But we just want to help people like you.

In many respects, I think the subject heading says it all.

I hear this a lot lately, primarily from undergraduate students who find autistic self-advocacy reprehensible and/or incomprehensible. In fact, at our protest this fall, someone actually came up to us and said, “If you can self-advocate, then you’re not autistic.” Way to disempower much?

Here is the wonderfully circular logic that has come to constitute much of my advocacy life lately:

Me: What you’re doing is hurtful.
Them: But we just want to help people like you.
Me: You’re not helping. Please stop.
Them: But we just want to help people like you.
Me: But you’re not helping.
Them: BUT WE JUST WANT TO HELP PEOPLE LIKE YOU!!

I’ve spent the past few months trying to devise smart-ass responses to this statement.

  • But I just want to torture people like you.
  • Oh! Yes! Of course! I’m sorry! I forgot that this was all about you!
  • *cuing echolalia* BUT WE JUST WANT TO HELP PEOPLE LIKE YOU!!

And herein lies the frustration: Advocacy isn’t advocacy if it’s merely a synonym for self-interest. If the people you’re claiming to serve are objecting to your help, are telling you that you’re being hurtful… shouldn’t that give you pause?

I have no reason to be grateful for your hurtfulness. I shouldn’t have to grovel because you’re wearing a t-shirt with a puzzle piece on it, or because you’re raising funds to prevent people like me from existing. I shouldn’t have to look you in the eye, tear up, and utter an inflected “thanks” because it makes you feel good about yourself.

My lack of gratefulness isn’t an ASD symptom. My lack of gratefulness doesn’t mean that I’m not disabled. My lack of gratefulness isn’t impoliteness, smugness, self-centeredness, theory of mindlessness, or some other bad-sounding, mega-autism, amorphous blob thing. I shouldn’t have to wake up feeling grateful every morning, as though gratefulness is some sort of requisite pre-condition for being developmentally disabled.

Would you feel grateful for people who want to “eradicate” people like you?

Would you feel grateful for people who refer to you and your loved ones as an “epidemic,” as a “global public health crisis,” as a “disease” more prevalent than “pediatric AIDS, cancer, and diabetes combined”? Would you feel grateful for people who make a career out of representing you and others like you as creatures of pity, contagion, and fear?

Would you feel grateful for people who ask you, in front of large crowds, how old you were when you were toilet-trained? How you manage to have sex? How you wake up every morning knowing that you are you?

Would you feel grateful for people who call your parents “heroes” because they didn’t put you up for adoption?

Would you feel grateful for people who start up college groups that patronize you? Groups that claim to be your “voice,” yet never even consult you? Groups that devise activities meant “for” you or your “benefit,” yet in their very design exclude you and people like you? Make-up parties, gala balls, sorority cookouts, sensory unfriendly films, massive and crowded walks — boisterous, clamorous, noisy events, events advertised to help you, all the while raising funds to get rid of you?

Would you feel grateful for people who claim you don’t exist, merely because you’re over 21? Because you’re a woman? Because you claim to have a sexual orientation?

Would you feel grateful for people who disprove of, and ardently protest, your decision to have children? Would you feel grateful for people who work to revise custody laws so that people like you can’t single-parent or adopt?

Would you feel grateful for people who call you mysterious, puzzling, special, and heroic — because you’re you? (And, of course, being you isn’t something they’d wish on anyone.)

Would you feel grateful for people who regularly describe your body language, ways of gesturing, and ways of interacting as disturbing, inappropriate, deviant, clinical, and abnormal? Would you feel grateful for people who tell you that the way you think, act, know, and sense are all wrong?

Would you feel grateful for people who segregate you from your classmates, people who claim that who you are as a person will have detrimental effects on your peers’ intellectual development?

Would you feel grateful for people who tell you that you’re an “exception” and therefore nothing you say even matters? Would you feel grateful for people who question your diagnosis simply because you disagree with them?

Would you — should you — feel grateful for people who constantly tell you how ungrateful you are?

Would you feel grateful for these people? Seriously? Truly? Because, if that’s the case, perhaps I can teach you how to flex your ungrateful mind muscles.

**

In other news: I’m back, after a small hiatus. Academic life has been a bit hectic (understatement) these past few months.

Columbus protest against Autism Speaks

On Sunday, October 10, I joined forces with a dozen individuals and protested the Autism Speaks Walk for Autism at Ohio State. We faced 18,000 walkers, several of whom screamed at us, berated us, tried to exact physical harm upon us. One walker had to be physically restrained by a friend and a walk official; and at another point, a car full of walkers swerved at our faculty advisor in a mock attempt to hit her, and they drove off laughing.

Me, a white woman with blonde hair, holding a blue sign that reads People not puzzles. There is also a light blue puzzle piece crossed out in red on the poster.

Me holding a sign: "People not puzzles!"

I managed to maintain my composure throughout the protest, regardless of the insults thrown our way, regardless of the noise and clamor and overt hostility of the event. But then I came home and started sifting through an hour’s worth of video footage — and I broke down. Sobbing, shaking, rocking. It was so intense, all so intense.

I don’t want the next generation of autistic people to face this crap. I want it to be different for them. I want them to take pride in who they are as autistic people, and I want those who love them to take pride in who they are as autistic people. I want autistic ways of thinking, being, and knowing to be valued and validated. I want autistic people to have a say in the decisions that concern them.

And most importantly, I want there to be autistic people.

Video recaps of the protest:

Our protest attracted media attention from 10TV, ABC 6, and independent journalists. Even today — Wednesday, four days later — random strangers notice the Autistic Pride button on my backpack and exclaim, “Hey! I saw you on the news! You talked about where the money goes for that autism walk.” These things help — knowing that our four-hour ordeal has had some tangible effect, has furthered our cause.

We were featured on the ABC 6 news, and I provided a brief soundbite:

We also created our own video of the protest. Nick J. was our cameraman extraordinaire, and I did the editing. The video is still painful for me to watch — especially toward the end, while we’re chanting Autism Speaks needs to listen, and, in an alarming touch of irony, the walkers drown us out by collectively screaming O-H-I-O!

As I replay the clip, I have to cover my ears, tuck my chin down into my chest, breathe heavy. It is hard to watch, but it is a poignant example of Autism Speaks’ attempts to silence us, to refuse to listen to us, to never let autistics speak.

This post wouldn’t be complete without a thank you. Thank you. An incredible number of people, local and distant, helped us through this protest. And despite the protest’s emotional toll, perhaps even because of the protest’s emotional toll, I’m glad we did it. And I know that we need to continue doing it. Change is long and hard. But it’s happening.

Protesters face the crowd of walkers

Protesters face the crowd of walkers

How to train your baby to be neurotypical

On June 23, I attended the Nisonger Autism Institute, a day-long, invitation-only conference that focused on transition across the lifespan. I’ve been wanting to write on my experience there for some time now, but needed a month in order to cohere my thoughts (and to lower my, um, blood pressure).

I should start off by saying that I’m glad, very glad, that they invited me to attend. Moreover, if they host another institute next year, I hope I’m re-invited. In fact, I hope they they invite a heck of a lot more self-advocates. While there, I was told that the attendance tally was somewhere around 110 people and that only three attendees were autistic. This seems to be par for the course with the autism-centric conferences I’ve attended, unfortunately. It’s not a happy sort of feeling.

Not only were the autistic people missing — so too were the parents. The only parents there, generally speaking, doubled as service providers or professional advocates (e.g., teacher’s aides, psychologists, ASA officers). The sad irony? All of the presenters, to the point of redundancy, stressed how important it is to include family members and self-advocates in “the conversation” — yet there were hardly any family members or self-advocates in this particular conversation.

The highlights of the conference, for me, were Pat Cloppert’s presentation on middle school, as well as the presentation on adulthood by Tom Fish, Benzion Chinn, and Patrick Meehan (the latter two being autistic self-advocates).

What I really, really have been itching to write about, though, was the keynote speaker — Sally Rogers of UC Davis. I knew things would be rocky when, at the start of her talk, she made a shout out to Geri Dawson, Autism Speaks’ Chief Science Officer. (One of our protest signs during last year’s AutSpks walk was: Congratulations, Columbus! You’ve just paid Geri Dawson’s salary. Heh.)

In essence, Rogers stressed the now common refrain about the importance of early intervention. And the neuro-normative biases of this presentation smacked me in the face, minute after minute. Rogers described “deviant” behaviors and “language delays deviance,” and then talked about eliminating “atypicalities” through therapy. More than once, she described autism as having “isolating effects” (you know, rather than mention anything about how a neuro-normative society isolates autistic people because they’re “deviant”), and she also posited that she wants to see “less disability and more function.”

Some of the assumptions undergirding her talk, assumptions that make my skin crawl:

  • It is better to be non-autistic than autistic.
  • All autistic behaviors (including, but not limited to, stimming, repetition, prosody, ways of communicating or expressing) need to be eliminated.
  • Autistic people’s challenges primarily arise from being autistic — this, as opposed to autists dwelling within a one-size-fits-all world. (I’m not saying that autism doesn’t cause challenges. I am saying, however, that representing autism/autistic people as a big bad problem to be eradicated is 1) flagrantly ableist and entrenched in a medical model of disability, and 2) deflects attention away from that ableism. I’m sure I’m saying other things, too. I just haven’t decided what else yet.)
  • One can train away autism.
  • We need to take as gospel all of the common, dehumanizing ideologies associated with functioning labels, or what it means to be a “functioning” (and thereby more human and desirable) person.

Toward the end of her talk, Rogers showcased several video clips: autistic babies vs. NT babies. And something really disturbing (I think) happened: when she prefaced a video with here’s a typically developing baby, the audience cooed, laughed, reacted happily. When she prefaced a video with here’s an autistic baby, the room grew silent, solemn, non-responsive.

A girl toddler with a book is being hugged by a boy toddler. The girl is younger and is looking away from the camera, while the boy is smiling, looking toward the camera, and pushing the girl's face toward the camera.

Pop quiz! Which one is disturbing, and which one is TEH CUTENESS OMGBBQ? </humanity fail>

I don’t laugh at babies. Unlike the pope, I don’t kiss babies that are thrown my way. I admit it — babies and I don’t jibe. In that moment, though, I wished I were a baby-liking sort of person — that at least I would have been reacting, laughing, or goo-gooing over the many cute autistic babies.

I don’t think that cute and autistic are mutually exclusive entities. And it’s disturbing to me that service professionals do not find (or behave as though they do not find) those whom they serve to be adorable, cute, beautiful, intelligent, or funny. Unless those whom they serve were to become “more typical,” that is.

At only one point did the audience react positively toward an autistic baby: when Rogers claimed that this baby, because of intensive therapy, was “virtually asymptomatic” and “as cute as can be.” Then the audience laughed.

*headdesk*