A Response to Autism Speaks’ Propaganda Documentary “Sounding the Alarm”

Lei Wiley-Mydske and Leah Kelley recently blogged about their reactions to watching and live tweeting Autism Speaks’ documentary: “Sounding the Alarm”, which is now available Netflix. I didn’t think I wanted to torture myself by sitting through an hour of Autism Speaks’ alarmist propaganda, but I did. Lei and Leah both do an excellent job of describing their discomfort with the film and I completely agree with their thoughtful assessments. However, I did find myself fascinated by the propaganda itself. The one big take away from “Sounding the Alarm” is that Autism Speaks exists to serve the interest of Autism Speaks and the egos Bob and Suzanne Wright

The film’s propaganda narrative pivots on two major themes: The first is that Autism is a medical condition [a disease] and second, that it is a disease which is spreading at epidemic rates. From these basic premises the film lays out Autism Speaks’ standard appeal to fear: autism will rob parents of their children’s love, overwhelm families with medical expenses and that autistic adults have no futures because the lack of federal support and indifference. Who can possibly save us from this “epidemic”, this “tsunami’? Autism Speaks lead by the Wrights of course.

In order to articulate its narrative of fear, the film depends as much on what is not said is it does on what is actually said. For example the film uses the Center for Disease Control’s newest statistics concerning rates of diagnosis of autism in the U.S. in order to make its argument that autism is an “epidemic”. Autism Speaks’ co-founder Suzanne Wright insists that “There must be an environmental trigger” causing this increased rate of diagnoses. We then hear from three doctors at the U.C. Davis MIND Institute list several possible “causes” for the increased numbers; “pesticides”, “air pollution” flame retardants, the age of the parents. There is even a mention the discredited notion of vaccines “causing” autism. However we never once hear someone mention what the CDC itself and Autistic Advocates have pointed out, that this perceived raise is a result of better diagnosis and awareness among health professionals.

The films narrative of fear frames autism as a disease which can, with the help of Autism Speaks and much funding, be “cured”. Bob and Suzanne Write argue throughout the film that more public money must be spent to find “the causes and cure” of autism. The film completely ignores the idea that autism is best defined as a neurological and developmental variation. This idea is articulated by Nick Walker in his piece What is Autism?. As Walker points out, “Ultimately, to describe autism as a disorder represents a value judgment rather than a scientific fact”.

The biggest piece missing from “Sounding the Alarm” are autistic voices and the voices of their allies. Aside from a few seconds when we hear from a couple of young autistic men who work at a car wash, there is zero autistic input. Don’t be surprised that Autism Speaks will not include our voices; they can’t.

At the end of the film Suzanne Wright makes two statements; in one she is talking about Autism Speaks’ “Light it Up Blue” autism awareness campaign, Ms.Wright talks about getting groups  to participate from around the world and she says, “I need to do every country”: not “we need to” or “Autism Speaks needs to,” This is about her. In fact, it is autism which gives the Wright’s their celebrity. Autism defines them as public figures; it gives them purpose and influence. Ms. Wright also makes a statement about her grandson’s autism stating the “Christian is going to change the world.” Only this isn’t about Christian either, it is about co-opting his diagnosis to empower Grandma and Grandpa Wright. It’s very doubtful that Autism Speaks will ever listen to Christian’s autistic voice. Autistic voices are a threat to the Wrights, their cohorts and organization’s fraudulent message. Autistic voices expose the bare lies of the Wrights and as “Sounding the Alarm” proves, in order to maintain their power, they purposefully manipulate the truth, even if it devalues and silences those who they claim to serve.

I would recommend doing just about anything else with your Netflix time than watching this particular film, however if you are interested in learning about the joys and possibilities of autism, then I highly encourage you to watch Vectors of Autism: A Documentary About Laura Nagle which is free to view right now.


Brent White is Autistic. He designs and directs adult programs for intellectually and developmentally disabled adults for the non-profit Ala Costa Centers in Berkeley, California.

5 Responses to A Response to Autism Speaks’ Propaganda Documentary “Sounding the Alarm”

  1. Patricia says:

    What is the least confrontational, most informative/impactful thing to refer someone to when they just don’t get it? This comment was on a facebook discussion of the “alarm” movie, where others were speaking out against autism speaks – and there’s always this kind of rebuttal from parents of those impacted more “obviously”:

    “Autism Speaks caters more to the “severe” part of the spectrum. To say they lie is ridiculous, they show the worst/hardest cases, the ones nobody wants to talk about or see. No child with autism is the same, the spectrum is so wide it varies for everyone. This documentary is important for those families, for MY family. Epidemic may be a strong word but for some families it is the right word.”

    I want to connect them with blogs of those who are also non-speaking, have the same challenges as their children, so they can see HOPE, the stuff that isn’t visible in the AS marketing. Are there any posts/authors you would recommend?


    • acatalacosta says:

      There is Emma’s Hope Book, Amy Sequenzia, Henry Frost, Ido in Autismland; Reasonable People by Ralph Savarese..I mean there are so many autistic voices available to anyone who wishes to listen. I don’t know any autistic people who have not struggled and struggled mightily in their lives. The autistic community that I am so proud to be part of offers SO much hope and insight. Just the fact that we exist as a community and so deeply support one another should give people hope.

      • Patricia says:

        I so completely agree. I always feel awkward because I’ve not faced those challenges, so to give a direct line to those who do, and who do it without the doom/gloom/otherimg is very helpful. Thank you so much for all you do!

    • chavisory says:

      There’s also the great documentary “Loving Lampposts,” which includes representation of people from all over the spectrum having lives that Autism Speaks says aren’t possible.

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