Bullying, In-Fighting, and Abuse in the Autistic Community: A Call for Healing5 min read

Society at large is begin­ning to crumble. The rise of extremist ide­olo­gies and a gen­eral lack of com­pas­sion for our fellow human being is slowly poi­soning the very essence of civil­i­sa­tion. On a smaller scale, the indi­vidual com­mu­ni­ties that con­sti­tute society are in crisis, also.

The autistic com­mu­nity espe­cially is suf­fering. I fear now that in the battle for autistic accep­tance and advo­cacy, most of the casu­al­ties arise from friendly fire.

For some time now, I have watched as advo­cates (working hard to make the world a safer and more accepting place for autis­tics) feel the need to retreat and throw in the towel due to harass­ment and bul­lying online. Autistic advo­cates are in an uneven, David-and-Goliath com­pe­ti­tion with the well-funded, more accepted tragedy nar­ra­tives that come from orga­ni­za­tions like Autism Speaks.

We do the most with the least. Because of dis­crim­i­na­tion, poor access to sup­ports and accom­mo­da­tions, and fac­tors related to dis­ability, we’re often unem­ployed or dra­mat­i­cally under­em­ployed. It takes money, a large social net­work, and a lot of time to build a pres­ence online.

It’s very hard to carve out read­er­ship when the reality is that ableism, inspi­ra­tion porn, pseu­do­science, and even absurd con­spiracy the­o­ries. Let’s face it… most people would rather have their emo­tions and fears val­i­dated than to shown that they are causing harm.

We also have to be fiercely pro­tec­tive of our nar­ra­tive. If we are in the long haul of doing all of this work, which can be thank­less and trau­ma­tizing itself, it is dev­as­tating when other autis­tics rein­force harmful nar­ra­tives and ableist tropes.

Sometimes, autis­tics do this because they’re unaware of their own inter­nal­ized ableism, having been made to feel like a burden or a cross to bare for a parent. Sometimes, autis­tics exploit the fear and igno­rance of par­ents to advance a per­sonal agenda. Because the autistic people who say what par­ents want to hear are the ones who are most rewarded.

But much more is on the line than read­er­ship. Many autistic advo­cates are par­ents of autistic chil­dren. We have lost or fear losing those we love to sui­cide, abuse, med­ical neglect, fre­quently co-occurring med­ical con­di­tions, and even murder. Quite lit­er­ally, autistic advo­cates realize that what they do is life-or-death.

And some­times, per­haps, all of those strug­gles bleed into com­pe­ti­tion with other advo­cates. We know that our mis­takes are not for­given by the world, that stan­dards for per­fec­tion are unre­al­istic for us, and that we could lose our cred­i­bility and momentum with a single mis­step.

But there are colossal divides in our com­mu­nity that have dev­as­tating col­lat­eral. We need to heal these rifts. If we do not pull together soon, all of the col­lec­tive work we as advo­cates have done and the progress we have made could be set back years.

These divides are not typ­i­cally over major ide­o­log­ical dif­fer­ences like whether or not someone wants a cure or even if func­tioning labels are harmful. They’re usu­ally over how someone approaches an issue where there’s largely con­sensus.

Why do we fight over the finer details of autistic self-advocacy?

In my opinion, we lack a middle ground. Everyone is at the extreme ends of the spec­trum of opin­ions. This extremism becomes a cat­a­lyst for trouble when we con­sider the strong sense of fair­ness and jus­tice that is a defining char­ac­ter­istic of autis­tics. We are con­stantly trig­gering each oth­er’s warning sys­tems.

For many topics in the autistic com­mu­nity, extreme opin­ions are nec­es­sary. We are fighting a world that seeks to silence us, to make us “indis­tin­guish­able from our peers”. We live in a world that in itself only notices, plat­forms, and rewards the most rad­ical of posi­tions. This lack of a middle ground becomes a trigger for high emo­tions and loss of objec­tivity in dis­cus­sion. Conversations between advo­cates are so often reduced to bul­lying, harass­ment, and even threats.

The con­stant bul­lying and harass­ment is unac­cept­able. It is lit­er­ally destroying the well­being, and some­times the lives, of those who seek to create a safer world for all autis­tics. We have to eval­uate what it does to the move­ment when we dis­able other advo­cates by attempting to shun, shame, iso­late, and slander them with lies, rumors, par­tial truths, or high­lighting a moment of imper­fec­tion while ignoring years of work.

We should be sup­porting each other with a good faith system of inter­de­pen­dence instead of a battle royale. We should try to help each other avoid pit­falls instead of set­ting traps. We should cel­e­brate each oth­er’s suc­cesses. We should work to make sure we amplify and signal boost autis­tics who are mul­tiply mar­gin­al­ized and who face mul­tiple types of prej­u­dices.

There are people in this world that truly mean us harm. We cannot face them while our weaponised words are turned on our own com­mu­nity. We must regain our objec­tivity and learn to handle dis­agree­ments in a way that does not harm the neu­ro­di­ver­sity move­ment.

That is not to say that we must agree with each other all the time. This means that we con­sider how we handle those dis­agree­ments. We engage in good faith dia­logue with each other. We build trust with each other so that when dis­agree­ments arise, the other party knows that there is an authentic invest­ment in their suc­cess. They know that when we approach them, we gen­uinely want to see their work gain trac­tion and their mis­sion suc­ceed.

We make room for new advo­cates and sup­port them, give them tools to flourish, and help them to be pre­pared for the oppo­si­tion, hate, crit­i­cism, and sab­o­tage they will encounter from others out­side the com­mu­nity.

In this new decade, we must be a uni­fied move­ment, res­olute in our com­pas­sion and sup­port for not just our fellow autis­tics, but our fellow humans. The cur­rent model is not working. We must not pro­vide fuel for the flames of our detrac­tors.

Much like a failed sci­ence exper­i­ment, it is time now to move on; record the results of the cur­rent exper­i­ment, assess the issues with our cur­rent methods, and move onto a new par­a­digm– prefer­ably a par­a­digm that fea­tures love and sup­port for all people, not just those deemed worthy by their com­mu­nity or society as a whole.

Autistics are renowned for thinking out­side of the box. Let’s show the world how far out­side of the box we can go and not allow our com­mu­nity to crumble along­side the rest of society. Let’s make the 2020’s the decade when the neu­ro­di­ver­sity move­ment comes together and brings about true accep­tance of all autistic people– starting with each other.

David Gray-Hammond
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  1. Too little talked about because its critics fear being uncool, is how much loss of com­pas­sion was driven by alter­na­tive comedy. Its emo­tion­ally savage, often vio­lent and always bit­ingly uncaring, hooligan style that became dom­i­nantly fash­ion­able + yoof from 1982 onwards, + under whose influ­ence comedy still con­stantly tar­gets: sin­gle­ness, soft­ness, hurt by rejec­tion, sen­sory over­loading farts, + base untrust­wor­thi­ness run­ning all through life. Alternative comedy was like the school bul­lies taking over the TV, yet was done seri­ously imag­ining that it would make the come­dians into cool leaders of caring opinion encour­aging folks to vote their way!
    Alternative comedy shows utterly starkly why, between any 2 folks, building trust can only happen when there is will­ing­ness on both sides. One-sided self-risking ges­tures of “grace” towards bul­lies, which reli­gions have sug­gested to the naïve for thou­sands of years, have an unsur­prising total his­tory of not working. So there is no more fatal trap for bed­ding in the injus­tice + con­tin­uing the problem, than to blame or crit­i­cise anyone for not making one-sided per­son­ally risky ges­tures to lower defences, trying to build nice­ness with raging dogma tyrants who can be expected to give alter­na­tive comedy bru­tality in return.
    Hence, as in the Cold War, there can only be peace­making with defences kept up, + fair­ness defined as part of peace, + all progress 2‑sided.

    1. And Blue Peter too and Monty Python.

      The whole Joey Deacon thing, Maurice!

      Goodwill most def­i­nitely is needed.

      And grace towards bul­lies — the bul­lies will not appre­ciate it and will return your patro­n­i­sa­tion with interest and even more bul­lying.

      And reli­gions are trying to bol­ster their own power and inter­ests in this case.

      Peacemaking and defence.

  2. Every mar­gin­al­ized group is going to have mul­tiple leaders with dif­ferent thoughts on how to emerge from the barren waste­land they’ve been forced into. Look at the extreme dif­fer­ences in opinion between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Both of them wanted what was best for the black com­mu­nity in a time of vio­lence and seg­re­ga­tion, but their ideas of what that would look like were very dif­ferent. I think learning to get along with other advo­cates often starts with giving their inten­tions the ben­efit of the doubt. Adversaries can be rea­soned with, ene­mies can only be destroyed- so don’t make ene­mies out of adver­saries.

    Speaking of finding the best vehicle for our mes­sages, what if Last Week Tonight (on HBO in the U.S.) were to do a show on prob­lems with the pre­vailing nar­ra­tives in the media about autism? Ideally it would talk about why autistic advo­cates mostly dis­like Autism Speaks for their dehu­man­izing rhetoric and past anti-vax stances, and how ABA is the behav­ioralist cousin of gay con­ver­sion therapy. I know the show doesn’t exactly have a sug­ges­tion box for ideas, but if we got the idea trending on Twitter under some Last Week Tonight hash­tags, maybe they’d take a look?

  3. I find that a lot of the Autism related Facebook groups are rather toxic and I end up leaving them. I wish people would sup­port each other in these “sup­port” groups. Sometimes it is a matter of the admins acting toxic them­selves. I hope people work on coming together going for­ward instead of the oppo­site.

    1. Jen,

      I have never been to many of the Facebook groups and only the public ones.

      Can empathise with the effects of toxic admin­is­tra­tion and gov­er­nance.

    2. Agreed. I was blocked from a group because I dared to ask why they muted me, and then they gaslighted me when I didn’t under­stand. Crap like that is why we’re stereo­typed as insen­si­tive and lacking empathy. Word to the wise: Never join a Facebook group with “No Drama” in its name. Drama will inevitably ensue.

      1. I am sorry that hap­pened to you. I am trying to get my no-bullying allowed Autism chat group off the ground on Facebook
        but no luck yet.

  4. Love this. I agree- autistic advo­cates should not be tearing each other down. An example of this is TheAspergian being attacked for just using to word “Asperger’s” in their name.

    1. Would love a group called AutisticPrideWorldWide

      very rhymish.

      The worry, though, at least my worry, is that [the name] the Aspergian could be seen as reha­bil­i­tating bad things rather than putting them into the light.

  5. Sometimes I think that sharing links is my pri­mary form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Well, here I go again:



    Sometimes an ableist person is actu­ally a con­fused ally in dis­guise. Sometimes they say prob­lem­atic things because they don’t know better. When this hap­pens, a gentle and under­standing expla­na­tion (e.g. “I know you prob­ably haven’t heard that X is harmful; it’s great that you want to help autistic people and Y is a better way to do that”) can make a huge dif­fer­ence.

    I do a lot of parent out­reach. I believe that the battle against ableism will need to be fought in many ways, and one of those impor­tant ways is kind­ness.

    I’m pretty sure that one of the con­fused par­ents I reached out to is now a con­trib­utor to The Aspergian. That’s freaking awe­some!

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