I had the wonderful opportunity (and early birthday present) to attend in New York City Jon Stewart’s Night of Too Many Stars benefit for autism (through NEXT for Autism). I was pumped to be attending a show that featured so many of my heroes in the field of sarcastic media – Stewart, John Oliver, Jordan Klepper, Colbert, and Samantha Bee. And in the very year I got my own autism diagnosis! It was a dream come true.
Or so I incorrectly assumed.
Once there I realized that there were no Aspies in the crowd. This was not for us; it was about us. It was all dudes who wanted to see Stewart back on stage and very rich, very white Manhattanites who were going to another charity function to assuage their privileged guilt. Before the ACTUALLY LIVE (not “taped live” which is an oxymoron) broadcast on HBO began there was an auction for various dumb prizes like sitting underneath Colbert’s desk with Jon Stewart during one of his monologues.
I had a bad seat where I could barely see the stage, The Roots not at all, and yet no one on my row showed up until over half-way through the program. I can see that happening if you’re going to your local symphony and dinner runs late, but this is LIVE television! What the eff? I was sure to give them dirty looks when they made me move from the end of the row that could see the stage. I grumbled something like, “Glad to have you join us.”
Millennials, am I right?
Everything got off to a weird start as Stewart was carried onto the stage by a guy who was supposed to be a CGI actor playing a dragon. HBO, Game of Thrones, get it? Olivia Munn seemed to get thrown by the live-ness of the event and flubbed her lines. In fact, everyone was nervous and awkward. Even the seasoned guys.
Welcome to my world, I guess.
The format was thus: A famous person would give a little speech or do a sketch and then they would show a touching video about people living on the spectrum and the struggles their families go through as they changed the stage and got the following act ready.
It went OK until they decided to put an actual autistic person up there. Carly Fleischmann is the first nonverbal autistic talk show host and she’s amazing.
Unfortunately what happened next was indicative of one of the problems autistic people face when going out into the world. They didn’t fully plan for her. At the beginning of the telethon they dropped a lot of metallic confetti on the stage and some guys swept up most of it as a video played. But not all of it.
When they rolled Carly out already at a desk, Stephen Colbert was going to let her interview him. But before the questions could start, Carly got up and began to pick up the missed scraps of confetti. The audience and Colbert seemed confused and embarrassed, but I knew what was happening immediately – she’s got OCD features and couldn’t NOT pick up the random scraps. They were sort of bothering me the whole time as well.
She was taken off the stage and an emergency, Oh no, this is a LIVE show, filler was put up. Jon Stewart later came up and spoke for a minute to the audience about how she had a “thing” about paper and picking it up and tearing it into pieces. He called himself an asshole for not being more thoughtful.
I don’t think Jon Stewart is an asshole for the record. He’s one of my all-time favorite people, in fact. He just doesn’t understand the need to ask autistic people, especially when you are bringing them out for a stressful live performance, about ALL their “stuff.” Triggers, obsessions, sensory sensitivities, and phobias. For instance, I was not really accommodated at the venue either.
During show they occasionally cut to the audience for reaction shots, so they had these insufferably weird lights glaring on us through most of it. I missed a lot of the show and being able to see well because I had my program up to block the very painful glare. It didn’t seem to be bothering anyone else though. It made me increasingly upset as the show wore on. That’s the reason I was in the bathroom for Mulaney. This lack of consideration just highlights the fact that the organizers had no expectation of anyone on the spectrum being in the audience. Because why would a disabled person want to attend a cool benefit for people like themselves? Because they don’t consider people who can go to things to be disabled.
All in all, the autistic people they featured were “people with autism” as the caretakers of the profoundly affected and nonverbal would have you believe we prefer to be called. The tone was vaguely insulting and very pitying. Jon Stewart referred to us as “whole people” and I guess it’s hard for those not familiar with the hidden depths of the autistic mind to grasp that we are “in there” whether we are verbal or nonverbal. But still. It played to the biases of the allistic audience rather than having a verbal autistic person come up there and speak to them about the range of people on the spectrum who need support.
The autistic people who were being helped by this benefit were clearly mostly young and always visibly autistic. No verbal people were featured. There are hundreds of thousands of people with autism out there who are able, even forced, to hide our more visible symptoms and neuromotor agitation through training and powerful pressure on all fronts to seem “normal.”
We are also the spectrum people who are invisible to charity organizations. No one cares about Aspies. Especially if we are intellectually smart, but lack cognitive and social skills in other areas. Very recently there was a TEDx talk by Carrie Beckwith-Fellows about how smart, verbal autistic people are dying needlessly – because we are forgotten, no services are provided for us, and we take our lives. Please watch the below video if you have the time.
Here’s an excerpt from a recent article about our high suicide rate (emphasis mine):
“The researchers reported suicide was one of the leading causes of early death among people with ASD [At least 16 years earlier]. In fact, the researchers concluded suicide rates of people with ASD who had no cognitive disability were nine times higher than the general population. Previous studies had shown that 30 percent to 50 percent of people with ASD have considered suicide, according to a report issued last week by the nonprofit organization Autistica.
The suicide rate is higher among girls with ASD and people with milder forms of the condition. The experts said that’s because this group are more aware of their condition and possible difficulties assimilating.
In addition, bullying can be a daily occurrence for people with ASD. Anxiety and depression are common responses to such treatment. Both of those mental health stresses are leading factors in suicide.”
People who were formerly diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome are dying in droves. The lack of support, recognition, and understanding is literally killing us. I know of no one in my life on the spectrum who has not been suicidal more than once. Including me. I have no proof of this because no one has done the research yet, but we are also dying early from lack of medical care (no insurance, anxiety about doctors), drug abuse, alcoholism, and the effects of neglect (homelessness, accidents while living alone). And, just as a side note, over 80% of spectrum women, even the verbal ones, are sexually abused in their lifetime.
The world is a precarious place for autistic people no matter the age or ability level. I wish people cared what happened to us enough to include all autistic people in fundraisers, telethons, and discussions.
P.S. I am thankful that John Oliver brought up the problem of police brutality and Edie Falco mentioned that autistic kids at some point become adults. But here was the biggest nod in our direction: