having autism. The controversy is interesting because it shows the ability of advocates for people with autism to deliver media scorn on a public figure who did something parents of kids with autism see happen frequently in public or on the playground: insult, disparage or ignore their children.
Here's what happened. George Osborne, who is a high-ranking member of the Conservative Party, "was accused of mocking hundreds of thousands of people with learning difficulties after he joked that Gordon Brown was autistic," The Times of London reports today. (The BBC has a report on the incident here.) Gordon Brown is Britain's chancellor of the exchequer and the man presumed to be Prime Minister Tony Blair's successor when he steps down as Labor Party leader.
As the newspaper recounts, Osborne was telling a Times columnist that his brothers called him "Knowledge" because of his memory. When the columnist "suggested to Osborne that he might have been faintly autistic, Mr. Osborne replied: 'We're not getting into Gordon Brown yet.'"
Autism advocates lashed out. The National Autistic Society released a statement saying that the use of terms like autism and Asperger syndrome as "a criticism of someone's social skills only perpetuates the confusion that surrounds the condition" which affects 500,000 people in the U.K.
Also criticizing Osborne was best-selling novelist Nick Hornby who was quoted by the media as saying that Osborne "doesn't seem to have noticed that most people over the age of 8 no longer use serious and distressing disabilities as a way of taunting people."
Hornby, it turns out, has a 13-year-old son with autism. He is one of the parent advocates at an organization called Treehouse, a national educational charity for children with autism. Treehouse started a school in North London in 1997 using the principles of applied behavior analysis (ABA). Expansion plans for the school mean it will serve 80 children in 2008.
A quick surf around the Treehouse website shows what parents and families can do to raise awareness and money and build new services for kids with autism. They can even tell a politician where to get off when he dashes off an ignorant insult.