Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Postpones Autism Awareness Panel Following Backlash From Harvard Undergraduates | News

A research center at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center postponed a panel on autism awareness after a petition written by an undergraduate student garnered more than 1,400 signatures condemning the college for having made the event public.

The petition, widely circulated on Change.org, calls on Harvard College to “publicly withdraw its support” for an event titled “Autism Awareness: Thinking Outside the Box” hosted by the Sadhguru Center for a Conscious Planet – a multidisciplinary research center in BIDMC, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital. The authors of the petition alleged that the College implicitly supported the event by including it in a weekly update email to undergraduate students.

The event, described as a “multidisciplinary panel to explore autism beyond conventions”, was to bring together nine speakers. After the petition was circulated, the list of events for the panel, which was scheduled to take place virtually last Wednesday, was removed.

“One of the goals of the panel is to shed light on methods of ‘curing’ autism. This is not only violently ableist, but scientifically incorrect,” the petition read. “The addition of phrases such as ‘how to communicate’ and ‘savant autism’ suggests an extraterrestrial nature for people with autism. We are human too.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Sadhguru Center apologized for “any involuntary distress” due to the event and wrote that the Center had postponed the panel after learning of the petition’s concerns. .

“We are grateful to those who highlighted important aspects of the event and we always intend that our actions be respectful and inclusive,” the statement read. “We pause, think deeply and learn before consciously taking the next steps.”

Kristin B. King ’23-’24 wrote and circulated the petition among Harvard students and autism advocates at other colleges after the event was publicized in the weekly. The petition, originally a Google Doc, was signed by more than 170 Harvard affiliates before moving to Change.org, where it garnered many more signatures.

King said he found the event “problematic from the start” due to the lack of autistic speakers and the language used by the panelists.

“Talking about things like treating and curing autism is a really toxic narrative. There’s nothing wrong with being autistic,” King said. life.”

Nina M. Jensen ’25, an autistic furloughed student who signed the original petition, said she first heard about the event through the College’s weekly email update – a newsletter newsletter sent to undergraduate students advertising announcements and events every Thursday.

Jensen, who said he contacted the College about including the event in the email, said the College asserted that posting the event in the email did not constitute an endorsement.

“It’s really sad to see Harvard not taking responsibility for being part of this,” Jensen said. “Even if they’re not hosting the event, they should still have a better policy to avoid putting something like this in the weekly when it’s actually very harmful to students with autism.”

Harvard College spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo wrote in an email to The Crimson that the weekly update is used to notify College affiliates of “engagement events and opportunities.”

“Papers are submitted through Harvard and its affiliates,” he wrote. “Comments on specific events should be directed to the individual event sponsor.”

The petition specifically condemned the language of panelist Marcia L. Hinds, the author of a book called “I Know You’re In There: Winning Our War Against Autism,” calling it “violent.”

Hinds said she understands the perspective of the petition and thinks having people with autism on the panel would improve it, but she said she’s sticking to the title of her book as it references to his “personal war” raising an autistic son.

“Once in a while, on good days, I would catch a glimpse of the child he was meant to be before he slipped away again,” she said. “That’s the reason for the title, ‘I know you’re in it: Winning our war on autism.’ Autism was trying to steal my son and I couldn’t let that happen, and that’s why for me it was a war.

King wrote in a petition update that they met with a Sadhguru Center representative on Friday to suggest “education, reparations and a public apology.”

“I hope this event came from a place of ignorance rather than malicious intent,” King said. “But certainly, with the depth of ignorance that showed up in the different layers of issues that existed with the event, it came across in a really malicious way.”

Three co-founders of the Harvard Undergraduate Disability Justice Club also signed the original petition. HUDJ co-founder Benjamin T. Elwy ’23 wrote in an email to The Crimson that HUDJ “unequivocally supports” the petition and condemns Harvard’s promotion of the event.

“As Harvard strives to improve on diversity and equity as it relates to race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, to name a few areas, it must also include the disability,” Elwy wrote. “It’s time for Harvard to take responsibility and work proactively to create the inclusive community it claims to believe in.”

—Editor Vivi E. Lu can be reached at vivi.lu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @vivielu_.

—Editor Leah J. Teichholtz can be reached at leah.teichholtz@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @LeahTeichholtz.

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