Autism York posted this billboard at Route 30 and Pennsylvania Avenue in April to promote awareness. After some advocacy groups and bloggers complained
Autism York posted this billboard at Route 30 and Pennsylvania Avenue in April to promote awareness. After some advocacy groups and bloggers complained about the use of the word 'kidnapped,' Autism York has scheduled the billboard for removal. (BIL BOWDEN--YORK DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS)
Does the message raise awareness or promote damaging stereotypes?

Does it draw in those who do not know someone affected by autism, or will it give people an excuse to exclude and discriminate?

That's the debate over a billboard that Autism York put up over Route 30 in April that quoted autism advocate Jon Shestack: "If 1 in 150 American children were kidnapped we'd have a national emergency. We do. Autism."

The Autism Self Advocacy Network and several autism bloggers from around the country objected to the billboard, saying the quote equated an autism diagnosis with a lifetime prison sentence.

As a result, Autism York will take down the billboard, said president Amy Wallace. It was still up Thursday afternoon near Route 30 and Pennsylvania Avenue, but Wallace said the billboard company will remove it soon.

Autism York never intended to offend anyone, Wallace said, which is why the group acted as it did. Two other billboards were put up in April, but they had already been removed before the complaints surfaced.

The group never received any local complaints, Wallace said. Instead, she said, the billboard campaign brought in many people who didn't previously know the organization existed.

"We weren't saying they were kidnapped or they weren't human," Wallace said of the billboard message. Her 9-year-old son has autism.


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"What we're saying -- and I think (opponents) need to get past the kidnapped word -- is that there is a huge number of kids affected, and this needs research, it needs our acceptance and awareness.

"This could be my child or the child of a friend."

Jason Kornbau, of Conewago Township, just graduated from Northeastern High School. He has high-functioning autism and Asperger's Syndrome.

The billboard is effective, he said, and should stay up.

"I want people to understand it is a big thing," the 19-year-old said.

But there are better ways to communicate that message, said Ari Ne'eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. By trying to scare people, he said, Autism York was unintentionally saying people with autism are "not fully present in our own bodies."

The idea of being kidnapped, Ne'eman said, aligns too closely with the stereotypes about autism: that people with it lack intelligence and perception, that they can't accomplish anything, that they don't need education or jobs.

Advocacy groups need to learn from the physical disability community, he said, which stopped using scare tactics because they only widened the understanding gap between those with disabilities and those who don't have them, which in turn actually increased discrimination.

His group received three complaint e-mails from York County residents after it posted news of the billboards on its Web site, Ne'eman said. Still, he credited Autism York for quickly agreeing to remove the message.

The man quoted on the billboard, Jon Shestack of California, founded Cure Autism Now, which has contributed more than $39 million for research. He's an executive board member of Autism Speaks.

He started using the "kidnapped" phrase in the late-90s, he said, when few people knew of autism or how many lives it affected. Shestack didn't know Autism York used the phrase, but he thinks it still applies.

"You know what, I stand by it all," Shestack said. "It is a phrase to grab people by the throat."

Those objectors are often people with high-functioning autism, he said. They ignore half of those with autism like his son, who will never learn to speak and will always need help with basic tasks.

"I think the people who object are small-minded, not generous and only see the world through their own experience," Shestack said.

This is part of the problem, Wallace and Shestack both said.

Groups of people who mean well get into arguments, and autism advocacy suffers. Until different organizations can unite, Wallace said, that won't change.

By taking down the billboard, Autism York hopes it can bring more people together.


WALKING FOR AWARENESS

Autism York is holding an autism walk at 10 a.m. Oct. 10 at John Rudy County Park. All proceeds will be used to pay for the group's programs throughout the year in York and Adams counties. For more information, visit: autismyork.org.

ONLINE

--- Autistic Self Advocacy Network: www.autisticadvocacy.org.

--- Autism Speaks: www.autismspeaks.org.

--- Autism Society of America: www.autism-society.org


WHAT IS AUTISM ?

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects how people perceive the world. It can limit communication and social interaction, and some have repetitive behaviors or intense interests. The Autism spectrum includes a host of diagnosis, including Asperger's Syndrome, Rett Syndrome and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 150 children has autism.

-- Source: Autism Speaks