“Joe” self-identifies himself as “autistic.” He invites his friends to observe World Autism Awareness Day. They meet to celebrate at a fancy nightclub.
A Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim walk into the nightclub. After talking for a while, they each agree to set aside their different religious beliefs. Together, they understand how their beliefs include great compassion and service for their fellow man.
An African-American, an Italian, and a Mexican walk into the nightclub. After talking for a while, their agree to set aside their different experiences. Together, they understand how their experiences include great perseverance despite discrimination or persecution.
Three more people walk into the nightclub. They respectfully identify themselves as bisexual, transgendered, and heterosexual. After talking for a while, they agree to set aside their personal preferences. Together, they understand how their personal preferences represent individual pursuits of love.
Joe welcomes his guests and thanks them for coming. He adds his own doubts about who may show-up for his celebration. “Persons with autism sometimes don’t have many friends, let alone friends who would brave this social experience,” Joe begins.
“I’m not a ‘person with autism;’ I’m ‘autistic!’” says one guest.
“I’ve ‘Asperger’s Syndrome,’ not just autism,” retorts someone.
“I am a ‘highly-functioning’ autistic,” says a third member of the crowd.
With one introductory sentence, Joe unintentionally derails the solidarity within the group.
“Autism” serves as an equal-opportunity challenge. This diagnosis transcends religion, nationality, or gender/sexual preference. Autism affects one in sixty-eight persons without prejudice or respect to age, education, or financial security. In some way, autism promises to unite people who may otherwise have little in common. We have a new social justice rallying cry that impacts entire future generations.
Instead, we finish where we begin. Without cohesive definitions accepted by the group as a whole, we flounder. As autistics, we undermine our own struggles for equality while neurotypical people and associated supportive services watch our divisive, horrific trainwreck.
Autistic individuals tightly grip their own ideas about what autism is. Can we assign blame? Too often, persons with autism are browbeaten into believing that the reason(s) we don’t feel socially comfortable is because something is inherently wrong with US. How dare someone challenge how we define ourselves! More damning, how dare a neurotypical person tell me how to self-identify with my own clinical diagnosis.
Imagine if our political-
correct cowardice world invaded other self-advocacy groups.
Would we tell a Jew that he isn’t Jewish, but a ‘person with Judaism?”
Would we tell an African-American that she isn’t African-American, but a “person of color?”
Do we remind a homosexual person how some religions damn them, while other sciences slate their sexual identity for extinction? What end goal do we have by using this language? Is it a GOOD goal? No, it is not a good goal, because it teaches hatred of differences. However, I sincerely encourage people who defend “person first” language to apply this idea across other cultures and see how well it is received. Argue how the diagnosis is problematically perceived by others in the community with equal vigor as those who deny equality on other topics, like gay marriage. Instead of rallying around the label, chastise others who think differently than you about something very personal. Become a global influencer by seeking division, not unity.
Do we, as autistic individuals, only feel better about ourselves by putting-down other individuals with autism? At comics conventions, we meet many different fans, with and without autism. I sit shocked as some fans whisper, “I’m autistic, but I’m high functioning.” What should I do with this information? Should I reply in kind and list my academic and professional accomplishments? Is there any value in trying to be more (or less) autistic than another person with autism?
Sociologists study interactions that take into account the real or imagined presence of other people. When someone reaffirms how they are ‘high functioning,’ they probably aren’t literally seated or standing beside someone with greater (or lesser) intellectual or sensory challenges. Similarly, most people wouldn’t point to the person whom they don’t know and state, “I’m smarter than this guy.” However, when people use the label “high functioning,” they are secretly disparaging other people with greater challenges. These individuals undergo a transformation in our minds – they are now “low functioning.” Like some perversion of a caste system, we label different people, like ourselves, as ‘untouchable.” We needn’t worry about reproach, however. “Low functioning” persons with autism aren’t likely to point out this prejudice, because they are less intelligent, or nonverbal, or socially anxious to criticize. If we continue to differentiate ourselves as ‘high functioning,” we automatically build the counterexamples of “low functioning,” with whatever additional garbage we wish to include. We demonize the spectrum of autism within our own autistic communities.
In a job interview, employers do not seek a “high functioning” autistic applicant. Can the prospective worker do the assignments, or learn the role? Does the applicant show creativity and punctuality? I doubt interviewers have any boxes to check about how autistic a candidate is.
In marketing, I learned something as we advertised our comic books – the world’s first to feature a hero with autism. Labels DO mean a lot of things. For example, Marvel Comics seems to have clearly heard the ‘high functioning’ terminology in use. They responded by labeling less influential characters with autism as having a ‘mental illness weakness.’ Yeah, that label sounds like a good synonym for ‘low functioning.’ No wonder no Marvel-based hero has autism. On a side note, our social media inquiry to Marvel helped them realize how negative their labels were; they changed the label to ‘neurodevelopmental disorders’ in less than a week our our public question.
In our first example, Joe invited friends to celebrate autism. We see how individual identity is important to many different people. However, autism continue to self-divide itself on identity. Within our own autism advocacy groups, we struggle for acceptance and recognition. We have no major social agendas, except “nothing about us without us.” This sentiment is a farce- where are any autistic members of Congress? Is your child’s special needs teacher also autistic? Do you have an autistic pediatrician? Did you at any point stop and pre-determine: “Nah, nobody with autism could be a Congressional representative or doctor or teacher?” Well, some influential people must have these thoughts- how else do you explain the lack of such prominent examples?
Perhaps someone whispers, “I’m not autistic,” and secretly capitalizes on the spectrum of conditions and splintered social solidarity we have.
Until we forge a NEW, UNITED AUTISM IDENTITY, neurotypical sharks will circle our bloody boats. Sooner or later, we’re likely to toss out one of our own, anyway, for some difference we cannot accept (yet expect the world to recognize what we do not see or have). Mankind fears the unknown. In fact, fear motivates us to do more things than happiness. Do you stay at the office with a headache because you enjoy it, or because you fear reprimand by calling off from work? Do you pay the mortgage bill with a skip in your step to the mailbox, or do you hope the postmaster clearly delivers your rent check by tomorrow morning? If we do not know autism, we may fear what is unfamiliar. If we fear it, we move away from the source of fear. Next, we have neurotypical groups or persons who reinforce this fear, but who offer cures or even short-term fixes for the autism condition. We lose advocacy due to our fear. We lose independence by allowing other organizations to ‘speak’ for us, because – high functioning or not – we’re too divided to advise about ourselves. Capitalism finds and fills a gap. If autistic individuals willingly vacate opportunities to compassionately, mindfully unite…someone else will steal this agenda from us. Their claims will sound loudly – autistic individuals in-fight among themselves on identity, so, here’s what’s best for these low-functioning savages with social leprosy.
Wow, I’ve shared a lot of idea with you. What should we do about these challenges, now that we know more about how problems can arise? In lieu of actual leadership, follow me.
CALLS TO ACTION:
Beginner Level: Vote during elections. Make your voice heard, even if you are nonverbal. Stop dividing ourselves over self-identification labels, and avoid negative stereotypes.
Intermediate Level: Ask what representatives are doing to accept autism in schools and communities. Ask how your child’s teacher understands the sensory overload experience, and how they mitigate these conditions while teaching basic reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. Help someone with autism learn to read or write well.
Advanced Level: Hire persons with diverse skills sets, but avoid hiring a token autistic person to justify deep-seated feelings of guilt or shame or poorly-directed pity. Run for political office at communities. Write a blog about your experiences. Volunteer in your community. Learn facial feature recognition like you would study another language.
What do I plan to do? I’m going to keep writing comic book script and share ideas. When we talk about autism awareness, Face Value Comics is now more than a dozen pages deep on an internet search result without paid advertising. When we talk about autism acceptance, we are in the National Museum on Disability History, and sit on the same comics book shelves as Batman and Spiderman. Additionally, I will write the President of the United States, our local state representatives, and other influential persons of celebrity status. I will give them a copy of our comic book(s), and hopefully educate people about what an adult with autism is doing to unify understandings about autism on a global stage.
What are you going to do for autism awareness and acceptance?