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'