Wednesday, April 12, 2017

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'

Monday, April 10, 2017

Autism Sins: Sesame Street

See the amazing number of ways Sesame Street got autism wrong!

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 or

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Everything Wrong with Autism In Love (Autism Sins)

Have the rich complexities of Autistic love finally been shown on screen, or is this another lazy cishet sob story? It turns obvious pretty quick, so place your bets now!

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 or

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Take a Flyer Off a Wall: Six Hours in the Hole (excerpt)

The deciding factor in both my imprisonment and my release was whether someone perceived me as fully human. The worst part of the whole experience wasn’t being drugged. It wasn’t the initial arrest, it wasn’t the complacency of witnesses, and it wasn’t being restrained, secluded, or tortured. It was being dehumanized — like when I tried to memorize the names of my assailants for the malpractice lawsuit. I have the names of the police officers and the nurse who drugged me, but another nurse flipped his name badge to hide his own identity, and never showed up in the hospital record. I had shouted repeatedly “That man! What’s his name?” to which he responded “No, my name’s not Jackie Chan” and laughed. This was when I began to see firsthand the ways that all the violence against me would be retroactively justified. In that nurse’s perception, I was not human. I was part of another species called Them Buncha Crazies.

Read the full story published in Mad In America, an online magazine dedicated to exposing psychiatric malpractice.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

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.

Monday, January 9, 2017

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 call-out, 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, 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 Mad Pride* (though I hesitate to say so, potentially an insulting comparison for true Mad Pride activists), [*EDIT: Now that I've been informed that the recovery movement is considered a movement, I'd say this campaign is far closer to that rather than Mad Pride] 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.

If the founder and/or other admins choose to respond to this call-out, 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, pegging 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, lower-level team members (founder at the top, then “core” admins, then admins, then moderators) are held accountable for breaking these unwritten rules.
  4. 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 ADD, where the exact same danger exists. They even explicitly reference autism and ADD 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.
  5. They made a set of “Badges for Men”, but then kicked out their only transgender team member.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.”
  10. Once again, they gaslight and bully their thankless unpaid team members when one of them expresses a disagreement.
In conclusion, I first would like to allow a reminder, that problematic does not mean there are no positives to be found. Some of the badges are accomplishing legitimate anti-stigma work. The Facebook page also features lists of crisis hotlines - attracting people to those is a good thing. 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.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Everything Wrong With Vaxxed (Autism Sins)

Andy Wakefield is at it again! Stop to get your popcorn ready and answer all your texts, 'cause this video will make sure you really know EVERYTHING wrong with this movie.

The same guy who committed fraud in 1998, by saying that the MMR vaccine causes autism, in an attempt to sell his individual measles vaccine for profit, has now made a movie to say that the MMR vaccine causes autism, in an attempt to sell his individual measles vaccine for profit, while accusing everybody else of doing the things he's doing. Actual diseases and anti-autism eugenics are back in full swing in this silly conspiracy movie!

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.

For T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other junk that leaves me a neat little artist margin, visit my RedBubble store.

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

For the original Sinners, visit or

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Autism Sins: Adam from House

Everything Wrong With House M.D. season 3, episode 4 "Lines in the Sand" and its portrayal of Autistic patient Adam Kelvey.

This is the first installment of Autism Sins, where I snarkily 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 or

Friday, April 22, 2016

Acceptance Must Not Become a Buzzword

The discourse surrounding autism is full of meaningless buzzwords: Awareness, cure, treatment, high-functioning, optimal outcome, and many more; even the factual-sounding phrase "evidence-based" cannot be taken as an indication that there really is evidence. Many of these words did mean something once upon a time, but since then have been distorted by widespread overuse and misuse.

Language has power, and replacing meaningless buzzwords with things that are meaningful is an important part of pro-Autistic activism: Rather than appealing to a vaguely defined "functioning" level, we describe what people's specific support needs are. Rather than trying to nonsensically "treat" or "cure" something that isn't a disease, we attempt to change the social and civil environments to ones that are more accommodating.

You might expect that a campaign to promote "awareness" of autism would be educating people about what autism is, highlighting some Autistic role models, and explaining how to best support the Autistic people in your life. In practice, "autism awareness" campaigns don't seem to promote any message other than autism is a thing that exists. If that's all we're meant to be aware of, then frankly, I think we're at peak awareness. When I hear people talk about "raising" awareness further, I imagine some Amish family in the mountains, living off a tofu farm, that hasn't heard the word autism yet.

Awareness, at least autism awareness, is a meaningless buzzword. You can verify this by asking people at "autism awareness" events, "what does awareness mean?" and getting the word awareness thrown back at you in most of the answers. It's a signifier with nothing signified. Therefore, the only meaning it holds is by association with the people currently using it, and for the most part, those associations aren't pretty. When the main beneficiaries of "autism awareness" are also the people encouraging us to buy blue light bulbs and commit child abuse, "awareness" becomes a top priority to replace.

The Autistic community's answer? Acceptance. That word is loaded with meaning, and every year we make concerted efforts to pack it with more: Acceptance is an action. Acceptance is more than just passive tolerance of Autistic people's existence. Acceptance is implementing accommodations before they're needed. Acceptance is presuming competence. Acceptance is solidarity. Autism acceptance is a fundamental shift in mindset that embraces the neurodiversity paradigm and the social model of disability.

Thanks to the aggressive promotion of acceptance within the Autistic community, we're starting to see the idea of replacing awareness with acceptance take hold in things created by non-Autistic organizers. Some people chase the imaginary neutral position by including both words, while others see what the world is trending towards, and hop on board with acceptance.

However, bringing a word out of the fringe and into the mainstream has an unfortunate side effect: The fringe no longer has control over the word's meaning. The word is subject to the large-scale social mechanisms behind language development. The word's meaning is now derived from consensus rather than logic or purpose.

Just as awareness can shift from education and understanding to "beware the autism boogeyman", the meaning of acceptance can shift to harmful ideas like "accept the tragedy of autistic life" or "accept the real child hidden behind the autism." If that happens, then acceptance is no different from awareness. It's stolen from the activist toolbox and becomes one of the master's tools. Our years of work become a failed experiment and we're forced to start over.

Already there are organizations co-opting the acceptance label to dupe their Autistic audiences into not making a fuss, when the content is still the same message that we protest. There are well-intentioned "acceptance" events where the people who show up use the word acceptance because it's there, but are really still stuck in the awareness mindset, undermining the events.

It is not enough to correct these occurrences for misusing a word, for they may be ignorant of the intended meaning of one label, but their overall messages are quite intentional, as they have always been. It is necessary for us to condemn phony acceptance as fraud, and as hatred.

We must not let acceptance become a buzzword. If it does, then we have made no progress towards actually autistic people being actually accepted.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Not All Labels Are Created Equal

I wrote this article as part of the A-Z neurodiversity series created by Un-boxed Brain for Autism Acceptance Month. It is listed in that series as "L is for Labels"

The following article contains 238 labels.

The moment you tell me that you "don't like labels" is the moment I know you're being dishonest. If you speak any oral, written, or signed language, you use labels constantly: Child, adult, doctor, musician, gamer, optimist, pet owner, car enthusiast – These are all labels.

If you honestly tried to remove every label from your own speaking patterns, you would immediately run into the problem of infinite regression, as most label words can only be defined with other label words. Rather than "pet owner" you would try to say a person who lives with an animal in the same house, but then realize that person, animal, and house are all labels, and arguably so is the phrase "lives with" as a synonym of roommate.

We use labels for their utility, and out of practical necessity. Without labels, the only nouns in any language would be this, that, and pronouns. We would have zero ability to discuss concepts. You don't say "I don't like labels" when somebody calls you by your name, or occupation, or hobbies. The real meat of the conversation is those labels that are less mundane - more radical - not yet accepted as mainstream.

By "I don't like labels" you really mean "I don't like the label you just used." After fixing the language, the complaint is more relatable. We all have words we don't like; racist or ableist slurs for example. We might not all be on the same page about the details, but I think we can agree that some labels are neutral, like names or ages, some are bad, like slurs, and some are good. Let's start with the bad:

Ableist slurs hinder our ability to communicate.

Dumb, stupid, moronic, idiotic, and- if those first 4 words didn't shock you then this shouldn't either- retarded, are used as slurs against disabled people to insult us directly, and that's obviously harmful. They are also used against non-disabled people, to insult them by comparison to disabled people, which is of course offensive to all disabled people. Yet neither of those applications are what make these words less-than-useless as labels.

Ableist slurs based on "intelligence" end your thought process. If you don't like something, just call it "stupid" and swish your hands together like you're shaking off crumbs. Why don't you like that "stupid" thing? Well, because it’s stupid! The same can be done with "sanity" slurs and with the word lame.

In this scenario, we're not even talking about a person. We're talking about an object (or an emergent property of an object, like a story or a computer program) that has no brain and is thus incapable of having any brain-related characteristic. The word "stupid" thus has nothing to do with a brain; it's just an empty metaphor where you can file away everything in the broad category of "I don't like it." Since intelligence is a vaguely defined social construct invented to justify ableism, this is all equally true when we ARE talking about a person.

The basic utility of a label is to shorten a longer phrase: Rather than carrying around "small battery-powered computers that transmit digitized sound waves across great distances and reinterpret them on the other side", we carry cellphones. Human communication would be incredibly slow and cumbersome without labels to signify larger phrases. The problem with a label like "stupid" is that it fails to represent any phrase other than "I don't like it." Lazy critics may think they are signifying something important by referencing intelligence, when really it signifies nothing. If you get too used to calling things stupid, you learn to rely on it, but take the word away, and you are forced to describe the details of your actual complaints. If you don't care about removing ableist slurs from your vocabulary because they're ableist, remove them because you will become a better communicator without them.

Functioning labels divide our community.

High-functioning, low-functioning, mild, severe, and the nonsensical non-clarification of "Asperger's, not autism" are similar to "intelligence" slurs in the sense that they don't really signify anything. There is no set of characteristics that constitutes any measurable "functioning" or "severity" level.

Language has a tremendous influence on how we think, but that influence does not necessarily require using the language to communicate clearly. In some cases ambiguity may even be where the real power lies. Even if a label has no meaning behind it, the fact that people think it has meaning gives it power.

Functioning labels create categories out of thin air, simply by naming them, without even defining them. The connotations of "high" and "low" create a hierarchy: One label paints a target for prejudice, the other grants a shot at being accepted into the real privilege of the neurotypical label, at the cost of not having any support in doing so.

Meaningless buzzwords unite us toward inaction.

Labels without meaning aren't a new concept. If you're familiar with advertising, then you've surely encountered words like deluxe, gourmet, premium, and world-class. In the realm of advertising, these labels are known as buzzwords. If you've had the unfortunate experience of "autism awareness" groups, then of course you know that "awareness" is a buzzword too.

Awareness would ideally mean what it sounds like, a knowledge and understanding of the subject. In practice "awareness" campaigns, especially the ones about autism, have perverted the label such that it now signifies nothing more than seeing the word more frequently.

The label of "awareness" is a blank slate. It can encompass a variety of endeavors, from messages resembling those of neurodiversity to abusive practices derived from misinformation. Anyone can latch on with their own idea of what they feel "awareness" should mean. The label doesn't inherently mean anything, and yet we see communities come together on the basis of the label, just because a label exists. "Awareness" has the power to unite people, in the joint mission of doing nothing in particular, but doing it together.

Privileged people reject their own labels.

Neurotypical people (along with several other categories including white, straight, and cis) often reject the label of neurotypical. As is true for my pronouncements about slurs and functioning labels, when someone tells you not to use the word neurotypical, that's because they don't want you recognizing neurotypical as a concept.

When asked for an alternative, neurotypicals may offer the word "normal" or something similar, but that perfectly illustrates the problem with not having a label for neurotypical. Normalcy is a tool of oppression. Calling one set of people "normal" presents that set as the only good and healthy way to be, which in turn instantly paints everyone else as weird, alien, bad, and unhealthy.

The other alternative is to avoid labels altogether. Why do we need those words at all? Can't we all be human beings? Why can't we just call everybody people?

We can't just call everybody people.

If you constantly avoid labels, instead referring to everyone as people, then any time you give in and take the easy route, you'll be contrasting a label against "person" thus implying that whoever you're talking about isn't a person.

You can't just do away with human traits by not talking about them. Because there is no universal set of human experiences, desires, or needs, the differences between us matter. In a world where most people speak with their mouths and assume everyone else does too, I need the autism label to explain why typing is better. In a world of sensory assault, where "I don't want to" is not a sufficient excuse, I need the autism label to justify my self-protection.

It would be great if labels like autism weren't necessary. It would be great if ableism didn't exist, but that's one hell of a hypothetical. Ableism is an extreme and far-reaching problem that can't be solved without labeling the specific disabilities of the people being harmed.

Identity labels create communities.

Those who think it wrong to label ourselves autistic are operating under false notion that there is something wrong with being autistic. The autism label may be used to create stigma against us, but it also gives us something to reclaim. Before the label, we only had terms like weird, or abnormal, or worse. With the label we have something to point to for positive identity and pride.

Before the autism label existed, autistic people were disconnected, isolated individuals. We needed the label before we could begin to congregate on the basis of being literally like-minded. We need the label in order to search for resources from people with the same experiences. The autism label enables Autistic community. Uniting ourselves categorically unites us as people.

Bringing autistic people together also led to the creation of other terms, like stimming and special interests, which capture the beauty of autism and Autistic culture. These terms were created out of necessity and out of appreciation for our shared community.

...and it's all thanks to a label.

Image: Me in front of a book shelf, holding a sign which says "I am... A multiply disabled feminist socialist transgender atheist jew ...and I am Autistic. #AcceptAllOfUs"
Along with the labels themselves, the fact that I crammed together the most controversial labels also conveys additional personality information.