Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Autism groups clash over National Council on Disability nominee

President Obama nominated eight people to serve on the National Council on Disability. All but one have been confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Ari Ne'eman, a 22-year old man with Asperger's Syndrome, has stirred up enough controversy that his appointment has been blocked by one or more Senators.

Ne'eman is the President of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) based in New Jersey. He is known for his views on neurodiversity, the idea that people with autism and other disabilities represent diversity in the broad spectrum of human behavior and thought. Attempts to treat and cure them, he believes, are not only unnecessary, but may lead to their eugenic elimination. He emphasizes working toward acceptance, integration, and enforcement of the rights of people with disabilities. Ne'eman and ASAN believe that funds spent on treatment and cures for autism should be diverted to the goals that ASAN promotes.

Other autism groups, such as Cure Autism Now and the Autism Action Coalition, object to Ne'eman's opposition to autism research. And who can blame them? After all, research into conditions such as juvenile diabetes and a variety of mental illnesses, has increased understanding of the causes for these conditions and has improved treatments by reducing symptoms and making them more tolerable. Research has not resulted in the elimination of people with these conditions as Ne'eman fears for people with autism, and it has certainly brought cures closer to reality. Ethical questions about what we do with the results of research are always present and research into autism is no different.

Ne'eman's views on neurodiversity and autism research and the fact that he is a self-proclaimed advocate for all people with autism should cause families of people with more severe forms of the condition to doubt his ability to adequately represent their family members. Everyone on the Board of Directors of ASAN, the organization that Ne'eman heads, has high functioning autism or Asperger's Syndrome along with multiple academic degrees and accomplishments hopelessly unattainable by people on the low-functioning end of the autism spectrum. And it turns out that ASAN's promotion of civil rights for people with disabilities is highly selective.

In New Jersey, legislation, which ASAN supports, has been proposed to close most of the developmental centers (Intermediate Care Facilities for the Mentally Retarded - ICF/MR) and move the residents to community placements. Advocates whose family members live in these facilities have responded to surveys asking if they want their relatives to move. 96% of those who responded (61% of those solicited responded) say they do not want their family members moved. Their family members mostly have severe and profound mental retardation and many of them are at the far end of the autism spectrum from ASAN's Board of Directors.

What ASAN and many other advocacy groups will tell you is that the U.S. Supreme Court Olmstead decision supports the closure of institutions everywhere and that New Jersey is merely doing what it has been required to do since 1999. What they will not tell you is that the Supreme Court in Olmstead specifically said that its intent was not to force people out of institutions:

“We emphasize that nothing in the ADA or its implementing regulations condones termination of institutional settings for persons unable to handle or benefit from community settings...Nor is there any federal requirement that community-based treatment be imposed on patients who do not desire it.” 119 S. Ct. 2176, 2187 (1999).

Olmstead sets up criteria for evaluating a resident's need for community care which includes the condition that the individual (or his or her guardian), does not oppose the transfer from institutional care. Ne'eman, ASAN, and many other advocacy groups have been willing to ignore the rights of residents of ICFs/MR to promote their own ideology opposing the existence of these facilities. The bumper-sticker slogan, "Nothing about us, without us", apparently does not apply to the residents of these facilities, their families, or anyone else who needs the specialized services and placements that these groups oppose.

The idea that Ari Ne'eman is not autistic enough to serve on the National Council on Disability is beside the point. I'm sure he has valuable insights into the treatment of people with Asperger's Syndrome and high-functioning autism, but he does not represent all people with autism any more than I represent all parents whose children have cerebral palsy. The self advocacy movement has ironically allowed self advocates such as Ari Ne'eman to substitute their group judgment for that of disabled individuals, a practice just as bad as allowing doctors, government, insurance companys, or schools to make unilateral decisions about people's lives without ever needing to include them in the decision making or respect the differences in their needs and choices.


For more information on this controversy, see:
  • Erasing Autism? from Newsweek, May 16, 2009
  • Nominee to Disability Council Is Lightning Rod for Dispute on Views of Autism, from the NY Times, March 27, 2010
  • See numerous interviews with Ari Ne'eman on
  • Life on the other end of the autism spectrum: Planet Autism from, September 27, 2003
  • Letter to President Obama from groups opposing Ne'eman's appointment
  • VOR Olmstead Resources
  • New Jersey Choice press conference video of Robin Sims, parent of NJ ICF/MR resident and President of VOR: introduction and extended remarks

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