Former Israeli FM Lieberman's disparaging remark is part of a trend that feeds presumptions of inability – with potentially horrifying outcomes for the autistic community.

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This week, former Israeli foreign minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party Avigdor Lieberman found himself in hot water (again!) after labeling those who wish to see Israel return to the pre-1967 armistice lines as “autistic.” Thanks to a quick response from the Ruderman Family Foundation and other disability activists, Lieberman quickly walked back his remarks, issuing a somewhat uncharacteristic semi-apology.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that political leaders in Israel or the United States have maligned the autistic community by using our diagnosis as an insult in one political dispute or another. No doubt few in the Prime Minister’s Residence or the White House have forgotten last year’s reveal from U.S. columnist Jeffrey Goldberg that senior Obama Administration officials referred to Netanyahu as “Asperger-y.”

Nor is this pejorative usage limited to the halls of power. Even Amos Oz, considered the father of the Israeli peace camp, accused right-wing settlers of “moral autism” in his seminal 1983 book In the Land Of Israel. What is it that makes so many prominent figures feel that it is appropriate to use autistic adults and children as stock figures in political attacks?

Much of it may have to do with the role that autism already plays in our political culture. To many neurotypical commentators, autism is un-personhood par excellence. A condition associated in the public’s eye mainly with small children and tales of pity and woe, few think of autistic brains as belonging to adults who vote, work, attend university or even serve in the military.

As the leader of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a U.S.-based advocacy organization run by and for autistic people seeking to improve our representation in conversations about us, I have seen the damaging impact of these misperceptions first hand. 

For those autistic people who were identified in childhood – as I was – these perceptions of autism can often lead to placement in segregated and sub-standard educational environments. Many autistic children face low expectations, isolation or even abuse as a result of societal assumptions that see autism and full participation in society as in conflict with each other.

For the many autistic people who discover their neurology in adulthood, this often means disbelief and even mocking from those whose mental image of autism does not include adulthood. Although research from the United Kingdom’s National Health Service documents that, even in the western world, the majority of autistic adults go undiagnosed, considerable skepticism persists. This often prevents autistic adults who had previously gone unidentified from seeking out necessary support and community.

Most seriously, for the many on the autism spectrum who experience significant communication impairments, presumptions of inability can often mean horrifying outcomes. Tens of thousands of autistic adults as well as others with intellectual and developmental disabilities continue to languish in institutional settings. Many autistic children are denied access to vital Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) technology that would enable them to communicate because of the assumption that not being able to speak means not having anything to say.

As I have learned from the many Autistic Self Advocacy Network members who utilize AAC to communicate, nothing could be further from the truth. If we stop associating autism with inevitable tragedy, we can empower a part of our community to be heard and live lives of dignity and respect.

In recent years, I have had the pleasure of working with Israel’s premier autistic self-advocacy organization, the Autistic Community of Israel. The issues they face are very similar to those we experience in the United States. Both American and Israeli cultures have a long way to go towards ensuring that those of us on the autism spectrum are supported, included and respected on an equal basis to our non-autistic peers.

In many ways, Lieberman’s latest salvo in his long line of ill-advised remarks is only a symptom of a larger problem. Public figures feel comfortable maligning the autistic community because our societies still think of autism and personhood as mutually exclusive concepts. If autistic people are still seen as belonging only on the margins – destined to spend our lives in institutions, segregated special education classrooms and public service announcements – it is wholly unsurprising that autism would be used as an insult.

If Israel’s former foreign minister is truly sorry for his latest obnoxious tirade, he would do well to do more than just watch his words more carefully next time. Join those in both of our countries that are seeking to advance equality of opportunity for autistic Americans and Israelis. We are citizens too – and we deserve real action to secure our inclusion in society.

Ari Ne’eman is the President of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a national advocacy organization run by and for autistic Americans. In 2009, Ari was appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama to serve on the National Council on Disability, making him the first openly autistic presidential appointee in American history. He is the son of two Israelis and lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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