Autism Acceptance: Words Are Not Enough
Why autistic activism is about much more than just words.
As Autism Whatevers Month (awareness, acceptance, activism...) fast approaches, I am thinking of the state of the world for autistic people.
In my corner of the publishing world, the past ten years have shown exciting strides. We have way more openly autistic authors than we used to and they are creating all sorts of different kinds of work in all sorts of genres. We have openly autistic authors publishing with the Big 5 now! Autistic people and our experiences are increasingly the topic of media attention, and while much of this is profoundly imperfect, we're starting to see more diversity and more awareness of the need to involve autistic actors in the process.
It’s easy, when you work with books and words and social media for a living, to assume that autism activism is likewise all about words and representations.
But this is wrong. And it's something that's starting to frustrate me, when I see well-meaning posts by autistic activists, more and more.
We can correct insensitive language all we want to. We can look for good representation in stories and argue over who gets to write it. We can argue about what we want to call this frustrating month, and what we want to call ourselves, and what symbols we should use to represent ourselves and our movement. But it will remain the case that:
A huge number of autistic people are still forced to live in institutions.
The current recommended "treatment" for autism is ABA, which even in its gentle incarnations is traumatic, dehumanizing, and shares roots with LGBTQ+ conversion therapy.
The Judge Rotenberg Center, which tortures autistic people with electric shocks, is still open.
A huge number of people with intellectual disabilities, including autism, are put to work in sheltered workshops and paid only pennies an hour.
A huge proportion of current research into autism is eugenic in nature, meaning it has the goal of stopping us from existing in the future.
Autistic people experience much higher rates of abuse than neurotypical, abled people, including filicide.
Trans rights are under attack in multiple countries (when a hilarious number of autistic people are some flavor of trans) and people of color with mental health disabilities, including autism, are targeted by police violence at even higher rates than others.
(These are only some examples. If you’re autistic, I’m sure you can think of more.)
It's not that words aren't important. We use words to show what we think of different kinds of people, what we think ought to happen or is okay to let happen, who we think is worthy of what. I'm using words to convey my opinion to you right now! If I didn't think words could influence how people think and feel and act, I wouldn't spend so much time reviewing autistic fiction.
But this power that words have isn't just about using preferred terms. It's bigger and subtler than that. It's about the full picture conveyed by a whole group of words, sometimes many thousands of words together, in a particular social context.
And there is a limit to the power that words have, even in this subtler, contextual way.
I increasingly see this limit coming into play when we talk about autism. We noticed that people talked about "autism awareness" but still wanted to kill us, so we decided that the word "awareness" wasn't good enough, and we needed "acceptance" instead. Then we noticed that people who wanted to kill us were getting on the "acceptance" train, too, so we decided that this word wasn't good enough either, and that we needed a third, or a fourth.
The actual problem isn't that people are using the wrong word. The actual problem is that people want to kill us. People don't think we deserve to live. That is the problem.
At best, arguing over words like "awareness" and "acceptance" provides a shibboleth - it lets us know who is paying enough attention to notice what we want to be called. Those people are less likely to be the ones who want to kill us. But that's all that this argument does. If you are genuinely aware that I, and others like me, am a real person who deserves to live, then your "awareness" isn't a problem at all.
I am increasingly frustrated when I see well-meaning autistic people sharing instructions for April, that are all about words and symbols and catchphrases and that do not mention any other issue.
It is, of course, polite and good to use the terms for a group that the group prefers. But we do ourselves no favors when we make ourselves look like people who only care about using the right words. Who are not also affected by, and protesting against, real material harms. We do ourselves no favors in terms of being taken seriously by the wider world - and we also do ourselves no favors in terms of actually drawing attention to what we most urgently need to be fixed.
The theme of this Autism Month, for me, is not about which terms are the correct ones.
It's that autistic people deserve to live.
Meanwhile, on a cheerier note, my poem “Nightmare III” is soon to appear in the first-ever issue of BLEED ERROR.