What is a victim?

The word may be defined as, a living thing that is adversely affected by the action of something else.  What does that make the “something else?”  The victimizer. 

Here are some appropriate examples that will be familiar to all of you:

Bob was the victim of a sophisticated swindle

The victim, thirty-year-old Jessica Danes, was shot twice at close range

Don’t become another burglary victim.  Buy an Acme Alarm today!

In every case the victimizer is someone undesirable.  A swindler, a murderer, or a burglar.  Indeed, the word victimizer has no positive connotation in our society.  It is not a label anyone any reasonable person would want to wear.

With that preamble, here comes a headline from Time

Autism’s invisible victims – the siblings.

You can read the article here:  http://ideas.time.com/2012/11/30/autisms-invisible-victims-the-siblings/

I was shocked to see such a phrase from a supposedly progressive mainstream publication. 

Left unsaid – but obvious – is the identity of the victimizer.  It is us!  We autistic people are victimizing our poor siblings.  With everything else we’ve done wrong growing up, victimization of our brothers and sisters is added to our burden, thanks to this article.  At least, that’s how author Barbara Cain seems to see it.

It troubles me greatly when mental health professionals make pronouncements like this, as if we autistic people are oblivious to what they say or do.  Siblings are not “victims of autism.”  They are siblings of autistic people.  Period.  Some things about family life are easy.  Other aspects are hard.   Autism is one of those things. 

Does autism make life tough for us and our siblings?  Sure it does, sometimes.  Does autism show us a fun and funny side on other occasions?  Sure, it does that too.  Some of us revel in our eccentricity while others would give anything to be rid of this autism thing.  All the while we have one thing in common – we are not victims or victimizers.  We are just autistic people.   Our siblings aren’t victims either.  They are our brothers and sisters, sharing in life’s joys and struggles.

Barbara's points about the stress and frustration (even fear) that siblings of autistic kids feel are well taken.  I have no issue with any of them.  Indeed, her story makes clear the need to develop supports to help siblings.  But it does not make them victims and it does not make us victimizers.  It simply makes them kids who need help coping with an autistic brother or sister.

Autism is a permanent state of being.  It’s how we’ve been as long as we can remember, and how we will be – for the foreseeable future.  We will change, grow and develop, but we will always be autistic.    Victimhood – in comparison – is a temporary state.  We may become victims at any time – of a robbery, a building collapse, or an Internet scammer.  But those things will pass.  They do not define who we are in the way an essential difference like autism does.

Some may defend this article by saying autism affects everyone in a family negatively, like poverty or a hurricane might.  That’s a flawed defense, though, because hurricanes or poverty are faceless victimizers.  Anyone can blame them, because they are no one.  We autistics, on the other hand, are people.  Real people.  Your brothers and sisters.  With that fact in mind I repeat – we are not victimizers.

Does that mean we should ignore the pain of autism siblings?  Of course not.  Those of you who follow my writing and my service on the IACC and autism science boards know that I have a strong commitment to develop ways to relieve suffering and disability caused by autism.   It’s natural to think these therapies, tools, or treatments would be aimed at the autistic people themselves but in fact we must help everyone in the “autism circle.”  That certainly includes the parents, and yes, the siblings. 

We must also change our world to be more accepting and accommodating of autistic people.  That will reduce suffering for all of us.

Meanwhile, let’s keep the word “victim” out of the autism conversation.  It has no place here.

Best wishes to all of you this holiday season.

John Elder Robison

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