The Neurodiversity Movement is polarizing in the way any real civil rights movement is. It’s not inherently so. But when someone shines a bright light on dark truths, people are often surprised to find themselves in its sweeping beam.
And, when people are confronted, directly or indirectly, and asked to make a change on an intangible thing, like an attitude or a thought pattern, they have to make a choice. Most good people have no idea about the biases and prejudices they hold and how those biases affect others.
There are not many people out there who say, “I hate autistic people;” however, it would be safe to assert that most people have internalized biases which manifest in ways that make life more difficult for autistic people.
Empathy is a double-edged sword and is something that is based on commonalities, and so the more degrees removed person A is from person B, the harder it is for A to empathize with B.
For example, a news report was featured this week on many local stations about recent research which indicated a high number of employees would prefer not to touch in office spaces, which could lead to policies banning hugs, pats on the back, and even handshakes from workplaces.
Commenters raged, reading this report as political correctness gone wild and equating handshakes with non-consensual sexual contact. Many people said, “We teach our sons to look people in the eyes and give them a good, firm handshake like a man should!”
No one, and I mean not one single person, said anything about how this policy would make workspaces more accommodating for the autistic people who have difficulties with physical touch due to sensory issues.
But, the point made– no matter what the political affiliation– was that it’s a time-honored tradition and a gesture of respect to shake hands over business. Those who won’t shake hands are weak, “special snowflakes,” and “too fragile for work.” And handshakes are only a single accommodation…
It’s unlikely that any of those people had any intentional malice towards autistic people; however, those internalized attitudes about the “normal” and “right” way to do things still harm autistic people. These attitudes are largely responsible for why more than 85% of autistic adults with at least a 4 year university degree are unemployed as compared to less than five percent of the general population.
But, the general population feels no conscious malice towards autistic people. They are doing what everyone else is doing and aren’t even thinking about autism. They don’t have to think about it until it hits close to home, usually when a child is suspected to be autistic or is diagnosed with autism. Then, families are going to be presented with two very different paradigms:
The medical/behavioral community v/s the autistic community
The medical community will tell people that there is an urgency for intense and immediate interventions to get ahead of the autism before it’s too late. Enter ABA therapy, Autism Speaks, and puzzle iconography. Parents usually start the therapy and eventually find themselves in social media groups for parents of autistic kids.
When a group has a large population of autistic people, inevitable clashes arise as non-autistic parents and autistic parents have conflicting perspectives about many issues. The loving, non-autistic parents are just doing what experts told them to do, and so they see the autistic people as hostile and creating division where there is none.
The division wasn’t intentional. But for parents to trust autistic people, that would mean that autism isn’t what they thought it was. They’d have to make a gear shift that autistic people can be wise, free-thinking, insightful people who can offer help instead of just accepting it.
They’d have to stop trusting the mainstream advice. But, autistic people seem radical when they tell the world to not try and change autistic children. It seems radical the first time you hear someone say, “We don’t want a cure for autism.”
Most autistic people felt that was radical the first time they heard it, too.
To change one’s perception about autism when an autistic person is a fundamental part of someone’s life is to force them to engage in a cognitive chain reaction and rearrange their whole perceptive framework for how they’ve thought about their loved ones and broader autistic society.
Sometimes, it means admitting to painful truths about how misinformation has potentially caused harm to a loved one.
It requires a lot of humility to break away from previously-held beliefs, especially when one belongs to social groups which share those beliefs.
Community and Division
Often, communities form out of necessity. There is safety in numbers. This happens because in the social landscape, accountability is everything. For majorities, communities are afforded the luxury of being able to achieve social consensus: if enough people agree, then it must be true. As long as everyone agrees, they live in harmony. If someone disagrees, it threatens the safety of the group.
In the autistic community, the stakes are high. It’s nearly impossible to find an autistic person who isn’t suffering from the impact of trauma and abuse. In our community, it’s not uncommon to lose our members or have them disappear without notice. We all know we may have lost another one of our fold when this happens.
We hear about the horrors of what has happened to people who have had the police called on them for seeming “weird,” of the children who are relentlessly bullied in schools, of the adults who are fired from jobs for asking sincere questions, and of the thousands of nuanced oppressions– largely unintentional– from the polite masses.
To anyone oppressed, “polite” is a silent killer. To talk about oppression, in any way, is going to be considered “political” and “rude.”
But, when an autistic person reads about something upsetting that has happened to autistic people, it’s impossible to not read it from the perspective of an oppressed person.
If you know a lot of other autistic people and participate in the community, it’s impossible to not see the impacts of this oppression every day. An autistic person has no choice but to see things from the bottom looking up. The angle is not flattering.
So autistic people and their embattled allies come to these discussions with a lifetime and community’s worth of baggage and trauma, and separating their passion from their tone is not exactly a simple task.
How Do We Move Forward? How is the gap bridged?
Moving forward twill require that we all dig deep and pull from the reserves of our humility, forgiveness, and patience. All of us.
Non-autistic people need to forgive autistic people for their strong reactions and blunt language. They also need to give autistic people space and room to speak.
Autistic people need to forgive non-autistic people for not knowing what the mainstream has hidden from them.
I propose we all unite on the front of despising Autism Speaks. If we could render that oppressive dinosaur impotent, at least half the source of our conflict disappears.
This article was originally an introduction to Eileen Lamb’s anti-neurodiversity article, which can be viewed here.