Once upon a time, on a primitive, ignorant, prejudiced planet, it sometimes happened that children were born who differed from the others of their species. Their thought processes tended to be more visual, and they often had difficulty with speech. They took longer to learn certain skills. Sometimes they needed help with their activities as adults.
Their differences did not matter in the small farming villages of the planet's past, where every pair of hands that could make use of a plow or a hoe was needed. But this all changed when an industrial society developed. Those who could not work efficiently in the factories were denounced as having no place in that society.
Defective genes, the doctors proclaimed ominously. There are institutions for children like that, the parents were told. Send them away, forget they were ever born, and try again for a more socially acceptable child.
Some doctors went into the institutions and conducted studies on the isolated, deprived, abused, and uneducated children who had been abandoned there. As a result of these studies, the medical profession declared authoritatively that very few of the unfortunates stricken with this tragic affliction would ever be able to talk, read, work, or do anything productive at all. Dead weight on society, the medical journals and the popular press described them. A prenatal test was soon developed to rid society of that burden.
The institutions were shut down for lack of funding, and the small number of parents who opted against abortion raised their children at home. The parents discovered that most of these children, when raised in a loving home and properly educated, could in fact learn to talk, read, and work. Some families even sought to adopt other such children.
But it made no difference to the prenatal testing regime, now firmly entrenched in public opinion and in standard medical practice. The few remaining individuals of this despised minority began to feel as if they were the last specimens of an endangered species. Some of them became civil rights activists and protested at genetics conferences and other such events. Others wrote passionate essays calling for justice and tolerance. Their efforts went almost unnoticed by the media and the doctors, and they continued to be described as hopeless sufferers whose very existence was a tragedy.
Eventually, like ripples spreading across the surface of a long-stagnant pond, a new meme began to make its way into the public consciousness. The supporters of neurodiversity, as it was called, held the belief that differences in brain structure deserved as much respect and acceptance as other types of diversity. They began to persuade their fellow citizens that differences of thought and perception should be celebrated, not destroyed.
And the last few survivors, as they mourned the millions lost over so many years, could only wonder why it had taken so long...
Is this just speculative fiction? An imaginary account of a warped future in which "charitable" efforts to eradicate autism have succeeded? Well, actually, no. It's a completely factual description of what happened to the Down Syndrome population over the past century or so. They had the misfortune to be identified as a genetically distinct group by Dr. Down just as the odious racist ideology of eugenics was becoming socially accepted. Because of a superficial resemblance to Asian facial characteristics, they were labeled with the slur mongoloid, which (to a society that was strongly prejudiced against Asians) connoted racial inferiority.
They became so thoroughly despised in the 20th century, based mainly on false assumptions and stereotypes, that our society now takes it for granted that all DS babies should be aborted because no parents would want to endure the hideous ordeal of raising such a child. (This grossly skewed viewpoint is very far from most parents' actual experience, by the way; there's a long waiting list for adoption of DS babies, and many of the applicants are parents who already have a DS child.)
People with Down Syndrome are very well aware that our society treats them like vermin. A group of DS activists disrupted a conference on prenatal screening in 2003, demanding an end to eugenic abortion. Some have given interviews asserting their pride and worth, such as artist Anya Souza, or written intense essays like Astra Milberg's haunting Letter to a Baby Who Was Thrown from a Bridge. These are cries for justice from survivors of a genocide, and they have gone largely unheard.
I am posting this article not just to show solidarity with their struggle, but also to illustrate just how easy it is to construct a cultural myth so powerful, so insidious, that large numbers of otherwise rational and decent people will sacrifice their children to it in lockstep, like the parents of ancient Carthage who willingly flung their newborns into the flaming maw of the idol Ba'al.
In Constructing Autism, a professor describes how a similar process is shaping social attitudes toward today's autistic population. Instead of the concerns about industrialization and race that led to society's brutal rejection of people with Down Syndrome, the current mass hysteria about autism has its roots in more contemporary issues—environmental pollution, rapid technological change, and widespread challenges to cultural taboos.
Eugenics advocates such as Cure Autism Now (CAN) are spreading primitive propaganda reminiscent of the medieval changeling myth, in which fairies were said to have stolen young children and left demon-babies in their place. (Here's a more modern tale from the changeling's point of view.) When autistic children are routinely portrayed by CAN and others as empty shells infested by neurological demons, that leads inevitably to the conclusion that they are not human beings, not worthy of civil rights or even life itself. History has made it very clear what happens to any minority group that is vilified in such a manner.
The construction of the monstrous idol on which society intends to sacrifice our babies is nearing completion; piles of firewood are stacked nearby, well soaked with oil; and the torches are blazing.