Autism Speaks Partnering With Google Sparks Backlash Online

A research project spearheaded by the controversial autism advocacy organization Autism Speaks and the tech behemoth Google has drawn the ire of some Twitter users, who believe that it is designed to eradicate autism entirely.

MSSNG, which was launched in 2014, involves the collection and sequencing of DNA from people with a personal or family history of autism. Per ABC, the two absent letter I's from the word "Missing" in the title are meant to represent genetic research gaps.

Such genetic material is stored in a database that was built with Google technologies. Currently, data on 11,312 individuals, including 5,102 with autism and 6,079 without autism, is available, according to a PDF that can be downloaded from the project's website.

The project's homepage says this information will be shared widely with researchers in the hopes of eventually enabling "the identification of many subtypes of autism" to allow for "personalized and more accurate treatment."

However, the project, which some have interpreted as an effort to purge a specific phenotype from the human gene pool, has been roundly criticized on Twitter.

On March 30, the popular Twitter page @AnarchistMemeCo shared a screenshot of the MSSNG Project's website homepage accompanied by screenshots of Tweets that read, in part, "I am not a disease, please do not try to f***ing cure me" and "f*** google and f*** Autism Speaks."

The post seemed to strike a chord with many other netizens. As of Wednesday afternoon, it had racked up more than 32,000 likes. Many decried the project as an example of "eugenics." One commenter even compared it to Nazi policy.

"Something about pushing specific 'undesired' traits out of the gene pool sounds like a certain group of people from WW2," they wrote.

I mean yeah but It's about principal, not methodology. Removing the genes through science and killing the person have the same effect of curating the gene pool.

— Manic (Evil) (@ManicComix) March 31, 2021

However, dissent was on display in the replies as well. Some commenters argued that critics of MSSNG that were making this accusation overlooked what they see as the pronounced negative impact autism can have on the overall quality of life.

"It's not an attack on autistic people to say autism should be cured. It is a medical condition that hinders human development/behavior," user @backlogrob wrote. "Learning to live with autism and feeling good about yourself doesn't mean doctors shouldn't study it more for a cure. This is not mean to say."

Actually, you could lead a full life just fine if the world wasn’t centered around catering to neurotypicals and condemning autistics for what we can’t do. Autism is only considered a disability because it causes people to function in a way considered non-efficient for society.

— micah loves noasaki (@MagicalAidol) March 30, 2021

In turn, those critics contended that the negative impact in question only existed because "neurotypical" people—people who think and act in a way that is considered acceptable and "normal" by broader social standards—stigmatizes autism for the purposes of creating a cognitively homogeneous society.

"Actually, you could lead a full life just fine if the world wasn't centered around catering to neurotypicals and condemning autistics for what we can't do," user @MagicalAidol wrote. "Autism is only considered a disability because it causes people to function in a way considered non-efficient for society."

Autism Speaks told Newsweek that criticism of the MSSNG Project stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the project's mission. Contrary to popular belief, chief science officer Tom Frazier said, the project is intended to improve interventions and treatments for autism and associated conditions, not eliminate autism.

"There's this sort of misconception that somehow the MSSNG Project is about finding an autism gene and then doing gene therapy to get rid of autism. That is a very, very bad misconception, I would say, of the project. The project really is about actually trying to understand the biology of people with autism so that we can identify the kinds of interventions and supports that they might need," he said.

While Autism Speaks did previously list finding a "cure" for autism in its mission statement, it has since dropped the word, partly in response to concerns, Frazier said.

"I think some people either weren't paying attention to that change or they decided that they didn't believe it," he said.

"And so what my wish for this sort of situation is, [is] that people would take that change seriously, because the people at Autism Speaks, including the autistic people at Autism Speaks, have embraced that change and have said, 'Look, this is not about finding a cure. This is about providing people with interventions and supports. This is about maximizing people's human thriving.'"

The topic of autism and autistic representation has been hot on the internet in the past few months. Earlier this year, singer Sia received major backlash for the way her movie Music represents people with autism.

Update 4/28: This story has been updated to include comments from Autism Speaks. A previous version of this article was published with the headline "Autism Speaks Partnering With Google to 'Cure' Autism Sparks Backlash."

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Google has come under fire for partnering with controversial organization Autism Speaks. Getty/David Paul Morris