The Division Between NeuroDiversity Advocates and The Rest of The World5 min read

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.

Common Ground

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.

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  1. “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.”

    My sense, stem­ming as it does from my biog­raphy and devel­op­ment, is that the ground of progress (indi­vidual and col­lec­tive), requires us to access the meta-strata to being human out of which both the autistic and the social/societal emerge and across which the ten­sion between the two plays out. Nether autistic-being nor social/societal-being is that ground or has that ground in its grasp.
    Empirical data about that deeper ground and ‘the­o­rising’ about that ground is had in the expe­ri­ence of each and every indi­vidual who has had encounter with the autistic, from inside as it were or from out­side as it were. As we cur­rently stand most of our the­o­rising on this matter is being had from two some­what polarised view­points; namely the autistic and the social/societal; the autistic the­o­rising about the social/societal; the social/societal the­o­rising about the autistic. All that being had in myriad cir­cum­stan­tially shaped forms.
    Interaction between human beings allows for a tran­scen­dent frame of ref­er­ence to be had; and how our humanity evolves tends to par­take of that tran­scending.
    The dynamics of these two outcome-forms of being human have to each be non-reductively under­stood and respected. Its the ten­sion between the two that has to be most grasped and prized. Each offering a div­i­dend from out of the vortex from which all human forms emerge. Together offering a richer grasp of that vortex, deeper man­age­ment of what emerges from that vortex; really offering a new horizon of pos­si­bil­i­ties in being human.

    1. Colin Bowman, while I agree with most of your points, it’s dis­turbing that you would use a term such as “social/societal” to describe non-autistic people. It implies that autistic people can’t be social, and don’t care about society, which simply isn’t true. What’s wrong with just saying “non-autistic”?

      1. Author

        I think he means “main­stream” or the common (mis)understanding instead of social indi­vid­uals. He is saying (I think) that there is a gap between what we know of our­selves and how we are char­ac­ter­ized socially— by society at large.

    2. Author

      I somehow missed replying this com­ment when you left it. I would love to talk more about this.

  2. In the UK (and per­haps in Europe and else­where) we don’t have the Autism Speaks factor in the manner of the USA.
    We then see great con­ti­nental dif­fer­ences, regards: cul­ture, and pol­i­tics, and social/societal system and process, and academic/disciplinary thinking.
    Those fac­tors will intro­duce com­plexity into what basis we have for pro­gressing.

    1. I live in the UK myself and I would argue that while it’s not quite so bad, it would be foolish to say it doesn’t exist at all. Bias and mis­in­for­ma­tion exists every­where, sadly…

  3. Complete crap. Not once did this tedious, enti­tled rant men­tion non neu­ro­di­verse autis­tics. Yet again, trying to coer­cively assim­i­late everyone with autism into the autistic agenda. We aren’t inter­ested in joining the ND Kool Aid cult.

    1. Author

      We won’t wait up.

  4. Why can’t we just accept each other for who and what we are? Then we wouldn’t need to have advo­cacy groups for all the var­ious types of mar­gin­al­ized people.

    Given that we do not live in such a utopia, autistic people need to band together and advo­cate for our­selves and for those of us who don’t have a voice.

    I think the point of the autism advocacy/neurodiversity move­ment should be more to allow autistic people to decide for them­selves than to pro­fess to speak for or rep­re­sent the view­points of all when not everyone being rep­re­sented holds those view­points.

    For example, person first iden­i­tifca­tion — that’s fine, autistic iden­tity first — that’s ok too. However the indi­vidual person wants to self-identify must be accepted. I think that too much is made of this, and that too many people on both “sides” seem to think they speak for everyone when they make pro­nounce­ments about how autistic people should be iden­ti­fied. Personally, I think too much is made of the words people use, when it is the atti­tude behind the words that is far more impor­tant.

    Another thing is the con­cept of a “cure”. I am an autistic person who would not dream of get­ting rid of my autism, given the choice, because it is what I am. At the same time, I can under­stand the point of view of autistic people who want to get rid of the prob­lems asso­ci­ated with autism, and espe­cially that of par­ents who des­per­ately want to stop their chil­dren from suf­fering. I see myself as an advo­cate of the neu­ro­di­verse move­ment, but I think they should try to better sym­pa­thize with people who would like to lessen the neg­a­tive aspects of autism, without accusing them of being advo­cates for eugenics or for refusing to vac­ci­nate one’s chil­dren, or of con­doning weird crackpot “cures”.

    That’s where my first sen­tence comes into play. Of course, we can’t expect the entire human race, with all of its neurotypical-related weak­nesses, will ever be able to accept people they have labelled, in their minds, as “dif­ferent”. The way neu­rotyp­ical people are wired gives them a “sur­vival instinct” to reject people they per­ceive as dif­ferent from them­selves. It is some­thing inside them that they cannot change. However, many neu­ro­di­ver­gent people do not have that same com­pul­sion, and there­fore there is hope for us. We have the ability to accept others, even if their basic point of view dif­fers from our own. Therefore, we should exer­cise that ability, espe­cially with each other. As there is a spec­trum of autism, there is a spec­trum of points of view regarding autism, as well as a spec­trum of expe­ri­ences of autism, and any group pro­fessing to rep­re­sent or advo­cate for autistic people should respect those spectra as well.

    I do not think autistic people need to be “tol­er­ated” or “for­given”. Those words imply that we have done some­thing wrong (or even that our very exis­tence is wrong). The only reason NT people get upset about not being offered a hand­shake or being looked at in the eye is because those NT “sur­vival instincts” that they have wired into them tell them that people who do not behave and speak in a way that they con­sider “normal” pose a threat. They have no log­ical reason for feeling threat­ened, and they cannot explain it, and per­haps that is why some of them have such a strong neg­a­tive reac­tion to autistic people. Their bodies are telling them that they are being threat­ened, and some of them simply don’t have the mental capacity to analyse the sit­u­a­tion log­i­cally and realize there is no actual threat. This is how bul­lying starts, and why NT people end up ganging up on autistic indi­vid­uals to make sure they are rejected from social groups, from employ­ment sit­u­a­tions, and from life in gen­eral.

    If only there were a “cure” for neu­rotyp­i­cal­ness…

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