Thursday, October 23, 2008

Some Emerson College alums angered by Denis Leary's autism comments

From The Boston Globe Oct. 23:

The irascible comedian and actor Denis Leary is one of Emerson College’s most prominent fund-raisers. A 1979 graduate, he has signed fundraising letters, performed a benefit at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, and donated proceeds from musical performances to his alma mater.

But comments Leary made in a forthcoming book that appear to blame “inattentive mothers and competitive dads” for rising incidences of autism have outraged some alumni and put the college in the uncomfortable position of defending its relationship with the comedian while distancing itself from his remarks.

The Boston school says it has received e-mails from about 40 alumni incensed that it uses Leary to raise money.

Sheri Dyas Mellott, a 1995 graduate and mother of two children with autism, noted that the college boasts a successful Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders, which trains undergraduate and graduate students to work with autistic children.

“I think it’s disgusting that a school that boasts that kind of program would be enlisting help from Mr. Leary,” said Mellott, adding that on Monday she had received an Emerson fund-raising letter signed by Leary and his wife, Ann Lembeck Leary, a 1985 graduate. “Whether in jest or not, it’s just in poor taste. And I think it’s offensive.”

David Rosen, an Emerson spokesman, said the college is drafting a letter apologizing to graduates who complained. He said alumni “were quite justifiably upset, but you have too look at the totality of this individual, who has done so much good for so many people.”

Leary, he said, “is a multi-talented actor and comedian who has done incredibly good" work for charities that combat Parkinson’s Disease and cancer and assist the families of the 343 firefighters who died in New York on Sept. 11. Leary, a Worcester native, also started a charity that raises money for fire departments after six firefighters from his hometown were killed in a 1999 warehouse blaze.

He also is a fixture on campus, where he informally advises students.

“He just does very, very good work, but on this particular issue he is misinformed, far off-base and his comments were not only not true but in poor taste,” Rosen said. Nevertheless, the comedian is a “good and loyal alum," he said.

In the book, "Why We Suck: A Feel Good Guide to Staying Fat, Loud, Lazy and Stupid,” Leary, in a chapter titled “Autism Schmautism," wrote: "There is a huge boom in autism right now because inattentive mothers and competitive dads want an explanation for why their [expletive] kids can't compete academically, so they throw money into the happy laps of shrinks."

The Autism Society of America has said Leary’s comments “reflect the same misconceptions of autism being caused by bad or unemotional parenting that were held over 50 years ago, misconceptions that have been completely disproven by the scientific community."

Leary has been sending a letter to parents who have complained to him and has released a statement saying the comments were taken out of context.

"The point of the chapter is not that autism doesn't exist, it obviously does and I have nothing but admiration and respect for parents dealing with the issue, including the ones I know," the statement said. "Too often in this country, everything gets reduced to simple sound bites and very, very often those sound bites are not truly representative of an author or artist's point of view."

Daniel Kempler, chairman of Emerson's Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders, which runs a clinic for autistic children, said Leary's comments "do not seem funny to me."

“Clearly, we evaluate and treat many children on the autism spectrum, and care about them and their families, and don’t take jokes about them lightly,” he said.