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.