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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10 Comments

  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:

    https://misslunarose.home.blog/2019/03/30/attacking-ableists-why-it-fails-and-how-to-change-their-minds/

    https://www.wikihow.com/Encourage-Someone-to-Participate-in-Autism-Acceptance-Instead-of-Autism-Awareness

    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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