Why, yes, I am starting with such a controversial title.
This is a topic I’ve been wanting to tackle for a while. Now, remember, some of this is purely my opinion, but much of it is general consensus by the #ActuallyAutistic community, so while it’s still subjective, it should be accepted as good authority on the subject. And I’m warning potential trolls right now, I will not hesitate to block you.
Because, while everyone is entitled to their own views, you don’t have the right to tell someone else — who is living a completely different physical and mental experience than you — that theirs are absolutely wrong.
Okay, here we go…
The definition of ableism is someone who is without disability, disorder, or medical condition, and who believes that they are therefore superior to people who do live with any of the aforementioned. As recently as 30 years ago, a lot of “normal” people were kind of ableist without even realizing they were behaving in an offensive way. (Sort of similar to growing up in a culture where many are racist — if you’re not taught differently, you’ll think this is a regular state of thinking. Which is why the cycle has to be broken somewhere. More on that in a second.) Up until the early 21st century, very little was known about autism, learning disorders, various mental health issues, etc. — in some cases even by medical professionals — so terms like “retarded” weren’t considered hurtful or inaccurate.
Nowadays, though, a growing number of the general population knows better. Many doctors and psychologists have reclassified autism from a mental illness or a disease to a condition or disorder. Treatments to help manage anxiety and sensory-perception-induced stress are a lot more common now than even a decade ago. Some businesses, such as supermarkets or theaters, offer “autism-friendly” hours for shopping or attendance, and the lights will be turned down and crowds of people not permitted in.
All of this sounds like society as a whole is becoming more tolerant of the smaller groups traditionally relegated to its edges. Unfortunately, that’s not entirely true.
Too many of our relatives, neighbors, teachers, classmates, co-workers, employers, and random people we may cross paths with still look down on us, feel pity for us, and wonder why we wouldn’t do everything we could to become “normal.”
Here’s the reason this is ableist: Someone believing our lives will be less if we don’t go to the cinema, concerts, sports matches, or even drive in rush hour traffic is unfair and unbalanced. Such a view imposes simultaneous expectations and restrictions on us that we can’t hope to meet, or to be comfortable with. Standards for “average” people are not our standards, so trying to force us to reach them isn’t kind, or in fact helpful. Taking away our comfort zones isn’t beneficial, since most autists put firm boundaries in place to save our emotional and physical nerves. We won’t become “more” or “reach our full potential” by striving to act like “everyone else.”
There are still too many therapists whose goal is to make sure autistic children appear “less autistic.” Their aim is not to teach kids who struggle with empathy how to walk in another’s shoes; rather, it’s to repress or even remove the impulses that come naturally to us. We stim because our bodies don’t receive and process external information in the same way the bodies of neurotypicals do; we are not purposefully hoping to come off as “weird” or “fidgety.” We tend to avoid or stay away from groups of people, especially strangers, because they’re simply often too loud and confusing for us, not because we’re determined to dislike them and their ordinary-ness. We don’t share their interests or pursuits for a number of reasons, most of which are hardly rooted in disdain or pure selfishness. Many of us hold little to nothing against “them,” and all we ask is to be extended the same courtesy.
There’s an odd disconnect between how society views autism versus other disabilities or conditions. For example, people with physical limitations, as a result of injury or illness, seem to get much more respect than those of us on the spectrum. There have been specialized parking spaces and store entrances and more accessible homes for such circumstances for a while now. But autists are still, for the most part, expected to just walk into stores where the lights are too bright, to live in apartments where the neighbor’s music is too loud, to speak on the phone to a complete stranger to resolve a billing dispute, and just deal with it.
It means that living in a world we have to constantly conform to — in ways that put our health at risk — is difficult, degrading, even dangerous.
We don’t ask to have autism; we don’t choose to be on the spectrum. It seems we’re born there, which means the decision or assignment is utterly out of our prenatal hands. While many of us accept how we are, learn to manage the downsides of our condition, and often even find identity and solace in the way we give our all to our passions and keep trying to pinpoint the bright side of life, we’re also frequently told this is “settling” or “unacceptable.”
I still don’t understand why. And I’m not alone.
Ableism not only hurts autists; ableism shuts out other points of view to the ableists. They could be learning something from us, something that might make their world a lot bigger.
And if we didn’t feel so oppressed by ableism, if we felt welcomed to “come as you are,” could we gain as well?