The Value of an Autistic Life
If there were a prize for the most egregious affronts to human dignity, the anonymous letter sent to the family of a 13-year-old autistic boy in Ontario last week would doubtless be a top contender. The writer, who signed the letter “one pissed off mother”, did not stop at complaining very rudely about the boy’s presence in his grandmother’s neighborhood where he often spends his summer days, but went on to thoroughly disparage his overall worth, ultimately suggesting that the family “move or euthanize him”. In short, the letter-writer emphatically takes the position that a child with low-functioning autism is a life not of value.
It’s easier for me to imagine this as some kind of cruel prank than to imagine that level of raw disdain being expressed so conscientiously – although, knowing how much ugliness the human soul is capable of harboring, the latter is all too possible – but either way, the letter has caused some very real devastation to the boy’s family.
Fortunately, the family’s neighbors have banded together to demonstrate that, contrary to the letter’s claim, he is indeed welcome and appreciated among them. This story also prompted a broader outpouring of public sympathy, striking a particular chord with teachers and parents of children with disabilities. Someone even sent Yahoo Canada News this truly amazing song by a French boy who also has autism (subtitled in French and English), which makes a poignant antidote to the letter’s poison.
My first and natural response to the story, like that of many others, was moral repugnancy, and indeed it would have been even more disturbing if there had not been such a response. But I would like to take it a step beyond the exclamations of “what a horrible person” and suggest that, while few of us would stoop to such openly hateful remarks, they can give us all cause to reflect on our own attitudes.
We are rightly horrified when someone suggests that the life of a person with a disability is not worth living – but what about when the same thing is said of someone yet to be born? Can we sense the same sting in such a claim when it is made before that person has been given the chance to be known and loved?
And even aside from that, how might we have conveyed in subtler ways that certain people are not wanted around us? To shoot a family with a handicapped child a dirty look, for example, or to otherwise act put out by having to share space with someone we see as outside of the norm, is to send, more discreetly but just as surely, a similarly unwelcoming message. And who of us can honestly claim never to have entertained a belittling thought about such a person? I know I can’t, and that can only be to my shame. I am therefore taking this story as a shocking reminder of the sometimes challenging extent of the truth I profess with such conviction: that every life is intrinsically of value, no matter what.
Correction: the boy in the video is Belgian, not French, and has a rare condition known as De Morsier’s Syndrome which includes some autism-like symptoms.