Autism, Empathy, Solidarity and Intersectionality

First, I want to apologise for the lack of posts this month. I’ve been very unwell since Christmas, battling fatigue and inflammation constantly (it’s hard to understand how literal the “flam” in “inflammation” is until you start suffering from a chronic inflammatory condition and can feel the heat radiating off your joints), as my immune system has been repeatedly hit by minor infections. I’ve managed quite a bit of writing since finishing The Glam Rock Murders, but most of it has gone on the second edition of Monkee Music, which sould be out next week, so not much has turned up here this month. I’m sorry.

I will be getting round to the various blog posts I’m committed to writing as soon as I am physically able, but today, even though I am not really well enough to write, I want to vent about something, and that is the constant bigotry against autistic people which even supposedly progressive people feel perfectly entitled to engage in.

In the last week or so, on Twitter I’ve seen:

A nasty group of transphobic shitheads producing an “education” pack aimed at teachers full of anti-trans bigotry. One of the things in it was “trans people are X times more likely to be autistic”, where X is some big, scary, number.

Trans people arguing with this shittery, but in doing so saying “only five percent of trans people are autistic so stop trying to scare people”. So, you know, thanks for implicitly accepting that being autistic is something to be scared of.

Disability Lib Dems retweeting stuff from Autism Speaks, and also having some fucking horrible ableist language about us on their website, including the claim that we have no empathy, no ability to make friends or understand other people, and that we are “being appearing [sic] to be stupid or thick”. They’ve since apologised for the tweets and started following and RTing some actual autistic Lib Dems, but the ableist stuff about us is still up on the website.

A left-wing sex-workers’ rights campaigner doing a long blog post about the alt-right’s influence in nerd spaces, saying in the middle of it “One of the main symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome is a pronounced inability to empathize with others” and then doubling down on this and making herself out to be a martyr under attack when called on this.

(The worst part of this, incidentally, is that she says this immediately after saying ” If you’ve never experienced any form of oppression, it’s easy to dismiss threats of violence or racial/misogynist slurs as “for the lulz.”… If you’re not in a group of people that has been targeted for genocidal extermination, then talking about throwing people in ovens and gas chambers means you’re just defying uptight PC culture.” Disabled people were literally the first group targeted for extermination by the Nazis, and Hans Asperger worked under the Nazis and sent disabled children to Spiegelgrund, a facility for exterminating disabled people. But apparently his view that we lack empathy still takes priority over our statements that we don’t, because no-one’s more of an expert on empathy than someone who kills disabled children to enforce Nazi racial purity laws…)

A load of other people who are normally on the side of the oppressed, like Brooke Magnanti, retweeting this hateful shit with approval.

Joyce Carol Oates saying autistic people “are said to feel no empathy w/ others; often don’t make eye contact or even seem aware of others.”

Honestly, at this point, there is literally no excuse for anyone to still be making this claim . Anyone who spends two seconds on Google before running their mouth off about things they have no knowledge of would find things like this post by Oolong. I don’t agree with everything they say there, and could probably write a post as long as this one picking nits with bits and arguing with other bits. But that’s to be expected when any two people discuss a subject that actually matters. But Oolong’s post, or the thousands of others by actually autistic people, show clearly that we are not lacking in empathy.

At some point when I’m more well, I’m going to talk in more detail about what causes neurotypicals — who, on aggregate, have far less empathy than autistic people in my experience, though as with everything there are a few honourable exceptions — to believe that autistic people have no empathy. There are reasons this belief persists, but it’s utterly incorrect.

What I’m concerned with now is that it is completely acceptable among even otherwise progressive people to dehumanise autistic people in this way. The claim that we are lacking this basic aspect of shared humanity, made with no evidence other than the prejudices of the neurotypical in question, goes utterly unquestioned. Even among people who would be horrified at other commonly-expressed bigotries like homophobia or hatred of immigrants, it’s apparently fine to spout eugenicist rhetoric about autistic people.

I don’t claim we are the most hated group — there are plenty of bigotries that are still acceptable, and trans people, immigrants, and fat people in particular are often dehumanised in very similar ways (and often by the same people, which is why it hurts all the more when members of those groups choose to throw autistic people under the bus). But anti-autistic bigotry is definitely among the current acceptable prejudices, and in particular calls to eliminate us from existence are entirely too accepted.

I’m just… I’m just worn down by seeing this stuff retweeted unthinkingly, sometimes by people I would consider friends. I’m sick of not being able to assume that someone else who I agree with will recognise my shared humanity and act accordingly towards me.

Since the Brexit result, and with the Trump election, it has been increasingly clear that Britain and the US are heading towards fascism. In times like that, solidarity between marginalised groups is absolutely necessary for any of them to survive. People of good will need to oppose attacks on immigrants and sex workers, transphobia, Islamophobia, anti-semitism… I have always been a supporter of intersectionality on the basis that it’s the good and moral thing to do, but now I’m more convinced than ever that we need to take an intersectional attitude from a purely practical point of view — if we don’t hang together we may well hang separately.

And so I am asking people, even if you think that autistic people like me are the emotionless, unempathic monsters you claim us to be, stop saying so. Stop doing the work of those who want to pick off the marginalised groups one at a time for them. If you really have so much empathy than I do, you can show it by showing at least as much solidarity as I do.

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3 Responses to Autism, Empathy, Solidarity and Intersectionality

  1. BenJ says:

    Trans people arguing with this shittery, but in doing so saying “only five percent of trans people are autistic so stop trying to scare people”.

    Needless to say, that’s largely the point of the “education pack”, to play divide and conquer. Not everyone pushing it is that wily, but surely some must be.

  2. bzfgt says:

    I know the point you’re making is broader, but just as a footnote: I’ve been reading your blog on and off for years, since I read your book on the Kinks, and I don’t think anyone who has done so could suspect you of lacking empathy.

    Also, this thing asks for your email and then demands I log in with some passoword or other I don’t know, so I had to change it to a fictitious email…

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Well, thank you :)
      (As for the password/email thing — it should only ask for a password if you already have a WordPress account set up with that email address. Otherwise, the email address is just an identifier so that once I’ve approved one of your comments it will allow your others through without me having to manually approve them — if you just use the same fake email address every time that will work as well)

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