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TikTok Responds to 'Autism Challenge' Backlash Thanks to Disability Advocates

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TikTok has gained momentum as a social network in part because of its viral challenges. Advocates in the autism and disability communities say a new challenge, however, has gone too far.

Called the “autism challenge,” typical TikTok users took to the platform to share videos mocking people on the spectrum using offensive movements and dance moves. The TikTok “autism challenge” gained momentum starting May 13, and prompted a backlash among self-advocates and disability organizations. They argued the offensive videos violated the platform’s safety protocols and community guidelines, and petitioned TikTok to remove the videos.

“The Autism Society demands that TikTok condemn and shut down the offensive ‘Autism Challenge’ that mocks people with autism and other disabilities,” the Autism Society said in a statement. “Every individual, regardless of neuro-diversity, should be treated with dignity and respect. TikTok’s lack of response to terminate the challenge among its users encourages a hateful message and hostile environment.”

TikTok already has a contentious history with the disability community. A December 2019 report found that TikTok marked the accounts of people with disabilities, including autism, as “vulnerable.” These videos were de-prioritized on the platform, which limited those videos’ discoverability. Such policies were found to be discriminatory, though the company said the moderation guidelines were designed to prevent cyberbullying.

“Early on, in response to an increase in bullying on the app, we implemented a blunt and temporary policy,” TikTok said at the time. “While the intention was good, the approach was wrong and we have long since changed the earlier policy in favor of more nuanced anti-bullying policies and in-app protections.”

In response to the latest autism challenge, others — most notably gossip columnist Perez Hilton — said the challenge is an expression of free speech and shouldn’t be removed from TikTok. Hilton argued that TikTok is “already overly oppressive” with its moderation, adding, “I believe in free speech and expression, even if I disagree with what’s being said.”

It’s such a bummer that this is a trend on TikTok, BUT they are already overly oppressive on that platform! I believe in…

Posted by Perez Hilton on Saturday, May 16, 2020

However, advocates pointed out the TikTok trend dehumanizes people and mirrors the difficulties many autistic people face in the real world. A 2012 survey found 63% of kids on the spectrum said they were bullied, 39% of whom said they were bullied in the last month. Bullying is a risk factor for mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and suicide.

“Growing up with autism, I was bullied, I was mocked in many cases,” autism self-advocate Kerry Magro shared in a video about the trend, adding:

I know we have a strong strong community of advocates who will hopefully really speak up about this topic so we could see these videos removed as fast as humanly possible. I often say that it takes a village and I hope that our village can get behind this effort because nobody should be ridiculed.

In response to the backlash, a TikTok spokesperson told autism advocate Anna Kennedy that the “autism challenge” did violate its community standards, indicating the platform would take action against offending videos.

“This content does not reflect our values and is against the code of conduct outlined in our Community Guidelines,” the spokesperson said. “We will take action on any content that violates our policies.”

Header image via Kon Karampelas/Unsplash

Originally published: May 18, 2020
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