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Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Postpones Panel on Autism Awareness Following Backlash from Harvard Undergrads

The Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center postponed an event after a petition organized by Harvard College students condemned the school for publicizing it.
The Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center postponed an event after a petition organized by Harvard College students condemned the school for publicizing it. By Allison G. Lee
By Vivi E. Lu and Leah J. Teichholtz, Crimson Staff Writers

A research center at the Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center has postponed a panel on autism awareness after an undergraduate-authored petition garnered more than 1,400 signatures condemning the College for publicizing the event.

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

The event, described as a “multidisciplinary panel to explore Autism beyond conventions,” was set to feature nine speakers. After the petition was circulated, the event listing for the panel, which was set to occur virtually last Wednesday, was taken down.

“One of the panel’s goals is to highlight methods of ‘treating’ Autism. This is not only violently ableist but scientifically incorrect,” the petition reads. “Adding in phrases like ‘how to communicate’ and ‘savant autism’ in conjunction suggest an alien-like nature to Autistic people. We are human, too.”

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

“We are grateful to those who brought important aspects of the event to light and always intend for our actions to be respectful and inclusive,” the statement read. “We are pausing, deeply reflecting and learning before we consciously take next steps.”

Kristin B. King ’23-’24 authored 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 they found the event “problematic from the get-go” 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 isn’t anything wrong with being autistic,” King said. “That’s something that autistic people have to say every single day of their lives.”

Nina M. Jensen ’25, an autistic student on a leave of absence who signed the initial petition, said she first learned about the event through the College’s Weekly Update email — a newsletter sent to undergraduates publicizing announcements and events every Thursday.

Jensen, who said she reached out to the College about the event’s inclusion in the email, said the College claimed that publicizing the event in the email does not constitute an endorsement.

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

Harvard College spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo wrote in an email to The Crimson that the Weekly Update is used to inform College affiliates about “events and engagement opportunities.”

“Items are submitted via Harvard and its affiliates,” he wrote. “Feedback 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 entitled “I Know You’re In There: Winning Our War Against Autism,” calling it “violent.”

Hinds said she understands the perspective of the petition and believes having autistic people on the panel would improve it, but she said she stands by the title of her book because it refers to her “personal war” raising an autistic son.

“Every once in a while, on a good day, I would catch a glimpse of the kid he was supposed to be before he slipped away again,” she said. “That’s the reason for the title, ‘I Know You’re In There: Winning Our War Against 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 an update to the petition that they met with a representative from the Sadhguru Center on Friday to suggest “education, reparations and public apology.”

“I’m hoping that this event came from a place of ignorance rather than malicious intent,” King said. “But certainly, with the depth of ignorance that came through in the different layers of problems that existed with the event, it came across really maliciously.”

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.

“While Harvard strives to improve itself in diversity and equity as it relates to race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, to name a few areas, it must also include disability,” Elwy wrote. “It’s time that Harvard takes responsibility and proactively works towards creating the inclusive community it claims to believe in.”

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

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

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