Last Monday was Autistic Pride Day. I couldn’t commemorate it then because I was shepherding a pair of neurotypicals around a crowded, sensory-overstimulating, city I don’t know. There was also an Autistic Pride Picnic in Manchester today, which I was unable to attend because having spent a week and a bit dealing with neurotypicals, I had some important hiding and not interacting with anyone at all that I urgently needed to attend to.
So, belatedly, here are a few thoughts on autism pride.
Pride seems a strange emotion to me, at least as far as one’s neurology goes. It seems a little like being proud that I’m bald or have blue eyes. It’s not really an achievement to be autistic, it’s just something you’re born with.
But then again, maybe it is an achievement to be proud of that I’ve survived this long as an autistic person. We don’t tend to have long lives — our life expectancy is fifty-four (and that’s for those lucky enough not to have comorbid conditions such as epilepsy). And the reason for this is mostly down to the fact that we have to fight every day for our lives. The biggest killer of autistic people is stress-related heart disease. The second biggest killer is suicide — and the suicide rates for people who get diagnosed as adults (or those who, like me, know we are autistic but didn’t get diagnosed as children because of changing diagnostic criteria, and who when we attempted to get formal diagnosis as adults get stuck on literally endless waiting lists because no-one in a position of power gives a shit about autistic people, only about the neurotypical parents of autistic children) are astronomical. Sixty-six percent of newly-diagnosed adults have considered suicide, and thirty-five percent have made serious plans or attempts to kill themselves. The only group of people I know of with similar statistics is trans people, who suffer a similar (possibly even worse) level of societal marginalisation.
So yes, I can be proud that I’m alive, I suppose.
I’m alive in the face of a society which is so set up to marginalise autistic people that when I had to take time off from work with work-related stress in my last job, the management’s response was to make me spend more days in the office rather than working from home, increasing my stress at the expense of my productivity. Apparently my old employers didn’t care if I did less work, so long as I was also more unhealthy.
I’m alive in the face of a society which is so skewed against autistic people that Autistica, the charity which produced those statistics about autistic suicide rates, has recently announced its involvement in clinical trials in partnership with Autism Speaks, a “charity” which wants to eliminate autistic people from existence altogether for the convenience of the neurotypical parents of autistic children.
I’m alive in the face of the kind of pervasive ableism which sees my party’s own health spokesman call for abusive behavioural “therapies” for us, and which sees the Lib Dem Disability Association say on its website (despite numerous corrections from myself and other autistic Lib Dems) of autistic people “Their ability to develop friendships is generally limited as is their capacity to understand other people’s emotional expression,” and “Some people with autism, whilst being appearing to be stupid or thick, may actually have a skill, such as an artist, that they can excel in”.
I’m alive in the face of a culture which sees even people who are otherwise decent human beings share articles on the toxicity of nerd culture, and go on to blame that toxicity not on a culture that rewards entitled cis het white men who abuse their power, but on autistic people, most of whom have less than no ability to change culture in any meaningful way.
And I’m alive in the face of a culture which sees a group of people, many of whom have a variety of life-impairing illnesses such as autoimmune diseases, inflammatory illnesses, and many other things which occur comorbidly with autism in a huge number of cases, and says “we need to pour billions of dollars into medical research to find out why they’re a bit quiet and don’t want to talk with us, so we can kill anyone who behaves like that and replace them with someone more sociable! Fuck curing their epilepsy or arthritis or diabetes though.”
And even worse than all these, I’m alive in the face of a culture which at every turn, in a million little ways, prioritises the comfort of the majority over the needs of the autistic minority, in everything from the existence of job interviews to shops like Lush which make entire sections of cities a no-go zone for those with sensory issues, to the way people judge you for not making eye contact. A world which prioritises “teamwork” and punishes the “antisocial”, a world which runs entirely on ability to perform neurotypical social rituals, and where if you break down and scream “just leave me the fuck alone, you’re torturing me” after spending too long being forced into performing tose rituals against every instinct in your body, it’s you, not your torturers, who’s considered at fault, because they were only being normal and friendly.
(I never do break down and scream, because of this. I internalise it instead, and end up with cardiovascular disease, so I’ll die of stress “naturally” without causing too much discomfort to neurotypicals. Yay?)
So yeah, that’s something to be proud of, I suppose.
And so autism pride is necessary, in the same way that pride in membership of LGBT+ groups is necessary. We’re both groups that face significant threats to our very existence, and who need at times to say “fuck you, I won’t let you stop me from being myself”. Many of the pressures, indeed, are the same — masking for autistic people is essentially the same thing as being closeted is, while both groups have to deal with eugenicists wanting to eliminate us altogether.
(This is not to enter into oppression olympics — as an allocishet man I have no way of knowing to what extent the ableism I face compares to the various bigotries and oppressions faced by LGBT+ people — so it’s not a comparison of my experience, just a statement about the nature, not the level, of these shared difficulties).
And there’s a *huge* amount of stigma attached to autism. Being autistic is alternately used as a slur (for example the accusations that Theresa May is as cold and heartless as she is because she’s autistic, with no evidence for that other than a neurotypical inability to admit that they share a neurology with evil people) or dismissed altogether (“but isn’t everyone a little bit on the spectrum?”). Autism is simultaneously something that renders one lacking in the basic elements of humanity (see the claims that we are lacking in empathy, which are wrong on many, many levels) and something that doesn’t even really exist, so no accomodations need be made for autistic people’s differences.
So, I’ll say it, but only because it needs saying:
Autistic people are valid.
Autistic people are humans and deserve human rights.
Autistic people are capable of love, compassion, and empathy.
Autistic people have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
Autistic people have a right to be proud.
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I’d like to thank you for writing this. For insight into you, and in a way into myself as well. You articulate some things that need to be said.
“as an allocishet man I have no way of knowing to what extent the ableism I face compares to the various bigotries and oppressions faced by LGBT+ people”
As someone who’s both autistic and trans, and who’s been the target of homophobic, transphobic and just generalised abuse, I’ll say that the anti-autism prejudice seems to me to be more institutional, whereas the anti-LGBT prejudice is more personal and pointy; at school I wasn’t bullied because I was autistic, I was bullied because autism was an easy target, for example – but I did have kids shouting homophobic insults at me pretty much every day because I wore my hair long. (At the time I was dimly aware that I was doing that because it made me feel more feminine, but it took a few years and an epiphany or two to get from there to “hang on a sec, I’m trans, aren’t I?”) I’ve always been aware of being treated differently because people could sense something different about me, but if you’d put them on the spot, they’d have said “oh, thamesynne is really shy” or “thamesynne’s obviously very bright” or “thamesynne’s clearly a bit fragile”. And for some people, of course, that’s catnip – but it wouldn’t be *directly* labelled as autism. But when I tried to transition, I was acutely aware that *everyone* would stare at me. All the time. Whenever I was out of the house. And I knew exactly why – indeed, on occasion they would be quite aggressive in pointing out why. So I did the only things I could; I detransitioned, and stopped leaving the house (unless I absolutely, unavoidably *had* to).
I’m not sure if I actually have a point to make here, and the idea that anti-autistic abuse is becoming as personal and pointy as anti-LGBT abuse is *really* scary! But I’ve certainly been much more acutely aware of the latter throughout my life – indeed, I’d say the latter has had a far more destructive effect on me than the former.
(Also, what BenJ said; this is a really insightful and helpful post, and I just hope I’ve contributed something that adds to it.)
s/the anti-autism prejudice seems/the anti-autism prejudice i’ve experienced seems/
s/autism was an easy target/autism made me an easy target/
(damn you, limited self-proofreading ability)