Baby’s First Madness: A Newcomer Perspective on the Hearing Voices Congress and Alternatives

This past year was home to many firsts for me, including my first forced injection, my first exposure to Mad Pride, and my first time attending the Hearing Voices Congress and Alternatives. For at least three years I’ve been doing similar work in the neurodiversity movement, which is all about framing mental differences as ordinary variations of human experience, without adding a value judgment. Someone who hears voices is no better or worse than someone who doesn’t: This paradigm is theoretically incompatible with the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders, also known as psychiatry; yet when I talk about being “anti-psychiatry" in those spaces, the responses range from confusion to outrage. Needing a space to talk about my lived experience, I began to call myself a psychiatric survivor (and not long after that a Mad person) much more often than neurodivergent. There are too many different names, but if there’s one thing that unites this community (which there may not be at all, but bear with me), it’s that we don’t want anyone locked down, literally or chemically, for the crime of acting strange. Understanding this as the community I’m talking about, how has the introduction been? A warm welcome for an eager activist, or a colossal barrier to entry that will bleed the movement into obscurity?

Hearing Voices kicked off with keynote speeches by Gogo Ekhaya, Akiko Hart, and Marty Hadge. While the Day 2 speakers were also notable (I especially liked David Walker’s research on the “asylum for insane Indians”), these first three exemplified the themes of both their own conference and Alternatives. Gogo spoke on spirituality, Akiko on systems change, Marty on community and identity.

The Spirituality Scam: Feeling Good at the Expense of Thinking Critically

Throughout the Hearing Voices Congress, spirituality was discussed from a critical perspective on European imperialism. That is, the notion that experiences are not “real” until they are demonstrated within a uniquely European idea of what is scientific. One example that came up repeatedly was aggressive enforcement of the gender binary, scrubbing out awareness of the Indian Hijra, the six Jewish genders named in the Torah, and the various two-spirit identities of North America.

In some Hearing Voices workshops, and then more frequently in Alternatives, presenters thanked God for their healing, with no apparent awareness that not all religions, let alone all spiritual practices, use the word God as a name or even have a god at all. The definition of “spiritual” shifted to “Christians who only go to church on Christmas and Easter.” At this point, I was thankful to have a Humanist/Rationalist caucus to go to. Not out of disgust or annoyance, but just to take a break. There are plenty of religious and spiritual ideas I don’t miss, and would rather see criticized as potentially exceptions in the imperative to accept all perspectives. The concept of demonic possession, for instance, has been tremendously harmful to those we now call voice hearers, Autistic people, and multiple systems. On the other hand, we haven’t really socially evolved away from it. Most people don’t use the words demonic or possession any more, but we talk about an external “mental illness” exerting control upon the “real” person locked inside it. No scientific study in any country has ever hypothesized (much less proven) that “mental illness” is separate from the person, has possessive power, or even exists at all, yet most of us accept the idea as true because the “science” classes we grew up with only taught us how to memorize distilled fact lists, not to think critically.

Back onto the first hand, the humanist/rationalist/atheist/“skeptic”/“free-thinker” community also does a great disservice to Mad people when reactionaries see religious rejection of science, and so embrace psychiatry because its proponents are good at dressing their propaganda in sciencey language. I felt compelled to tow the line here, having been an atheist at the time, but as someone who also finds great value in mindfulness practices such as meditation, acting, and psychedelics— though I hesitate to call those things spiritual. I think science is cool and awesome (though we definitely need to be more critical and not just worship it as another religion) but I don’t need to wait for scientists to admit that my internal experiences are real and meaningful and not a disorder.

The Peer Support Scam: Growing In Number at the Expense of Our Values

In the United Kingdom, some people in the business of locking up humans, including both psychiatric facilities and mainstream prisons, are actively reaching out to the Hearing Voices Network to create internal support groups for people who aren’t allowed to leave. The fact of such mainstream awareness, not of the “signs of schizophrenia” but of the support network, is something to celebrate. While reform can often be a threat to the goal of total abolition, we still have to seriously consider each opportunity to make living conditions less horrible. In the same speech in which Akiko shared this, she also expressed a concern, a certain uneasiness, about the fact that a Hearing Voices support group apparently doesn’t cause immense discomfort to the criminal and psychiatric systems. Our ethos should be a force that fundamentally undermines the power of such a system. Is it getting lost in translation, or intentionally distorted?

I wrote “Acceptance Must Not Become a Buzzword” as a call to action for Autism Acceptance Month, warning that community’s activists that convincing the public to use the word acceptance instead of the word awareness won’t mean anything if the change in language doesn’t cause a change in paradigm. A more broadly applicable example is when we convinced a critical mass that “mental illness” is a stigmatizing term, and mainstream organizations were ready to swoop in and say you’re right, we totally agree, we should be fighting stigma by saying “mental health challenge” instead. Let’s all make sure people with “mental health challenges” are locked up and drugged against their will because they’re far too “challenged” to make their own decisions.

The Alternatives conference featured a mess of conflicting ideologies. Once upon a time, the conference represented alternatives to drugs and lock-ups. For some people that’s 12-step groups. Others find 12-step to be the oppressive part of the system and need an alternative to that. Others still find the concept of a support group to be fundamentally flawed. Thus the calling shrunk to simply “Alternatives” so everyone can apply their own meaning.

While the Healing Voices Congress made space for a variety of personal experiences, Alternatives went a step further and made space for a variety of political stances, including the ones that say those personal experiences are bad and wrong and should be punished. The fact that some participants felt entirely comfortable walking about in NAMI attire illustrates what happens when someone decides that survivors, people who have been abused and tortured by the psychiatric system, need to ally with people who love the psychiatric system and think it’s great and we need more of it.

It’s the worst of both worlds: By allowing all identities, including ideological ones, we wind up NOT accepting certain identities because hostile ideologies push them out. Insisting that every Mad or neurodivergent person intrinsically has something to “recover from” is a form of hatred that pushes away Mad and neurodivergent people. Defining “danger to self” as a jailable offense; restricting when and how people can eat or use the bathroom; making the assumption that everyone is a “consumer” and happy about it— all forms of hatred. If we want government services to even be as good as our peer groups, we aren’t going to get there by compromising. We must reject the hatred.

The Identity Scam: Collecting Bodies at the Expense of Diversity

In the middle of Alternatives, the city of Boston made national news thanks to a hate speech rally, attended by about forty Nazis and forty thousand protesters. Many conference-goers including myself ducked out of the event they paid for to join the protest. With forty thousand different perspectives represented, there were sure to be many who believed that victims of psychiatric diagnosis should have fewer rights as a result. Signs labeled Donald Trump “mentally ill”, screaming mouths called the Nazis “virgins”, and pussy hats reminded us that the women’s movement was only upset that a cis woman lost. Yet a dozen transgender psychiatric survivors grouped up and joined the protest anyway, because on this one issue, that we want Nazis to feel unwelcome, we all agreed.

However, this backlash against modern Nazis comes only from a narrow, liberal definition of intolerance. They’re bad because they’re racist and racism is bad. The original German Nazis didn’t just hate Jews, they loved eugenics— an idea they got from American psychiatrists. What nearly all historical and modern atrocities have in common, including those committed in the name of “mental health”, is an ideological imperative to reduce the amount of diversity in the world.

The theme of Marty’s speech was that we need to validate (and maybe even celebrate) diverse experiences. “It’s really important to not just switch from saying that these things are a medical illness, to saying it’s all about trauma.” When you take a one-size-fits-all approach, you are always inevitably telling some people that you know them better than they know themselves. Diverse doesn’t just mean there are racial minorities here; there is also diversity of creed, gender, sexuality, disability, age, size, language, culture, personality and worldview. All of these matter, and all have value. Many in the Mad community are resistant to the neurodiversity model because of negative associations between the neuro prefix and the “chemical imbalance” brand of psychiatry. The rest of the world, however, has no problem with that but hisses furiously at the “diversity” part.

Is the diversity of the human species one of the most wonderful and beautiful things about us, or is it nice, but not really necessary? Based on the attitudes at these two conferences, I came to understand the majority answer as “it’s a useful tool if it supports MY group, but I’ll throw anyone under the bus at a moment’s notice.” The liberal checklist approach works very much like the checklist methods of psychiatry, just listing positives instead of negatives. Gay rights are so 2016, so now we’re going to check the “trans” box and make those the new hip, cool people. Of course, if we skip a checkbox on the “types of people we like” list, that means we don’t like those people. If a certain kind of people doesn’t even have a box to skip, we really don’t like them. Therein lies the problem with neurodiversity: Pushing all of those horrible scary “mental illnesses” onto society’s diversity checklist.

White supremacy wasn’t the only anti-diversity force in Boston that week. Controversy also erupted within Alternatives, in response to a very vocally transphobic person getting a platform to speak in the workshop schedule. While an informal trans contingent quickly came together, got a Trans Justice Panel added to the workshop list, went to Boston Common as a group, and made plans roughly two steps less civilly disobedient than obstructing access to a workshop room, I felt conflicted.

The actual topic of the workshop was not gender, but instead efforts to abolish forced treatment of disabled people. Abolitionists and disability rights activists are both underrepresented at Alternatives and in the community at large. No attention was paid to the zombie-like mass of consumers, chanting “recovery” with no awareness of societal oppression; because there’s no checked box for Mad and neurodivergent people who don’t want to recover.

And yet, just as I went along with the anti-racism protest, with thousands of people who probably wouldn’t hesitate to grab a cop and report me for suicidality or voice hearing, I went along with the anti-transphobia squad, with a dozen people who probably wouldn’t show the same solidarity for disabled people, to a presentation about disability.

By the time we got there, to the workshop that started the whole debacle, it didn’t matter to me what the presenter was actually going to say. Between the trans and non-conforming keynotes at the Hearing Voices Congress, a roundtable where I learned about trans multiples, a group of anti-Nazi protesters, and a Trans Justice Panel, I was in a community and would go wherever they went.

More importantly, the connections with these people weren’t limited to the workshop time. They were also the people I tracked down in the hallways and sat with at lunch. The most valuable and transformative parts of both conferences were not the speeches, presentations, or workshops, but the time spent with people in the breaks in-between.

Two weeks after Alternatives, I flew across the country again to attend a Trans Health conference, where I joined a group of more Autistic people than I had met at any autism conference, and bear witness to one of the biggest gatherings of multiples in history: about 150 people in 30 bodies. That is what good conferences are about: Building intersectional communities.

The real problem with presenters who are bigoted against a specific kind of people isn’t that they’re problematic. It’s when they aggressively exclude those people from their network, creating a ripple of drama where other community builders have to choose between bigots and the targets of their bigotry. When you carve out a niche, the knife always cuts through someone. I may learn a lot of useful information by hearing a problematic presenter speak, but at the end of it I won’t have made a new friend.

Humanity is diverse because every single person has a completely unique experience and worldview. I’m not here in this community because I think we should take pity on minorities until someone figures out how to do eugenics right. I’m here because I genuinely want to live in a diverse world. I love diversity, sincerely, irrevocably. What kind of world do you want to live in?


Models of Pride 2017: Psychiatrization Of Queer Minds

One of the two workshops I led at the 25th Models of Pride in Los Angeles, California.

Captioned with manual transcription but automated timing. Parts of the video are blurred because not all attendees signed consent to photography.

Summary in the MOP program:
Did you know that homosexuality was once a mental illness? That the American Psychiatric Association STILL describes being asexual or transgender the same way? Come to this workshop to learn about the historical role of psychiatry in defining queer identities, and how to be an ally to those who are still getting pathologized.

The video from my second workshop, "Conversion Therapy: History and Reality" were unfortunately lost prior to backup due my phone being stolen. However, you can view the slides for the presentation at TinyURL.com/mop2017slides

Models of Pride is a queer youth conference held every year at the University of Southern California (USC). Visit ModelsOfPride.org to learn more.


Everything Wrong With The Good Doctor (Autism Sins)

5 years after House, the head writer seems to have regressed. Now the autism is explicit, and made of DSM criteria instead of actual personality. Lots of ethics laws are broken, but with no acknowledgement that law-breaking is what's happening. All this and more in just the pilot episode!

Autism Sins is a snarky, sometimes satirical series, where I review media portrayals of autism in a rip off- er, I mean, an homage to the format of CinemaSins.

To see more of my videos, visit my YouTube channel.

For the original Sinners, visit youtube.com/user/CinemaSins or cinemasins.com


NO 911, Suicide Awareness, and 13 Reasons Why

What does "suicide prevention" mean when the causes of suicide are oppression, trauma, and a world not worth living in?

Speech by yours truly at the Garden Church's "Suicide Prevention & Healing Ceremony" in San Pedro, California.

Please excuse and disregard the "danger to self or others" line. This was totally unscripted, I took a chance with a half-formed thought, and it turned out to be less than half-formed.

This video features closed captions in English. Other than that, there was no editing.


Everything Wrong With Atypical, Episode Three (Autism Sins)

This episode features a competition between two parents and a therapist, to see who can be the biggest abusive asshole. No need for a spoiler warning, because obviously the mom wins.

To see more of our videos, visit our YouTube channel.


Everything Wrong With Atypical, Episode Two (Autism Sins)

The sinner is back for more of the train-wreck that is Atypical! Since the first 30-minute episode already taught us everything there is to know about autism, we can now move on to the important stuff: Parents whining over how hard it is to raise us.

To see more of our videos, visit our YouTube channel.


Everything Wrong With Atypical, Episode One (Autism Sins)

The new Netflix series "Atypical" kicks off with a script so cringey, it practically sins itself. Today's drinking game is a shot every time a character is likeable; I promise you'll stay completely sober.

To see more of our videos, visit our YouTube channel.


13 Reasons "Mental Health" Advocates Need to Watch 13 Reasons Why

Controversy erupted quickly around the release of 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix series based on the 2007 novel of the same name. This comes as no surprise, considering the story revolves around suicide. Not only that, the show (and the novel, but those don't get nearly as much attention in pop culture) disrupts the standard expected narrative in which suicide is typically portrayed.

The premise of the story is that a high school student, Hannah Baker, killed herself, but first left a series of audio tapes for and about all the people who contributed to her suicidality. The idea of a dead person leaving messages behind isn't new, but what does stand out is that a person who attempted suicide, and succeeded, still gets to tell her story. This premise allowed the script to offer a perspective that isn't found in other suicide narratives, and is much closer to reality.

The objections to the show seem to mostly fall into two categories: 1) People who have actually had suicidal thoughts or even attempted suicide, who understandably refuse to watch the show for fear of being triggered or re-traumatized. 2) People who advocate for "mental health awareness" and are very offended that suicidality is portrayed as a natural life experience and not a chemical imbalance. Where these two groups overlap, the label for that section of the Venn diagram is "internalized ableism". Here's an example (WARNING: auto-playing music) which seems to be the most popular "don't watch it!" post floating around multiple social media sites, and the inspiration for this rebuttal.

Evidence on comforting the afflicted is inconclusive, but 13 Reasons Why definitely brings affliction to the comfortable. "Mental health" advocates need to see this show. No, it's not for "everyone" - it's highly triggering (for example the act of suicide is shown on screen, as well as multiple sexual assaults) and more than a little problematic. As said most elegantly by my colleague Leila Yoder, there are definitely aspects of the script to be critical of, but "it's not pathology paradigm enough" isn't one of them.

13 Reasons Why is an important cultural commentary that more people should see. Here are 13 reasons why:

1. Bad consultants were mostly ignored.

The creators of the show consulted with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, an organization which advocates in favor of force and coercion, including locking people up in psychiatric prisons and pacifying them with medication. Can you guess how the Foundation justifies this? All human rights violations are a necessary means to the exalted end of recovering people from their mental illnesses. What a unique and original thought. While it's impossible to know whether the final script was molded by ethics, marketing, or storytelling, it's clear to me is that the screenwriter had a chat with a very bad organization, then went directly against most of their bad advice.

2. The dead girl tells us what didn't work.

In real life, we can't ask someone what went wrong after a successful suicide attempt. Therefore we don't know how realistic Hannah's perspective is. Nevertheless, it disrupts the standard narrative: Suicide attempt survivors, both real and fictional, get paraded as tokens by "mental health" advocates to talk about how great the "treatment", usually being locked up and medicated, worked for them. This narrative is not scientifically justified. In fact, it's propaganda.

The most well-known example of this problem was recognized during World War 2, when the U.S. Navy studied returning planes and reinforced the most damaged parts in the next design. The mistake was that those were the parts which could get heavily damaged and still return. The parts that never return damaged are the ones that bring the plane crashing down, never to be studied. In psychology, this cognitive error is literally called survivor bias.

In a society where every suicidal person is forced, coerced, or at least pressured into some kind of "treatment" program, you either never get identified as suicidal and never get hit with a psychiatric intervention, or you get identified and you get an intervention. There is no identified-but-not-intervened control group to verify that the "treatment" should actually get the credit. We do on the other hand have research suggesting that locked facilities make people more suicidal, not less.

3. Hannah was killed by other people.

Another part of the standard narrative is that suicidality, without a verbal acknowledgement, is undetectable. Therefore it's no one's fault when someone dies. 13 Reasons Why straight-up says no to this narrative, instead placing the blame firmly on those who hurt Hannah and those who failed to reach out. The show demonstrates the simple causal link between suicide and traumatic events such as bullying and sexual assault. The other main character, Clay, wasn't a direct assailant but has to come to terms with his complicity.

4. Hannah is neurotypical.


You can't deflect the blame to a "mental illness" or "chemical imbalance" either. Not for the character any more than for real people, unless being gay also causes a "chemical imbalance" the same way excessive melanin in the skin exerts a gravitational force on police bullets.

Hannah is portrayed as a normal, mentally healthy person (at least until she racks up a few traumas), not as a list of diagnostic criteria or LOL RANDOM CRAZY. It was her experiences that caused her to become suicidal, not spontaneously manifested brain chemicals.

This is a breath of fresh air for people who have been falsely labeled as mentally ill... which is everyone who's been labeled as mentally ill...

5. Hannah is able-bodied.


Though I'm rarely thankful for this, disability is not represented at all. Hannah does not have one. She does not kill herself because it's so tragic and burdensome to exist in the world as a disabled person. Another break from one of cinema's most offensive and harmful clich├ęs.

6. It's not just a choice.

I usually go out for vanilla ice cream on the weekends, but this time I think I'll try rocky road to see if I like it. And I usually enjoy being alive but I think I'll try killing myself today. That's what has to be going through the heads of people who say suicide is just "a choice".

Suicide is what people are driven to when they're pushed past their breaking point. This reality is reflected in the portrayal of Hannah Baker. She is bullied and abused and injured and broken, until eventually she can't think of any other option. If seeing the truth makes people uncomfortable, good.

7. Reaching out backfires.

When Hannah tries to reach out to other characters - friends, parents, school counselor, they are at best unhelpful and unsupportive, if not making the situation even worse. This is realistic, if perhaps a bit relentless in its cynicism. "Don't reach out" may be a dangerous message, but so is "reach out to anyone and everyone." Some people will invalidate, re-traumatize, or even call the cops. This warning creates the appropriate balance, supporting the reasonable message to be selective.

8. Self-harm gets a spotlight too.

One of the characters (not Hannah) explains her self-harm by saying "it's what you do instead of killing yourself." This isn't the true reason for everybody who self-harms, but it is for some. In a non-coercive way, this line offers an alternative to suicide. Because the rationale is so difficult to argue with, it also helps to de-stigmatize self-harm, and yes, self-harm absolutely does need to be de-stigmatized. Not the "treatments" for it, but the act itself.

Self-harm and suicidality are both natural parts of the human experience. Turning them into taboo subjects does no good for the people experiencing them. In fact, it often creates shame, which makes both of them more attractive. 13 Reasons Why has got people talking.

9. Hotlines are not the answer.


Another major complaint against the show is that it doesn't offer resources. For example, there is not a list of phone numbers for suicide hotlines in each episode's end credits.

I don't believe that this was an oversight. I believe it was a deliberate choice, because promoting suicide hotlines would undermine the central message of the show.

The real reason people get uncomfortable with the lack of resources is not moral outrage at irresponsible triggering, it's because they are yet again trying to find a way to make suicide the sole responsibility of the suicidal person and not anyone else. If calling a stranger on the phone is a magic pill to cure suicide, then every death is the fault of the dead person for not reaching out. By not inviting this supposed solution into the show, it was not invited into the conversation. The focus is kept instead on other people's responsibility in causation or prevention.

10. Medication is not the answer.


Medication actually does come up in the show, not for Hannah but for Clay. His incompetent mother can't think of any other way to relate to him, because she's internalized the idea that his grief over a dead friend is a mental health condition, and the way you deal with those is by taking drugs, not, you know, being human together.

Hannah does not take any medication, because that would give the audience freedom to rationalize however they see fit: Either the medication caused the suicide so it's not other people's fault, or it was the wrong medication for her mental illness so it's not other people's fault. Clay explores medication but doesn't get any benefit from it, which is also the most common outcome in real life.

11. Prison is not the answer.


None of the characters, least of all Hannah herself, ever suggest that what she really needed was to be locked up in a psychiatric prison where she can be somehow healed by additional violence against her. Not only would such a statement have been patently untrue, it would have once again undermined the apparently controversial message that people are responsible for each other's well-being. If suicide prevention is the responsibility of some professional psychologist in some hidden facility, then it doesn't have to be yours. You have permission to ship people off and wash your hands of it. Out of sight, out of mind.

12. Permanence is powerful.


If Hannah really wanted to send a message, why didn't she power through and tell her story while still alive? Isn't that more powerful? No. It isn't. Sticking around gives other people the chance to apologize, to offer help, to give lip service and feel good about themselves, without doing anything to actually improve the victim's quality of life.
13 Reasons Why is not a warning to suicidal people not to kill themselves. That was never the intent. It's a warning to friends and family of suicidal people, that if you fuck up, if you're not present and caring and supportive, that's it. They're dead. You don't get a second chance. You don't get closure.

13. Suicide awareness can kiss this show's ass.

I have a confession to make: I have never been suicidal. And I don't think I ever will.

Yet suicide awareness campaigns still affect me personally, and my community. I won't soon forget the inherent dehumanization in habitually cutting the strings off my shorts, because I'm expected like all other interchangeable mental patients to somehow kill myself with them while pinned down on a four-point restraint bed. I haven't forgotten that suicide was the big justification no one wanted to challenge, when we first decided that you could detain people in so-called "hospitals" instead of mainstream jails. Every time I see a therapist, I'm reminded that if I so much as express a thought about killing myself, that she not only has the option to legally commit violence against me, she's expected to and can get in trouble if she doesn't.

As someone who has been subjected to traumatic and abusive human rights violations in the name of misguided attempts at suicide prevention, and who knows the stories of other people who can say the same, I am thankful that an item of cultural influence promotes a different message. Even if I believe for a second that the point of 13 Reasons Why is to "glorify suicide", I'll take that over awareness.

Image description: Promotional photo of the characters Clay and Hannah, with additional text around the title so that the image says "There are thirteen reasons why I killed myself and not a single one of them is a chemical imbalance."


The Autistic Future

The following is a speech written for the 2017 Autism Acceptance Chalk Festival in Covina, California, organized by Autism HWY. These words were assembled specifically to be spoken orally to a live audience. Therefore, I suggest you watch the video if able. If not, then consider the written article as a transcript.

This is a message for non-Autistic parents of Autistic children, especially those of you who identify yourselves as "autism parents". If that describes you, it may sound strange to hear, but not because it's a strange phrase. The sound is unfamiliar because your comfort zone is assuming that resources are for you– not your child but you, the parent– unless stated otherwise, and you hardly ever hear it stated otherwise.

When filling a tabletop to promote my favorite nonprofit, I may tailor my words to the person most often standing in front of me, but as a writer of articles, videos, and in this case speeches, I'm tired. I'm tired of rehashing the same talking points that will never penetrate the skulls of people who choose to remain in denial. I already know that murder is wrong, that stupid is an offensive slur, and that you can't "treat" something if it isn't a medical condition. It's time to move on. Time to realize that no one will ever be on the frontier if we spend all our time laying breadcrumb trails for people who don't actually want to follow them. This is a message for people who need the breadcrumbs, but if that need isn't paired with a "want", then let it be the last one. It's time for us backwards-walking leaders to turn around and look the future in the face.

This is a message for you parents who worry whether your children will ever become "independent", or what will happen to them after you're gone. This is especially a message for those of you who train your adult offspring to remain dependent on you, guaranteeing that your worries remain a mystery. You continue to worry, and you resist all change that might actually alleviate the worry, because your greatest fear is not failure, it is realizing that you are, or maybe always were, unnecessary.

When Rain Man was the stereotypical idea of an Autistic person, you worried about whether your child would achieve an arbitrary standard of "normalcy" and escape your own decision to imprison them. Then for a brief period the stereotype was a real person named Temple Grandin, who preaches about turning passions into careers, and you worried about whether your child would ever have a job. Now the stereotype is The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper, a millennial. Finally you are recognizing that we don't all die or get whisked away by our fairy godmother on our 18th birthdays.

This is, in part, a message of hope. The kids will be alright. But more importantly, it is a message of divergence. We will be alright without you.

The future of autism is Autistic.

Another strange phrase if you never bothered to learn its component words. The Autistic community is a simple concept: a community, made of Autistic people. The autism community on the other hand is... not really a community. It's a vague category of groups where you gather to chant "mother knows best" as a religious mantra. It's a referral network that bridges the gap between a con artist and your wallet. It's a place where your children seek support, and fail to find any.

We're a persistent bunch, so when trying the same thing doesn't work a few times, we make our own support. As I speak, we've already for years had our own social groups run by Autistics, for Autistics; our own support groups; our own civil rights advocacy groups; our own dating website, our own book publisher; there's lots more in the works and we're not waiting around for someone else to do it for us and most likely do it wrong. Some of you have been really listening– you've gained the mark of a true ally, which is that your public words are indistinguishable from the community they support, but the vast majority of you who think you already know best? You're about to get left behind.

When I visit your so-called parent community, I notice how many of the children you speak of are really adults. It's gotten to the point where even parent organizations are starting to focus on adult services– or at least they've started talking about the fact that there aren't enough services for adults, kind of like an "anti-stigma" campaign whose central message is "a stigma exists."

Ever since the work of Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger, the official government estimates of autism prevalence have made continuous progress toward the reality that's always been the case. In the 1980s, the introduction of "Asperger's" gave us a big boost, and by the '90s, the number of people who were informed of their neurological identity reached a critical mass. There are now more people than there have ever been before who are adults, who are aware that they are Autistic, and who are not imprisoned in a psychiatric institution for the crime of being born Autistic.

There's only so long a group of parents can meet to complain about parenting an Autistic child, when half of those "children" are in their 20s and 30s, when the rest aren't getting any younger, and when a growing number of these parents are realizing, or have known for plenty of time, that they are Autistic themselves. Most of those parents then realize the Autistic community is far more welcoming to Autistic parents than the so-called parent community.

That is not a call to action. That is just an observation. People are already converting to our cause. The only question is: Are you coming too? If you want to make it about you, then we don't need you. If you want to take over or make us do things your way, then we don't need you. If you want to rescue your undeserved role as the spokesperson of our community, then we don't need you. If you want to step back, listen, support our voices, act like a real ally, then we still don't need you, but it would be nice to have you. We, just as actually Autistic people coming together, now have the numbers to get the real work done, and we're doing it. We're not inspirational, by the way. We're defiant.

We defied the odds, not against existing while still disabled or living past childhood or being useful to capitalism, but against our birthright! The right to connect with our genetic family! The right to tell the stories of our own lives! The right to decide what's best for ourselves! You didn't just tell us we couldn't– you tried to make sure of it! We were warned, we were given an explanation, we were manipulated, beaten, drugged, locked up, tortured, murdered, and nevertheless, we persisted. We will persist with the aid of your presence, or in spite of it. The choice is yours.

As a closing thought, I leave you with the words of an Autistic friend of mine– the Community Manager of Disability Action for America, Konstantine Anthony:

"In the next few years, your child will begin to question their own Autistic identity. They will not settle for your ignorant half-answers, and they will search elsewhere. That's when they will find us. Me and my fellow Autistics will be here with the truth, shining like a beacon on the hill, guiding their way to acceptance and understanding. And on THAT day, you will remember these words:

Accept your children for who they are, or risk losing them."

This speech concludes with the words of musician Bob Dylan, with a few alterations:

Come gather 'round people, wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon, you'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin'
Then you'd better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone
For the times, they are a-changin'

Come writers and critics, who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide, the chance won't come again
But don't speak too soon, for the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times, they are a changin'

Come doctors and teachers, will you heed the call?
Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall
For those who get hurt will be those who have stalled
There's a battle outside and it's ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times, they are a changin'

Come mothers and fathers, throughout the land
And don't criticize what you don't understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old world is rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one if you can't lend a hand
For the times, they are a changin'


Dear Meryl Streep: No Abled Savior Needed

Meryl Streep has managed to make headlines by attacking the world's lowest-hanging fruit: Donald John Trump. Apparently it is viewed as an act of bravery to stand up to the most blatantly and visibly racist, ableist, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, and all around assholish public figure of modern times. It is especially brave to do so as a wealthy abled white cis woman, in the process of receiving a nationally televised award.

At the Golden Globes ceremony on January 8th, 2017, Meryl Streep received the Cecil B. DeMille Award, and used part of her acceptance speech to dredge up a year-old news item: Donald Trump publicly mocking the mannerisms associated with arthrogryposis, the visible disability of Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Serge F. Kovalevski. I call him that, not because I particularly value awards or titles (I didn't even watch the Golden Globes when it originally aired, and I'm an actor), but because Kovalevski doesn't appear to name himself a member of any disability rights movement, nor focus his journalism on disability topics. Thus a description of him as a "Pulitzer prize-winning journalist" seems to contain far more relevant information than "disabled reporter" does.

As I and many others pointed out over a year ago, referring to the mocking of a disabled person as some unspeakable evil, or as "the final straw" to sever support of Trump's campaign, is actually ableist. Mocking a disabled person qualifies as evil, certainly, but it is not more evil than creating a mandatory Muslim registry like the Nazis did with Jews. It is not more evil than grabbing women by the pussy without their consent. And it is clearly less evil than repealing the Affordable Care Act, effectively killing millions of mostly disabled people, not just making fun of us. Why weren't any of those things the final straw? Why is mocking disability met with greater outrage than actions that are objectively, measurably more harmful, to other minorities and specifically to disabled people? The answer to that question lies in the subtext, something all actors love, within Meryl Streep's rhetoric:
"It sank its hooks in my heart... It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it."
The underlying tone, neatly bookended here, is pity. Just as disabled people merely living our lives is inspiring and heartwarming, on the flip-side directly interacting with a disabled person in a mean way is a low blow, kicking someone while they're down. Of course in reality, being disabled doesn't mean we're "low" or "down" in the first place (unless you're literally talking about wheelchairs or dwarfism, neither of which describe Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Serge F. Kovalevski).

Making fun of disabled people is the unforgivable sin of the 21st century, not because ableism is bad - the speech didn't even contain the words ableism, discrimination, or bigotry - but because disabled people are already so tragic and vulnerable. Hiring people who aren't disabled to play us in movies is fine. Taking away our civil rights, that's fine. Literally murdering us, no problem. Just don't point and laugh. Meryl Streep says we lack "the capacity to fight back." While it's true that the president of the United States generally has more power than a given New York Times editor, first of all, Donald Trump hadn't yet been elected to any public office at the time, and second, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Serge F. Kovalevski can and has responded to Trump in the way that he himself saw fit. There is no abled savior needed to defend him.

Potentially the most troublesome word choice in the speech is when Streep said that Trump "imitated a disabled reporter." Not mocked, imitated. What happened to the old adage "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery"? I seriously doubt that Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Serge F. Kovalevski felt flattered by Trump's childish antics. Meryl Streep, did you mean to imply that acting in the manner of a disabled person is what damned this action, not the fact that it was done for the sake of mockery? When an abled actor plays a disabled character, what's shameful isn't the stolen opportunity, but that a disabled character is portrayed at all? Maybe that's why you didn't even mention Kovalevski by name. He's just "a disabled reporter" to you, stripped of his personhood and of all his accomplishments. You also managed to mention the recently passed, openly bipolar Carrie Fisher, but as "Princess Leia" - neither disabled nor a person! You disrespected them just as much as you deservedly disrespected Trump. As you said in the very same speech, disrespect invites disrespect, so maybe I should call you "shit head" or something instead of Meryl Streep.

As I often say in presentations about autism, two people who are both ableist are always on the same page, even if they say and genuinely believe they're not. If you're a parent using Floortime to manipulate your child into acting neurotypical, you're not some radical revolutionary. You're not special for disagreeing with those in the ABA industry, 'cause actually, you agree with them. You agree that disabled people should not be allowed to be visibly disabled in our mannerisms, and your actions reflect that. If you're a doctor who says that vaccines don't cause autism, but if they did, you'd have to be "monstrous" to still administer them, then you don't disagree with anti-vaxxers. Not when they say being Autistic is worse than having polio. Hey Shit Head, do you think being disabled is inherently shameful? That being visible to the world, with uniquely disabled mannerisms, is shameful? If so, you and a guy who's basically famous for being an asshole are in total agreement.

Image description: Side-by-side photos of Donald Trump (left) and Meryl Streep (right). In comic book speech bubbles, Trump says "I hate disabled people!" and Streep replies "Me too!"

It may seem like I'm over-analyzing a single 1-minute paragraph within a 6-minute speech. That's because that 1-minute paragraph is all Meryl Streep said about disability. The rest of the speech, well, it was a calculated action from beginning to end: After bullying, she segued into asking her audience to support the Committee To Protect Journalists, and indeed there was a reported spike in donations right after the Golden Globes. That's great for journalists and probably needed, but was the fact that Kovalevski is a journalist really the centerpiece to this story? Where is the spike in donations to ADAPT, or Not Dead Yet, or the National Council on Independent Living? With regard to disability, all this Golden Globes speech managed to inspire in its viewers was warm fuzzy feelings. It glossed over everything notable that disabled people did in the last year, and instead used one person as a nameless prop to add egos to the list of things being stroked in a rich abled white people's circle-jerk.

What about the parts of the speech before Kovalevski and Trump?

Before reading any other perspectives, I watched Meryl Streep on YouTube so I could start with my own opinions. She began with what sounded like a speech about diversity. I may not be a comedian, but that should inspire laughter: An abled white woman, delivering a speech, to an audience that is 94% white and 0% visibly disabled, praising that audience for being so diverse. She gave shout-outs to specific actors, and to her credit named their countries of origin including Israel, Kenya, and Ethiopia. But that's only a third of the names she chose. I'm sorry, but four (4) U.S. states, Italy, and Canada does not qualify as "diversity". That's just six (6) white people. To imply that it does reflects denial and rationalization.

Streep made no mention of disability when applauding the diversity of Hollywood. It was as though she did not see the connection within her own speech. No Affordable Care Act. No underemployment of disabled actors. No disability rights advocacy groups. No criticism of ableist movies like Split, The Accountant, and Me Before You, which undermine the work of disability rights groups and fail to employ disabled actors, many of whom are alive thanks to the Affordable Care Act.  If there were any invisibly disabled actors in the audience, I don't think they were very impressed with the bravery of Meryl Streep to utterly fail at addressing any of the real issues. I, a disabled actor, am not impressed. I, a disabled actor of color, am not impressed.


Your Fave Is Problematic: End The Stigma Badges

Image description: Red square graphic with bold white text that says “The End The Stigma Badges page is ableist and supports stigma hashtag intersectionalism fail hashtag ableism hashtag fake allies”

This is a story of the fastest falling out I have ever experienced or been witness to. Even the Art of Autism was not this petty. This all started in January of 2017; as I write this reflection, the date is January 8th, 2017.

The campaign began as a Facebook page, the brainchild and New Year’s Resolution of one person, who sought to "normalize mental illness", through a coming out process akin to that codified by the queer community. The concept was that "mentally ill" people will use the badges - simple images of bold text with a background color - to label themselves, in the eyes of their social networks, with a hashtagged message to “end the stigma”, and a second tag telling readers, presumably readers who are also "mentally ill" but unable to come out, that they’re not alone.

The term “stigma” has a sullied history in disability activism. First of all, there are far more people writing and sharing books, articles, videos, and social media posts, which talk about there being a stigma around "mental illness", than there are people doing anything about it. Even people who do at least claim to be combating stigma are mostly doing the opposite, i.e. perpetuating the very stigma they refer to. As it turns out, this “badge” campaign is NOT the exemplary shining beacon where someone finally does it right. It’s just another case study of disabled people being assholes to other disabled people.

The campaign picked up popularity very quickly: The Facebook page was “liked” thirty thousand (30,000) times within a week. As a result, the page’s founder decided to recruit a team of admins and moderators, to handle the immense wave of comments, messages, and new badge requests. Initially, I was one of those admins. I am no longer. These are my insights from that period.

Although my activist origins are within the Neurodiversity Movement, and this campaign is more aligned with the Recovery Movement, irreconcilable disagreements are not the reason I left, or rather not the reason I was abruptly and rudely kicked out. In fact, I recognized the differences between movements immediately and was quite deft in towing the party line and finding compromises. For example, when a bipolar admin insisted that bipolarity IS in fact an illness and should be referred to as “bipolar disorder”, I, a non-bipolar person, yielded to standpoint theory and dropped the argument immediately. Yet these "anti-stigma" folks cannot seem to allow a neurodiversity perspective the same leeway, even while explicitly claiming to.

If the founder and/or other admins choose to respond to this post, they will surely claim that I was being “argumentative”, hostile, insulting other team members, and that I acted like a rogue agent, intentionally defying clear agreements made among the team. Anything to deny, rather than confront, their own prejudices. It is no different from a business deciding that their disabled employee is too much trouble, but then claiming the person was fired due to “excessive lateness” or something similarly generic to avoid lawsuits.

The real reason they kicked me out was in reaction to a certain message found in my Facebook profile picture, conveyed using international sign language: That message is colloquially known as “flipping the bird” and customarily interpreted into English as “fuck you.” We talked about the picture within the team’s secret Facebook group, where I made it clear that it was not directed at anyone in the group. I even agreed to change it, as soon as I had a campaign-related picture to replace it. Still, the team was not satisfied, because their prejudicial feelings had already fermented, noting me as an enemy in their minds.

That is the gist of the falling out story, but not a complete summary of why this campaign is problematic. The rest I feel is best suited for a top ten (10) list:
  1. The admin team has an irrational prejudice (or another way you could say that is a STIGMA) against words like “fucking” and signs like the middle finger handshape. They refuse to post badges that contain words on their personal “swear word” lists (without even offering any copies of those lists, of course), thus preventing “mentally ill” people from talking about “mental illness” in their own preferred language. They specifically deleted a fan-requested badge that said “I am a fucking survivor.”
  2. They made an album of “Neurodiversity Badges”, allegedly recognizing the perspective of neurodiversity activists who don’t necessarily accept the concept of "mental illness", yet this album includes, said in these exact ways: “Nonverbal Learning Disorder”, “Oppositional Defiance Disorder”, PDDNOS (both as an initialism and spelled out), “I have autism”, “I am a person with autism”, and “I have ASD” (in fairness there is at least a separate “I am Autistic” badge). The album also briefly included “I have bipolar disorder” (not “I am bipolar”) before it was deleted.
  3. Within the admin team, there are no explicitly written rules, guidelines, or boundaries, only loose tentative agreements made in a fast-paced Facebook chat in multiple timezones. Despite this, team members who are lower in the hierarchy (founder at the top, then “core” admins, then admins, then moderators) are held accountable for breaking these unwritten rules.
  4. They attacked me on the grounds that I was “taking too much credit” based on a post which acknowledges me as a team member, written by another person who is not me.
  5. They made a set of “Badges for Men”, but then kicked out their only transgender team member.
  6. Their ultimatum offered for not kicking me out was that they needed me “to monitor comments and bring any concerns to us. NOTHING MORE”. In other words, my opinions are not valued, nor even permitted. After I was doing a perfectly fine job of not just monitoring comments but also responding to them appropriately.
  7. They use weasel words (not blatant lies, but essentially lies) when interacting with public comments. For example, they said in the team chat that there won’t be any abortion or miscarriage badges because the conversation would be too difficult to moderate, but to the person who first suggested one, the public response is just “we will discuss it.”
  8. They explicitly decided NOT to include LGBTQ-related badges, because in context those badges could wind up supporting, rather than combating, the stigma against queer identities, since a big part of that stigma is comparing queerness to illness. That makes sense on its own, but they apparently DON’T mind making badges for things like autism and ADHD, where the exact same danger exists. They even explicitly reference autism and ADHD as part of the neurodiversity movement (whose core founding principle is that neurodivergent people should NOT be labeled as mentally ill) but include them in a “mental health” campaign anyway.
  9. Once again, they gaslight and bully their thankless unpaid team members when one of them expresses a disagreement.
  10. Speaking of the neurodiversity perspective, “end the stigma around mental illness” is a self-contradictory statement. Calling neurodivergent people “mentally ill” is inherently stigmatizing. So this campaign was already flawed in its premise. This problem was actually brought to my attention by other people, I thought it was a valid concern and brought it to the admin group. Nothing was done, because they can’t take criticism.
In conclusion, I first would like to allow a reminder, that problematic does not mean there are no positives to be found. In some circumstances, largely depending on the specific label, some of the badges are accomplishing legitimate anti-stigma work. But for every anti-stigma action from the team running the campaign, they have also taken an equally pro-stigma action (insert your Newton’s law of motion joke here). Taken as a whole, this campaign is NOT a welcome addition to disability activism. If there are any attempts to monetize the campaign, I will be the first to declare that I boycott them, and will encourage you to do the same.