How do you cure ignorance?

I started rewatching ER at the beginning of 2020. It has kept me company throughout the pandemic, during the first scary lockdown, the milder second lockdown in October 2020 and the never-ending lockdown at the start of 2021. (And I’m still not finished, partly because there are 15 seasons but also because I’ve been watching lots of other things as well.) In April and May last year, when I was very anxious about everything, it helped to watch someone else’s terrible day play out on ER. It also helped that the first few seasons are really good. The storylines are diverting and the writing is quirky and fun. It feels like an ensemble, workplace drama. It’s about more than just the hospital. It stays pretty good until around the end of season eight, when Mark Green dies and Dr Romano has his first run-in with the helicopter. After that they start recycling storylines, and it gets a bit sanctimonious. By the end of season 12, you start to see the influence of Grey’s Anatomy – the final episode ends with a Snow Patrol song and the lives of several beloved characters are in peril.

Long before that, around season eight, these posters start appearing around the ER. There’s one near the admit desk, one in the doctor’s lounge, another in the lift. They say, in big cartoon letters, Cure Autism Now. Nobody ever refers to them but once you notice them, they seem to be everywhere and those big letters feel more like propaganda than set dressing. Every time I spot one, I get annoyed. Season eight of ER was first broadcast in the US in late 2001 and early 2002, so these posters are 20 years old and yet still making me angry.

The posters make regular appearances until around season 12, though I’m still seeing glimpses of the one in the lift in season 13. I assume they are linked to Cure Autism Now (CAN), a charity set up in 1995 by Portia Iversen and film producer Jonathon Shestack, who has an autistic son. There were a lot of Hollywood people at CAN fundraisers in the late 1990s. In 2007, it merged with Autism Speaks which is the controversial charity that Sia apparently consulted with when making her film Music. The autistic community have come out strongly against this film and how it depicts autism and autistic people. Autism Speaks, and CAN before it, is an organisation that was set up and run by parents, doctors and scientists who are very interested in researching autism. As far as I can tell, there are few, if any autistic people involved in either organisation. The two groups also share a distrust of vaccines and a misguided belief that they are linked to autism.

There is an anti-vax episode in season seven of ER. It’s called A Walk in the Woods. It’s mostly about Dr. Luka Kovač trying to help a dying bishop (played by James Cromwell), while also confronting his own faith. The child with measles who arrives in the ER is just a sub-plot. A heavily didactic sub-plot. Dr Carter has to get out a medical book to diagnose the disease because nobody in the ER has seen a case of measles in real life before. (This was 2001, I wonder if that would still be true today?) We find out the child has not been vaccinated, and blame is placed squarely with the mother. She’s rich, of course and very career-orientated. She’s slow to arrive to the ER because she was in court. We also learn that she was in Paris recently for work and brought the family with her. When the child dies, the show makes sure we know that it was all her fault. The doctors in the ER are very clear to tell her that vaccinations do not harm children, they do not cause illnesses, that vaccines saves lives.

When I was trying to find out more about the terrible posters, I stumbled upon this Newsweek interview with CAN co-founder Jonathon Shestack from February 2001, shortly after the A Walk in the Woods episode aired. The interview is in response to that episode, and while he makes some valid points about parents of autistic children being dismissed by doctors, which I’m sure does happen, he also goes hard on the idea that vaccines could be dangerous saying “there are very legitimate concerns and questions about vaccines and vaccine safety.” He also says that they found out about the episode from “[“ER” star] Anthony Edwards, who’s on the CAN board of directors” and whose character (Dr Mark Green) does not play a part in the measles storyline.

Vaccines do not cause autism. Let me state that again in case there is any doubt – there is no evidence linking vaccinations and autism. This unproved idea lodged itself in the public imagination in the 1990s and didn’t go away.The research that first suggested the link has been completely de-bunked. It was such bad research that the doctor who published it has had his medical license revoked. It was never true, it was never even close to true but the media ran with it anyway and people seemed to want to believe it so it stuck around for a stupidly long time. (The episode of You’re Wrong About from February 1, does a really good job of summing up how stupid it all was in a very concise way. It’s explained by a guest host, the writer and reporter Eric Michael Garcia, who is also autistic.)

Could the posters that I find so offensive been added to the ER set because of the upset that the anti-vax episode caused? Were they some sort of apology? Did someone decide they were necessary in order to show balance? I wish I knew but unfortunately It’s an unknowable mystery, along with all the other questions I have about those posters. I wonder how the cast and crew felt about them and if some directors set up scenes in locations where these posters would be caught by the camera while others tried to avoid getting them in shot? Did the scriptwriters consider it? Were the actors aware of sharing a scene with this message?

They are all the unanswerable questions but I’ve also been thinking a lot about why I find these posters so egregious. Basically I find them insulting because I don’t think autistic people need to be cured and to talk about a cure for autism feels like proclaiming you want to cure homosexuality. The posters are out-dated now. Even Autism Speaks removed the word “cure” from their mission statement in 2016. To insist on finding a cure for autism instead of accommodating for it, like you would for someone in a wheelchair or someone who was deaf or blind, just feels wrong.

Another early ER storyline involves Dr Peter Benton’s baby son Reece, who is deaf from birth. Benton is very keen to find a way to fix this, and is investigating cochineal implants. He meets a strong minded deaf doctor who believes he would be taking something from Reece by repairing his hearing and removing him from the deaf community. The surgery isn’t suitable for Reece so the storyline doesn’t really go anywhere, but it’s an idea that has stuck with me. That difference can be a good thing, that is gives you access to a different world.

One of the few live theatre shows I managed to see during 2020 was Everything I (Don’t) Know About Autism at the Peacock. It was a great show, a real live insight into what life is like for autistic people. It was written by Jody O’Neill and you can read about her process here. (Photo by Ros Kavanagh)

In an interview with the Irish Times, award-winning author Naoise Dolan, says the world is not fit for her as an autistic person, not the other way round. She describes the division between high functioning and low functioning autistic people, as something that “that priorities the needs of neurotypical people, not the needs of autistic people.” She continues “I spent a lot of my life intensely masking my autism. And I am therefore perceived as ‘high functioning’ because it creates fewer problems for those around me. But for me, it creates lots of problems.”

The posters annoy me but they also exist in the past. I think we’ve moved on from that time, and have learnt to be more accepting of those who are different. I’ve watched over 150 episodes of ER in the last year and a half and I don’t think they’ve treated a single autistic patient. We see more representations of autistic people on screen now, and we also hear from autistic writers and creators; people like Naoise Dolan and Eric Michael Garcia and Hannah Gadsby. Vulture wrote about this earlier this year. The autistic community has a stronger voice now as well. They demonstrated that earlier this year with the furore around the movie Music.

Naoise Dolan’s novel Exciting Times. It’s very good.

It often feels like the world is built for a narrow cohort of people. It still works best if you are a straight, white, able-bodied, neurotypical, heterosexual man. We need to make more room for those who don’t fit that profile because there are a lot of us. We all need to work harder to accommodate those who are different, because who wants to live in a world built for that man anyway? Spending an evening with those guys would be very boring. The night would get a lot more interesting when you add different types of people to the party. Society is better when everybody can participant in it.

Those decades old poster annoy me so much because they shut down and shut out people who are different. If you don’t fit in the square hole, if you don’t fit the traditional storyline, then you are broken and need to be cured. They are looking at autism the wrong way round; saying let me cure you, instead of how can I help. In post-pandemic 2021, we should be ready to change society instead of expecting autistic people to change.

2 thoughts on “How do you cure ignorance?

  1. We (my wife and I) are also re-binge-watching ER and we were also wondering about those posters, expecting them to be linked to scientifically outdated views on autism somehow. The fact instead there might be a link with anti-vax point-of-views (which are even stronger now) is troubling.

    1. The anti-vax link is pure speculation on my part, mostly based on when the posters started appearing. Views around autism have changed a lot in the last 20-25 years (for the better!), so the posters are sort of reflecting the ideas of the time. I don’t know how much CAN relied on science though.

      Thanks so much for your comment. I like knowing that other people are coming across these posters and wondering what the story is. I hope you’re enjoying your re-watch. I finished earlier this year, I really enjoyed the last season and thought they did a great job of the final episode.

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