|Fred Dickey uses the smell of Bleach as subliminal messaging throughout|
his train wreck of an article on autism. Pictured are Clorox and a bucket
from their #BleachItAway campaign
The goal of journalist Fred Dickey is calculated and apparent. He’s written in this style (evil autie trope) nearly 10 years after numerous protests organized by autistic disability rights activists shut down everything from the infamous “ransom notes” campaign launched by New York University's Child Study Center (NYU CSC) to a series of horrific PSAs from misguided organizations like Autism Speaks. The media knows better than to present this dangerous view of autism by now. So we must ask ourselves why Fred Dickey wrote about autism this way at this moment.
Less than one year after the publication of two comprehensive histories of autism, the use of 1950's tropes to characterize disability could be in part Mr. Dickey not researching autism as a disability but rather imposing his personal ableism regarding autistic people into his writing. Mr. Dickey's goal appears to have been the deliberate sensationalization of a family crisis situation involving a vulnerable autistic 10-year-old and his overwhelmed mother. To the comments I've read on making this a teachable moment for Mr. Dickey, I sincerely doubt he is open to teaching nor is that a viable use of time and energy. He stands to benefit from any sort of written attention in terms of driving traffic to his article and the chance to write more on this topic and do further damage. My opinion is such efforts are a zero sum game.
This is an election year that includes great pushes to pass some frankly terrifying attempts at mental health reform by regressing to draconian systems of care, so Dickey's attempt at painting the worst portrait possible may also have a hidden agenda supporting the case for funding the return of the mental institution model that locks disabled community members away from society to be victimized behind prison-like conditions.
Mr. Dickey may have also wanted to anger enough people to force a reaction, and by that reaction, whether well-intentioned parents trying to educate him in autism awareness or angry activists calling him out on this atrocious piece of work, would serve to make this single article more prominent and more likely to facilitate Dickey being called upon to pen more controversial articles. Mr. Dickey may be using the Trump “strategy” of using shock value to gain attention. Unfortunately, his victim here is Rene Camacho, an autistic 10-year-old. No one should be allowed to do this to a child, and no parent should allow it.
The most effective protest that can be given in reaction to Dickey's sorry excuse for an article is to ignore posting any reaction to it or Fred Dickey and reach out to Rene Camacho and his mother instead since Dickey used them as props in his fake American horror story. Caring about the autistic victim and his clueless family is both the right thing to do and the moral obligation of the entire community. Reaching out and offering to educate and help the mother, son, and siblings could save their lives.
But it is also important to point out inconsistencies in this story. This kind of deconstruction of destructive content demonizing disabled family members in crisis can go a long way to correct the way other vulnerable autism families view them and reboot the entire train wreck into positive support for the autistic people in crisis being victimized by such rubbish. Here are a few things that caught my attention.
1. How does a woman so overwhelmed she cannot keep furniture or cleaning fluids safe in the house and needing to constantly disinfect because of her son's alleged behavior, have the energy to establish and run a nonprofit that repairs the property damage done by autistic kids in homes?
2. If this Rene's behavior is as described in the article, why is there no mention of his school life and how these behavioral challenges impact it? This would indicate that Mr. Dickey couldn’t find any facts to embellish there, making it conspicuous by its absence. If Rene does well in a school setting then his problems are related to his home environment.
3. The mother in this article claims to have repeatedly discussed her son’s inappropriate use of cloth towels in the bathroom with him, but claims because of her son’s autism, she has now chosen to not have towels in the bathrooms. Two interesting things not intended by Fred Dickey to come out here do once we are able to move past our justifiable outrage at the disclosure of the worst moments and private challenges of a disabled child.
a. Because she discusses having repeatedly told Rene what the appropriate use of bathroom towels are, we can conclude that Rene has verbal speech, and sadly, his mother and whoever continues the therapies mentioned in the article have not tested Rene for an auditory processing disorder. They have simply assumed he is being noncompliant because they presume his incompetence.
b. It never dawns on Ms. Camacho that her son Rene may be trying to tell her that something about the toilet paper she’s supplying for example that it is causing him discomfort, and she needs to change her brand of toilet paper. She probably has never asked him if he is having an allergic or sensory reaction to the toilet paper in the bathroom. Because her fixes are based on the presumption of Rene’s incompetence, she sees her own son as behaviorally static, and she will never accept any answer to the question of why a particular behavior is happening in the context of agency. The fact that Rene might be trying to solve a problem by behaving in what those around him view as a maladaptive way requires the presumption of his competence and respect of his agency in his own life.
4. Dickey describes situations like the replacement of a broken window glass with plexiglass, the uprooting of a tree in the context of the family not being able to enjoy their own preferred object and activities because of the autistic member. He does not discuss the changes needed to adapt Rene’s home to make it accessible an accommodate his disability. Had the changes in the house been approached from the standpoint of ADA accommodation, it would have given a qualitative difference to the article’s narrative.
5. Rene’s sisters have not been taught to engage him as a sibling. They have been taught to blame every unhappiness on their brother including the absence of their father in their lives. His activities to seek sensory input are viewed as behavioral problems rather than attempts to gain accurate input from an environment he is clearly having challenges navigating . No one is educating his sisters about his disability except to scapegoat and victim blame. He is seen as destructive rather than a disabled young man trying to gain vestibular control in order to focus. Someone needs to reach out to these people and educate the lot of them. This is happening in San Diego, CA. I hope this can be made to happen.
6. Ms. Camacho’s husband was in the U.S. Navy, where the nature of duty assignments involves long absences from family and the military spouse is expected to carry on alone. Protracted duty assignments are statistically the cause of a large rate of military marriages ending in divorce, particularly in destabilizing moments for the military member, such as transitioning out of active duty military life, which was mentioned in the article. So the ending of the marriage here being entirely laid on the shoulders of an autistic ten-year-old is overly simplistic and dangerous, even if it gives Rene's mother an excuse beyond her control for the failure of the relationship.
7. The most important trope in the article, Dickey’s use of Ms. Camacho’s anecdote of her father wishing to call a priest to exorcise the autism from his grandson should be a red flag to everyone reading this. It harkens to incidents like the death of Torrance Cantrell who suffered and died at age 8 because his mother's church was trying to expel the demon autism from him. Demonizing, othering, and reaching for unhealthy solutions to a young man whose had no outlet to organize sensory input, navigate his home environment, and interact without ableism with his siblings and parents is not going to end well. That is justification for outrage against Dickey. But he is truly unimportant. Those he used to gain a moment's attention in a content laden Internet are the people that matter.
Bad Disability Journalism: Autism as 'Genetic Devil' by David Perry
Disability Community Condemns Autism Speaks
The Ransom Notes Affair: When Neurodiversity Came of Age
Exorcising 'Genetic Devil' Autism: The Murder of Torrance Cantrell: