Seattle Children's pulls autism bus ads after criticism

SEATTLE -- Seattle Children’s Hospital is suspending a bus ad campaign in response to outrage from members of the autistic community.

“My initial reaction was extreme disappointment,” said Matt Young, who leads the Washington chapter of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

He also heard plenty on anger from his community in response to the ads. They show a smiling boy with the quote, “Lets wipe out cancer, diabetes and autism in his lifetime.”

“You can't talk about autism without talking about autistic people,” said Young. “It's not a mindless, faceless disease or an illness, but a disability.”

Katharine Fitzgerald, Seattle Children’s marketing director, was surprised at the backlash.

“It was really unfortunate because it was not at all what we intended,” said Fitzgerald.

The idea behind the campaign was to show the wide variety of research the hospital is involved in, but to many it appeared the hospital was comparing cancer and other diseases to autism, and Fitzgerald got an earful.

“As more of the calls and posts on Facebook and e-mails started coming in, we realized we were really creating more harm than good," she said.

Children’s removed the ads on Friday.

The controversy illustrates a divide in the autistic community between those like Young, who say it is part of who they are, and groups such as Autism Speaks.

That nationwide organization put out a statement on the issue that said in part, “Our goal is to reduce suffering associated with autism, in all its forms. Some would call that a cure, others would call it remediation of disability.”

The group also pointed out the wide spectrum of autism, from those who have a creative and productive life to autistics with significant medical conditions who have never spoken.

“For those individuals, the prospect of a cure for autism is really important because to that person, cure means being able to communicate and to be free of pain.”

Young, of ASAN-WA, doesn’t agree.

“That’s the dominant message because that’s where the money is. The parents who are desperate to fix their children, and we, the adults who those children become, are saying we don’t want to be fixed, we don’t want to be thought of as fundamentally broken, we want to be accepted for who we are.”