By Alicia A. Broderick
In April, you’ll again see the now-familiar icons and ritualized observances that have marked April as “Autism Awareness” month for decades: the puzzle pieces, the “Light it Up Blue” campaign, the brand now has a rainbow of ribbons, t-shirts and other miscellaneous kitschy items, and, perhaps most importantly, fundraising. You will be asked to ‘take the pledge’, ‘celebrate the differences’, maybe even ‘learn the signs’.
But here’s what you’re less likely to see or hear this month, and it’s one of the most important things we need to educate critics about: the industry-scale commodification of people with autism. . And how these initiatives are actually part of the money-making machine.
While Autism Awareness Month has been celebrated for more than 50 years, the “awareness” initiatives of the last decade and a half and their alarmist rhetoric – autism is an enemy, it is an epidemic, and it’s happening for your kids – were masterfully designed to generate a market of willing and enthusiastic consumers: consumers of autism intervention products. It’s not raising awareness, it’s making a market.
Since at least 2011, the autistic community has decried these events each April and instead advocated for the acceptance and valuing of the autistic experience, and the development of autistic agency, release, and pride.
By 2021, many (but not all) of the top autism advocacy organizations had abandoned their “Autism Awareness” initiatives and rebranded April as “Autism Acceptance Month” ( and many are also actively appropriating the language and iconography of “neurodiversity” in their own public relations, logos and brands.)
But before we celebrate this as a victory for autism activism, let’s ask ourselves why (or why now)?
Why this kinder, gentler shift toward accepting autism, toward valuing neurodiversity?
As a society, we may have truly grown, and that’s almost certainly true, to some extent. But it is not the only reason.
The other answer is that it now benefits autism industries to rebrand.
And the branding “valuing autistic people” serves at least in part to mask the “value” of autistic people as commodities for autism industries.
It’s a question of money. It has been and it always will be.
In the autism business, people with autism, including very young children, have become the raw material for profitable, growing and ever-diversifying autism industries, including the behavioral analysis industry. applied, the autism pharmaceutical industry, etc. And the central driver of the growth of these industries (of several billion dollars per year) is their vast potential for profit.
Each 2-year-old autistic child initiates a chain of commercial transactions: consultations, assessments, diagnoses; endless varieties of therapies, supports, services, counseling and other interventions, as well as pharmaceuticals and even research dollars.
As soon as a child is diagnosed, they are turned into a commodity of the autism industries, representing almost limitless potential for profit extraction.
Wall Street is certainly no stranger to this market. Research firms produce bullish predictions for autism intervention industries
(both the ABA intervention and pharma intervention subsectors), while private equity and venture capital firms are aggressively acquiring autism-related assets.
There’s even a Meetup Summit later this month that puts LLCs selling autism interventions (primarily ABAs) in direct conversation with private equity firms, venture capitalists, and other potential investors.
For the past 30 years, behavioral intervention services have dominated and virtually monopolized the market (just try to get the money from public education or health insurance).
And pharmaceutical intervention is about to experience its own growth spurt, claiming its own market share.
Autism markets are booming and going global. However, the substantial and ever-increasing investment and growth in these industries is not driven by what is best, ethical, fair or just for, let alone desired by, people with autism. Rather, the engine of this growth is driven by the industries’ vast profit-generating potential. Period.
Awareness is not inherently negative, but we have to ask, “Awareness of what? Greater awareness of the commodification of people with autism would be good if that awareness leads to disruption of these processes. And acceptance isn’t inherently positive if it’s used as a shiny object to drive consumption and brand loyalty and to deter asking the tough questions. It is not a binary consideration.
We should always ask – and not just every April – who benefits?
Booming autism industries may or may not ultimately make the lives of people with autism better. But they certainly seem to benefit the many non-autistic people who take advantage of their existence.
And who benefits? more than anything else you’ll hear this month, that’s the question we need to ask ourselves as we focus our attention on autism.
Alicia A. Broderick is a professor of education at Montclair State University. She is a researcher in disability studies and a researcher in critical autism studies. She is also the author of the new book, “the Autism Industrial Complex: How marketing, branding and investing turned autism into big business. »
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