Jenny McCarthy & Autism Part 1: If we shame parents enough, maybe autism can be cured!
I read an article a few weeks ago claiming that Jenny McCarthy’s son had never had autism, so perhaps her argument that she had “cured” him of autism through diet and other non-medical means should be dismissed entirely out of hand.
The actual article in Time Magazine is a bit more complicated than that – there’s speculation within in that McCarthy’s son never had autism, and some discussion about how parents of autistic children have always looked for “cures” that vary from dietary changes to cooper bracelets, from vitamin shots to behavioral therapy, and that McCarthy’s thing is basically that she’s famous and has a son with autism and has used her larger platform to get more attention towards her cause. Okay, I can see that.
But I don’t like it.
The reason I don’t like the methods that McCarthy is advocating for are, at the heart, simply this: I think it harms parents of children born with disabilities, and I think it harms people with disabilities.
I want to start with parents of children who are born with disabilities, and then will talk about the harms to children born with disabilities (and the adults they become) in a later post.
The biggest recurring conversation I have with parents whose children were born with disabilities is how often they’re asked, whether explicitly or implicitly, what they did wrong. What they did to make their child disabled. What they are not doing right now to “cure” their child. What is their horrible failing that “made” this thing happen to their child. Often, of course, this is directed at the mother. Did you drink? Did you do drugs? Was there any way you could tell before the baby was born? If you had known, would you have gotten an abortion? Did you know as soon as your baby was born? Did you do something? Were you working past a certain month? Did you eat right? What did you do?
Because, you know, your child’s disability is all your fault. It’s a personal, moral failing on your part, and you need to do something about it.
I see these play out as well in the shaming of certain types of women for deciding to have children. Don’t you know that children born to mothers over a certain age are much more likely to be disabled? Don’t you know that you shouldn’t have a baby if you have a disability because your child might also have a disability? Shouldn’t we sterilize certain types of women so we never end up with more of their horrible, awful, crippled babies?
What does all of that have to do with Jenny McCarthy?
Jenny McCarthy was famous before she started on her discussions about her son’s autism, and became more famous afterwards, getting on Oprah to talk about her son’s “recovery” from autism. She talked about the special diets she put her son on. She’s probably the most famous mother of an autistic child. So, the biggest thing people are likely to know about autism now is that you can “recover” your child from if it you feed your child a special diet.
So why the hell is your child still autistic? Your child can be cured if you just try hard enough.
Quick: On top of all the self-blaming that many parents with disabled children do, have society blame you as well.
Certainly that makes it easier for people to dismiss the needs of families affected by disability. Your child is like that because you did something wrong, you decided to go forward with a pregnancy, you haven’t tried hard enough.
So flounder there.
I think it’s important to separate the experiences of parents who have a child with a disability, and the experiences of children and adults with a disability. There are conflicting needs when it comes to these two groups, and I feel that there’s a strong tendency to figure that if you’re helping parents who are currently non-disabled but whose children have a disability – especially if that child is autistic – then you’re helping the child as well. There is overlap, but not as much as the general public has been led to believe.
Part 2 will talk about Jenny McCarthy’s ideas and how they impact children with disabilities, and part 3 is about whose voices we amplify, and whose are ignored.