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…

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19 responses to “Autism and the Twitter Outrage Mob

  1. Lots of people are like that. The kids without autism and without problems deserve to have a full school experience also. I say that knowing kids with autism. Teaching them that others matter also is a huge item in how they will succeed. You won’t hear autism kids’ parents say it.

  2. Having seen the autism advocates work the General Assembly, the passionate response you elicited does not surprise…I note the cross-reference to the 2011 state legislation which mandated that health insurance policies cover autism screening and services, which are most often in essence educational in nature and not medical. That was quite a display of raw political power, none of which has slipped.

    How dare you worry about that child who is not special ed, not autistic, not disruptive or acting out because of family trauma, not gifted and pampered at a Governor’s School – but just average and showing up hoping to work toward that diploma! No political pressure group for them! And not much left over after the others have drained the pool.

  3. Dear Jim,

    My younger daughter, who has autism, just switched to a new public school in Fairfax County last week that specializes in behavioral problems. She had been disruptive in her mainstream class due to poor impulse control, I will spare you the dismal statistics. Her first week was very good, and her teacher noted her willingness to “call out” misbehaving students. The teachers at this school are better equipped to remove and temporarily isolate disruptive students until they can return to their class. The biggest downside is that there are one or two students who cuss a lot. I don’t know other people’s experiences, but I was very reluctant to go this approach, until faced with statistical analyses of our daughter’s behavior that made it a necessity, out of fairness to the teacher and rest of the class, and of course, the prospect, that a smaller environment with better trained and equipped teachers, would help her overcome her behavioral problems. While it is too soon to tell what difference this will make in her education, I can understand those who see the need for a segregated environment. The “typical” students need to have their interests looked after, too, not just the “special” ones. But here as in much else, the most fervent voices will get the most attention, i.e. the parents of autistic and other “challenged” students.

    Sincerely,

    Andrew

    • Hi, Andrew, Thanks for sharing your experience. I hope other readers will as well.

      First of all, kudos for being sympathetic to the needs of other children in your daughter’s class.

      Second, a key takeaway from your comment would be: A smaller environment with better trained and equipped teachers might be the best place for many children with autism while they learn to overcome their behavioral problems. Once they made sufficient progress, it would be appropriate to mainstream them again.

      Is that fair to say?

      • Dear Jim,

        Yes, the Principal told us on our tour of the school that the goal is, if possible, to see that the student is returned to their neighborhood school. Obviously, this is not always possible. We are holding it out as a “carrot” to our daughter, since she was at her neighborhood school through her first three grades, she’s in fourth now. She is high-functioning and curious, and the school said that the curriculum will be the same as it would be at the neighborhood school. The “special” students view are said to view each other as somewhat like themselves, in that they are all there for somewhat similar things, whereas, with the typicals, they are more likely to be regarded as strange. Less explaining to do at the special school. I would like to hear of others’ experiences, too.

        Sincerely,

        Andrew

  4. Well … I’m sorry that happened and you did run into that buzzsaw.

    But you basically continued a couple of themes well covered in BR and that is how much money should schools be spending on helping kids with more “needs” than others, along with the idea of what to do with disruptive kids. And I’ll add that to Cranky’s general-theme criticisms overall about whether public schools are accomplishing what they are expected to or not or evading accountability and failing at their mission.

    One BIG difference is that the autism folks are much more militant and demanding of what they expect from the public education system than those from economically disadvantaged circumstances.

    It’s not just the autism folks. Originally after the laws were changed to require education for handicapped kids – there were all manner of legal challenges as to the schools accepting and accommodating kids with special needs.

    We had a series of legal challenges over the years in our area over non-autism kids who had physical disabilities. Once that got resolved, the Autism disabilities came to the fore.

    This does illustrate in general conservative versus less conservative viewpoints towards what is expected from the Public School System in terms of funding and mission.

    But basically, Bacon ran into this particular buzz saw because he was perceived as advocating that there is a fiscal limit to what the taxpayer-funded public schools can (or should) afford – as well as how disruptive children should be treated.

    In the minds of those who have kids with special needs – there is no such argument – they believe it is the mission and responsibility of the public school system to educate kids with special needs to the extent that they can be. And yes.. that’s why more than a few of them will actually move to the more urban school systems with more funding and more resources. Suing a rural school with minimal resources would not succeed.

    The schools won’t talk about it but it’s a huge conundrum and at the same time they are working hard to please the autism folk – they are not doing near as much for the economically disadvantaged kids – IMHO.

    • Dear Larry,

      I agree with what you say about parents’ fears that they are going to lose services for their children from budget cuts. They are deathly afraid of “losing services” and they urge one another to ask for as much in case the services are needed, and to “watch like hawks” school officials’ efforts to pare back the same. They also put elected officials on the spot about budgets. That is what I have heard over and over from other parents of children with special needs. The ones who have been the most “militant” have often been the ones with the most profound disabilities. There are some very hard cases where parents have children who will always need supervision and where, as one said, “I would be ecstatic if I though my son would ever be able to work at McDonald’s”, which he confessed, would never happen. These parents’ burdens, including shattered hopes, are immense. My family’s burden, by comparison, is not nearly so great, nor my involvement in their fight. The range of their political choices often seem to narrow down to their “single issue.” My conversations stem from many visits over the years to a Northern Virginia support group for parents of special needs children.

      Sincerely,

      Andrew

  5. We recently visited the Marinelli Bell factory in Agnone, Italy (the Abruzzo region). https://www.bloomberg.com/news/photo-essays/2016-01-04/the-marinelli-bell-foundry. They supply the bells to the Vatican and have been in business using the same “lost wax casting” method for the last thousand years. They only hire autistic folks as employees. The manufacturing method is highly proprietary and is well protected by these autistic employees. They are not highly communicative, but once they learn the work, employees become lifetime employees, are paid well, and are very loyal and meticulous in their work.

    The stakes are very high. The foundry produces about 50 bells a year. The mold for a bell is very complicated, taking a month or two to build by hand, and it can be ruined during the two minute molten bronze pour. Strict attention to the work is the name of the game.

    But you will not find reference to these employees on the company’s website or anywhere else that I found.

  6. Given my own experience with learning disabilities, I have gone out of my way hire folks with autism and work with them. I have found that the key is there is to empower them, appreciate them and their work, while also keeping a thoughtful eye out, so as to calm or transition them as need be. If I do that, I will invariable learn more from them, than they from me. There are simply incredibly wonderful people, without exception in my experience.

    Jim, I thought your RTD op-ed was fine. Although a few empathizing statements could have be added for those caregivers struggling with grief, burdens, concerns, and unknowns arising from real life experiences with clueless outsiders. I say this only based on my experience with recent limb lost victims and their families, where hyper charged sensitivities, grief, and anxieties run high. And in your case, of course, with digitized words only a click away, inappropriate over the top reactions are too easily triggered and expressed, without regret, or careful thought. It is also far too easy and rewarding to be a misbehaving victim today, one of our great plagues

  7. Correction to end of 1st para. due to dyslexia-

    I have found that the key is () to empower them, and appreciate them and their work, while also keeping a thoughtful eye out, so as to calm and () transition them as need be. If I do that, I will invariable learn more from them, than they from me. They () are simply incredibly wonderful people, without exception in my experience.

  8. Let me also add, that while I have no experience with this having taken over in the case of autism, I know for a fact that in the case of dyslexia and ADT, a great industry has now been built to take command of and milk those problems in kis at the growing expense of the patient, the parents, the schools, and the state.

    This newly invented type of crony capitalism that infests health care, generally, and also now too the educational bureaucracy, is working hard to create growing streams of victims – kids and their families alike – so as milk their problems for maximum financing advantage, in many cases doing far more harm than good.

    This, of course, is another iteration of the growing plague of doctor and professional expert forcing victim-hood on as many kids and adult citizens as possible in modern times.

  9. I think the problems here are nuance and tonality. There’s nothing inherently offensive about how to handle the problems of autistic children in class if they are disruptive. Many autistic parents would be the first to recognize the issue.

    The first problem, however, is that Jim sort of blows a dog whistle when he gets into paying extra for autistic children. Many fiscal conservatives have played from the script for so long that conflates being fiscally responsible to being frivolous and somehow personally irresponsible or otherwise lacking in personal discipline. You get this all the time with discussions about medical care, which conservatives often see as a privilege for the supposedly more successful wealthy than a right for all.

    Jim further complicates his problem with a tad of sexism. He says in his comments: “My first unsigned editorial ignited the wrath of protective mama bears who have children with autism.” Now wait a minute. Were all the social media comments from mothers? Were they all from females? Fathers do not count? Now if he had said overly protective “parents” then the problem is avoided. If I were a mother with an autistic child, I would be pissed off with what comes off as an unnecessary and gratuitous putdown.

    This brings me to Steve Haner and his description as governor’s school kids as “pampered.” Turns out that this father has two daughters who both went to a governor’s school. My “pampered” children had to spend two hours day on a bus. If they had an evening event like a concert, guess who got to drive them? Their “pampered” dad.

    • On Nov. 30, 2018, the RTD devoted a full page to letters responding to the autism article. Nine of the eleven letters were signed by women. I also had a lengthy phone conversation with the mother of a child with autism who was highly critical of the editorial. So, I really don’t think it’s being sexist to describe those upset by the article as “protective mama bears.”

      Besides, how is the term derogatory or belittling, as calling it “sexist” would imply? Mama bears are fiercely protective of their young. That was the image I was invoking.

  10. Whoops. Let me correct my last comment. Should say that “conflates needed public spending with . . .”

  11. There is in fact a lot of agreement on cause:
    https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2654804

    And I offer this food for thought. You don’t seem to take into consideration the benefits of ASD, and focus on your perceived detriments.

  12. I used to he very political over a decade ago. Fought city taxes in Winchester, fought Russ Potts and supported candidates for State Senate and House. Back in the day I read with interest many blogs, even yours for awhile. That was before I became a grandparent of not one, not two, but three autistic grandsons. Now our families are just two busy to be on the front lines like the old days.

    Getting to your editorial and follow up post. You claimed many read more into the editorial than you intended. To be honest, remembering you from the past, how can you blame them. Frankly, it was not your usual style. It was so uninformed and lacking in facts there is no way it could be considered informative and thought provoking. I read it like how I might have read a report from Nazi Germany how to dispose of the mentallity retarded back in the 30’s. Seriously. Now I know you did not mean it that harsh, but it was obviously read by the masses in the same sense as l.
    Then you shot yourself in the foot with a non-mea culpa. Picking up on an old political term, “There you go again.” It’s not me, it’s them. AKA, “Twitter Mob.” Mob? Mob because they disagree with you? Mob because they are Momma Bears? You lost it, man.

    Instead of providing informative and thought provoking ideas on how best to help our autistic kids, you first muddy the waters with an insensitive and uninformed editorial. Then gloss over all the hysteria as it’s not me, it’s them. Not the Bacon I was used to in the past. You awaken my political fire in me again to start a new campaign.

    Because we deserve better editorials to bring about informative and rational discussion on such personal matters, I too was one campaigning for your removal from RTD. You left me no choice.

  13. My issue with your editorial was two-fold: One, that it was just poorly researched and written, and two, that it made troubling implications about what you believe to be best for children with autism.

    I read it three times and couldn’t find a point. So I put it aside for a few hours and came back. Nope, still no idea what you hoped to convey. Kids with autism are a bother at public school, and sending them elsewhere is too expensive. OK, would you like readers to push for better supports at public school? Better funding for alternative placements? Should they attend a SEAC meeting to learn more about what these kids are up against? Do you know what a SEAC is?

    I don’t know how tired your editor was when he let that slide by, but I’ve been very pleased with the RTD’s admission that it was ill-conceived and poorly executed.

    Good writers learn from their mistakes. Blaming your readers for the heaps of valid criticism you received is the mark of an amateur. Dismissing an entire community of families and advocates who deal with this issue all day as a “Twitter outrage mob” is childish and unhelpful.

    P.S. You also misquoted me in your rebuttal here. Changing a question mark to a period can change the entire meaning of a sentence. Don’t do that.

    • I have heard back from many, many people who had no problem with what I wrote, and in fact agreed with the editorial. This includes people who have children and grandchildren with autism or who teach children with autism. There are a wide variety of viewpoints regarding how to deal with the challenges posed by autism, including the value in some circumstances of “segregating” children until they can learn the skills needed for mainstreaming, and even sending the most disruptive children to “segregated” private day schools. There is no one-size-fits all solution. However, seeing how the Twitter Outrage Mob hounds people who disagree, most remain silent.

      • I admired you, Jim, for refusing to bow to this verbal abuse as so many do. This is an important subject. The dialogue cannot be controlled by bullies. Or those with one point of view.

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