Hi, there! I’m just your friendly neighborhood Queer, nonbinary, disabled, feminist Autistic here to tell you about a kickass—though relatively unknown, at least among allistic folks—celebration: Autistic Pride Day. Observed on June 18th of each year, Autistic Pride Day originated from and is led by Autistics; this is a day of us, by us, and for us—no organizations or “charities” that stifle our voices and cause harm to Autistic folks—just Autistics celebrating how awesome we are!
Mind you, when I say “how awesome we are,” I’m not talking about that whole “Autistic savant” trope because that’s a bunch of bullshit. Some Autistics are savants but most of us aren’t and that’s okay. That stereotype invalidates the experiences of the vast majority of Autistics who are just trying to live their lives. And that’s not the only harmful stereotype floating around in the cultural imaginary:
- Autistics don’t have empathy
- A 2016 article in Scientific American suggests that it’s alexithymia, not autism, that accounts for difficulty with empathy—but it is not a lack of empathy, it is difficulty identifying and describing their own emotions and, therefore, difficulty reading others’ emotions. Those with alexithymia still care about other people’s feelings, they just struggle with responding to those emotions in ways that neurotypical folks understand as “normal.”
- Other studies and theories posited by psychologists and researchers suggest that Autistics may not do well with cognitive (or, according to some, “shallow”) empathy but exhibit high levels of affective (or “deep”) empathy.
- Though it is but anecdotal evidence: I am an empath.
- We don’t understand social cues—this one is really closely tied to the empathy issue
- We are all either “high functioning” or “low functioning”—not only is this kind of language harmful because it’s ableist and tends to focus on the degree to which we are burdening allistic people, it’s not the experience of most of us who experience different levels of “functioning” at different times and under different circumstances. Moreover, being labeled as “high functioning” can keep many Autistics from getting the accommodations they need; being labeled as “low functioning” can keep many Autistics from receiving the support they need to excel in the areas they can (I’m thinking very specifically here about the long-held belief that nonspeaking Autistics were cognitively or intellectually disabled).
- Autism is a disorder primarily affecting those assigned male at birth—WRONG. That stereotype has meant that so many Autistic people assigned female at birth have been overlooked and, thus, haven’t gotten the support they need to make life more accessible.
There are so many stereotypes and assumptions that have harmed, and continue to harm, Autistics. As Dr. Shore said, “if you’ve met one [Autistic person], you’ve met one [Autistic person].*” (*I’ve changed the language to reflect the identity-first language that I and many other self-advocating Autistics prefer).
One particularly pernicious, and timely to discuss, assumption—one that many folks don’t even realize they’re making—about Autistics is that it is mostly affects white people. There are a lot of factors that go into this, not least of which being school funding and access to medical care. Those two in particular have gotten a lot of attention in years past but I think there is another stereotype at play too, one that needs to be discussed now: white children are considered more innocent than children of color—particularly Black children—and, therefore, behaviors seen as punishable in children with more melanin in their skin needs to be excused in white children.
Now, if you’re white—especially a white parent—you’re probably feeling bristly and defensive right now. Before you click away or immediately start composing a response, I ask you to sit with that discomfort for a little while and hear me out.
It is now well-documented that Black children are viewed as older and less innocent (and here and here and here and here, and so many more). That is before we include various behaviors that allistic people frown on Autistics for exhibiting: stimming, meltdowns, periods of going nonspeaking, not making eye contact, not reading social cues and responding “inappropriately” as a result, info-dumping, etc. The meltdowns, in particular, have traditionally been seen as “problem child” behavior—because, of course, this is one of the behaviors most inconvenient for allistic people in a school setting. For white children, that “problem child” behavior has to be investigated, there has to be a reason why they would act that way because they’re a good kid. If BIPOC children exhibit the same behavior… well, insert any number of racist stereotypes here. The prevailing assumption that autism primarily effects white people colliding with the cultural assumption that Black children are less innocent means that, even with a documented diagnosis, a Black Autistic child’s behavior is likely to be seen—however unconsciously—as more troublemaking.
This is especially problematic when you consider the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionally impacts Black children with disabilities: “Students with disabilities, including intellectual limitations, ADHD, dyslexia, autism, and impaired hearing or vision, are twice as likely to be expelled or suspended than their non-disabled peers. They also account for a quarter of public-school students who are suspended, arrested or turned over to law enforcement––more than twice their share of the total student population, according to the Government Accountability Office.” If our schools are routinely treating BIPOC disabled students as “disruptive” and in need of punishment—which, in the era of School Resource Officers, can mean being violently assaulted and/or arrested—then these kids aren’t getting the support they need. And that should scare you: we should be afraid for these kids’ safety and wellbeing, for their future.
That is not to say that white Autistic children don’t also face punishment for behaviors that are (or are just considered) problematic, that does happen. It does not, however, happen at the same rates that it does for BIPOC Autistics, Black Autistic children in particular. White children are not punished with the same frequency and severity in schools and white people, on the whole, face a lower rate violence at the hands of police—or be killed by police. Add in the fact that police are not adequately trained (if at all) to handle mental health crises and/or disabilities and… y’all. It’s so scary.
I don’t have easy answers. Given how ingrained structural racism is in our society, there’s not an easy answer, I don’t think. I do know that we have to start broadening our ideas about what Autistic “looks like,” i.e. not necessarily white and male; we—especially us white folks—have to very deliberately challenge ourselves to unlearn the racist stereotypes that have convinced us that Black children are less innocent and precious; we have to start reimagining our education system, how it is funded, how resources are distributed, and get armed cops out of our schools; and we need to work on making our world accessible to people with all kinds of disabilities.
Now, all of that may seem like a long ramble—how Autistic of me, right?—that is only tangentially related to Autistic Pride Day. To me, it’s directly related: we have this day because we need to celebrate who we are and Black Autistics need that too, especially in light of pervasive stereotypes and pernicious racist structures that treat their perspectives, experiences, and coping mechanisms as disruptive and criminal; in light of our being in the midst of incredible turmoil after more high-profile murders of Black folks carried out by police. I want to make sure that we, as white folks—since it is incumbent upon us to dismantle structural racism— stop viewing Black experiences so monolithically and I want allistic folks—since it is incumbent upon you to start listening to Autistic people—to stop viewing Autistic experiences so monolithically. We need to start evening the playing field and this is the first step on the way there.
Happy Autistic Pride!
Also, a reminder: Autism $peaks is a hate group.
Oh! And, we’re still in a pandemic, so don’t forget: