Autism and the Twitter Outrage Mob

My tenure as an editorial and op-ed writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch may have been brief but I learned a lot. My first unsigned editorial ignited the wrath of protective mama bears who have children with autism. I got my first up-close look at the awesome power of a Twitter Outrage Mob. It was quite a spectacle.

As I’ve had a chance to reflect upon what I wrote, I feel partially penitent. Living with a child with autism isn’t easy. Parents often rearrange their lives, moving to locales with better school resources, dropping out of the workforce to provide at-home care, living with the fear that their children might never become independent, functioning adults. Autism can become an all-consuming issue. Had I known, I would have expressed more sympathy. But I wouldn’t have changed the thrust of the editorial.

At the same time, it irritates me how many people read into my words meanings that plainly were not intended. And it worries me how, when organized in a Twitter Outrage Mob, people can become a bullying force. One woman pushed hard to get me fired. (She had nothing to do with me resigning from the RTD.)

Here’s the editorial.

Key points: Autism is increasing in Virginia, effecting more than one in sixty children. Autism diagnoses in Virginia schools have jumped sixfold since 2001. The special needs of students with autism are driving increased state spending under federal law, which leaped 16 percent from fiscal year 2013 to fiscal 2016, reaching $364 million. 

Over and above the fiscal burden, there is a cost for which there are no metrics: the cost to other students whose classroom instruction is interrupted by students with autism, some of whom are prone to tantrums, aggression, and self-injury. … Time spent counseling autistic children — and other students with behavioral problems — is time not spent teaching. While many autistic students are mainstreamed successfully, not all of them are.

It is right and proper that schools endeavor to mainstream kids with autism. But compassion for autistic kids should be balanced by compassion for their classmates and their desire to learn free from interruption.

There are complex tradeoffs between what’s best for the children with autism, what’s best for their classmates, and what’s best for the taxpayers. Rarely are those tradeoffs made explicit. As autism becomes even more prevalent, we Virginians need to bring behind-the-scenes bureaucratic decisions into the light of day and have an open conversation about what’s best for all.

Please note: Nothing in the editorial advocated for or against segregating kids with autism, although I did give a nod to the accomplishments of the Faison Center that specializes in treating kids with autism in a segregated environment, and I wouldn’t rule out placing troublesome kids in public-school classes with trained teachers in some circumstances. Autism behaviors fall in a spectrum. Some children are more disruptive than others; some can benefit more than others from mainstreaming with other children. It would folly to label children with “autism” and treat them as if all were the same.

After my editorial appeared, there was little reaction the first day. But someone took notice on Twitter, the issue went viral, and irate parents began bombarding the RTD with emails and phone calls. So voluminous was the response that the RTD Editorial Department devoted a full page to publishing letters from outraged parents. The unifying theme seemed to be that not only was the unsigned editorial writer (me) totally wrong and odious as a human being, there was nothing to discuss. My viewpoint had not even a shred of legitimacy.

Perhaps that’s because many letter writers jumped to totally erroneous and unsubstantiated conclusions — an effect, I suspect, that was magnified by the viral effect of one person putting his or her own spin on the editorial, tweeting, and then the next person feeding off the tweet, adding his or her spin on the spin — analogous to the child’s game of “telephone.” I don’t know for a fact that that’s what happened, but it would explain why the allegations in the letter were so disconnected from what the editorial actually said. Here are some samples from the letters:

Children with autism have the same basic human rights as all other children. Forced segregation is not OK.

Regarding your editorial about segregating children with autism. This is wrong.

Defunding special education does not save the commonwealth money. In fact, it increases costs.

If [kids with autism] are too disruptive for public school, and specialized schools are an undue burden on taxpayers, where do these students belong? Nowhere.

Thank you for shining light on the future struggles my daughter and others like her will have in the future as long as editorials promoting disability segregation are being published.

You posit that there are not enough classroom resources to go around and the answer is perhaps to remove students with autism. Why isn’t the answer to provide more resources?

The RTD ran a second editorial (not written by me), saying, “We missed the mark. We also missed far too many of the nuances and deep emotions that accompany the daily life of those for whom autism is far more than a public policy issue.” The newspaper announced that it would devote its next Public Square, a public forum, to the topic of autism.

The idea of holding a public forum on autism is a great idea. However, many of the letter writers appeared to to show no interest in having a “conversation” — implying an actual exchange of views. Rather than taking the opportunity to educate people of good will about the nuances of autism, the Twitter vigilantes assumed the mantle of outraged victimhood and went into attack mode.

A much better response came a few days later in an op-ed written by Paul Wehman, director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Autism Center for Excellence. He explained calmly and rationally how his research has shown that early intervention with the right approach can make it possible to mainstream children within several weeks.

“Instead of cost being the central issue determining educational programming for students with autism,” he wrote, “it is imperative instead to ask: How can their fullest potential be developed? I know how able so many of these students are because I have seen their transformations in classrooms and workplaces.”

Twitter Outrage Mobs may be effective at suppressing other views, but Wehman’s approach does a better job of changing them.

Even so, I have learned by talking to parents and grand-parents of children with autism that there is vigorous debate over what works best. Experts don’t even agree on what causes the disorder. The fact is, everyone has a lot to learn. Stifling open dialogue doesn’t help anyone, not even the children. More to come in future posts…