Harvard’s The Crimson is reporting that a panel discussion on autism has been postponed after protests that the panel titled “Autism Awareness: Thinking Outside the Box” is “violently ableist.”
According to a Change.org petition, the main objection is that the panel refers to autism as something that should be cured and treats “neurodivergent” and Autistic people as needing treatment:
“This is not only violently ableist but scientifically incorrect. Phrases like “winning our war against autism” infer countless problematic narratives and demonize neurodivergent and Autistic people for simply existing. Adding in phrases like “how to communicate” and “savant autism” in conjunction suggest an alien-like nature to Autistic people. We are human, too.”
Harvard student Kristin King objected that “Talking about things like treating and curing autism is a really toxic narrative.” Protesters also objected to the lack of autistic speakers on the panel.
The petition also labels the views of panelists a “misinformation” and claims that even holding the panel will make the campus “unsafe”:
“Harvard is a place of knowledge and learning. Misinformation is dangerous – and speakers like Marcia Hinds share violent misinformation about Autism saying, ‘maybe if we stopped calling it Autism and called it what it is, a messed up immune system.’ By supporting such an event, Harvard is signaling that its campus is unsafe for Autistic people, and that is unacceptable.“
The objections to the panel are precisely the type of debate that is encouraged on our campuses. However, canceling or postponing this event raise troubling issues of free speech and academic freedom. The argument that opposing views make campuses “unsafe” is becoming a common claim in the anti-free speech movement.
Even if protesters cannot get the panel to change or augment the event, they can hold their own event. That is what free speech is all about. Indeed, they can protest this event so long as they do not disrupt or shout down speakers inside the event.
This event was composed of leading experts who sought to share research on autism. If they view autism as something that is best “cured,” that is a view that should be protected as a matter of free speech and academic freedom at Harvard.
This decision is even more troubling on the heels of the decision after a British Romanticism author was prevented from speaking on campus due to her views on gender.