Image is the TikTok logo which is a white music note set on a black background

AWN condemns TikTok “Autism Challenge” amid other failures to protect marginalized people from abuse on social media

AWN is troubled by the sudden popularity of the “Autism Challenge” dance challenge on TikTok, but where users encourage each other to film short clips pretending to dance by flapping their hands and making other facial expressions and body movements meant to imitate and mock autistic people, all set to a soundtrack making fun of disabled people’s movements. Although TikTok has removed many of the videos and suppressed the hashtag, the mere fact that its platform enabled this hashtag to reach viral status is indicative of the ableism that proliferates on social media platforms and leads to harassment, abuse, and other violence.

Some studies have estimated that over 90% of autistic young people report severe bullying. Autistic and other developmentally disabled people are at least seven times more likely than nondisabled people to be targeted for sexual violence. It is no surprise that many of our community members face rampant, widespread bullying, abuse, and threats online, that reflect the same attitudes behind pervasive abuse and violence in real life. Those who have no qualms about physically attacking, sexually assaulting, robbing, or abusing autistic people will always be emboldened by societal acceptance of flagrant mockery and blatant cruelty.

“These videos are not disturbing because autistic people are overly sensitive or easily offended,” said Sharon daVanport, AWN’s Executive Director, “but because they help promote and spread the same attitudes that lead to real-world violence against autistic kids and autistic adults.”

Even worse, while enabling the “Autism Challenge,” TikTok also came under fire recently for hiding videos made by disabled people themselves, which itself evoked the memory of unsightly beggar policies that had targeted Black and Native disabled people in particular as unfit to participate in public life. In an incredibly paternalistic statement, TikTok ironically claimed that it chose to hide videos from openly disabled, fat, and queer people as a way of protecting our communities from bullying and harassment.

For years, advocates have called attention to policies on various social media platforms that simultaneously suppress content made by marginalized people while failing to remove openly hateful content, including racist, ableist, antisemitic, or transmisogynistic content, among others, and targeted harassment of maginalized users. Trans people, Native people, and people leaving domestic violence have all faced account shutdowns over real name policies. Women of color, and especially Black women, have faced horrifying sexual harassment and abuse online that often translates directly into offline abuse, threats, and even stalking. Unabashed white supremacists and neo-Nazis proliferate across social media platforms, spreading hateful propaganda, encouraging doxing and threats to marginalized people, and enabling harassment both online and offline. Disabled people, especially multiply marginalized disabled people, also face consistent abuse, mockery, and unapologetically eugenicist hate speech online.

It is past time for social media companies to do better by marginalized communities, many of whom rely on those platforms to build connections, find support, and sustain relationships – especially during an unprecedented global pandemic that has disrupted most other modes of communication.