I’ve noticed a few things where I know what I’m seeing but I’m not sure quite what to call it.
I keep coming back to the reactions to “In My Language” (which, remember, I didn’t know would get more than a few people even viewing it, I expected no wider an audience than any of my other videos). As I’ve said countless times before,, I made it in response to the dehumanization of a girl with severe cerebral palsy. I made it to address a problem that affects not only autistic people or other disabled people, but also anyone whose language is considered lesser than the dominant language. Among autistic people, I did not mean it to be specifically about non-speaking auties, but about all auties whose communication and interaction is not recognized unless we speak what is essentially a foreign language to us — no matter how well or how poorly, or in what manner, we speak that foreign language. Language was after all at least as foreign to me, if not more so, when I spoke, and my communication through music, art, and my natural interactions with my surroundings was largely ignored and ridiculed at least as badly then as now. It was also about people, autistic and non-autistic, whose way of thinking is so different that it becomes regarded as not really thought at all, and the people thinking that way ending up thrown away and discarded as defective, “crazy”, or “vegetables”, or even “not having personhood”. And it’s about the focus on particular dominant kinds of thought and language as the only real ones or the only desirable ones, and everyone who differs, biologically or culturally, becoming automatically inferior.
That’s a pretty wide scope, and covers a lot of things that a lot of people don’t want to have to think about, or find difficult to think about.
Maybe that’s why it’s been packaged as “non-verbal autistic woman lets us into her world”, despite my constant protestations both in the video and out of it, that it’s not about that. It’s not about one individual person, it’s about a broader set of issues. It would be like saying that because I’m a woman then what I have to say only applies to women.
But if all I am doing is talking about my experience as an autistic person, then that’s all anyone has to take out of it. They don’t have to change or acknowledge much of anything, and if they do acknowledge anything, they will be acknowledging it about as narrow a group as possible. If not only me, then only me and other people who share a particular trait or two in common with me. No wider context need be looked at, the context has all been jettisoned already with the packaging of this as merely an individual story.
Something similar happens with the psychologizing of self-advocacy. Instead of being about people noticing and trying to correct injustices in the world around us, it becomes about people being driven by specific internal and individual psychological forces to doing this kind of thing. It again becomes really easy to dismiss what someone is actually advocating for, if you can turn it around and make it all about them, their supposed desire for attention or self-aggrandizement or whatever. I’ve seen these accusations leveled not only against me but against Larry Arnold, Donna Williams, Michelle Dawson, Temple Grandin, and nearly any other autie who’s received any degree of media attention, no matter what our true reasons for it (or whether we’ve even sought it out, or for what reasons we’ve sought it out if we have sought it out). Whether people agree with me or Larry or Donna or Michelle or Temple or any other autie is irrelevant, the problem is that gossip-fodder becomes more important to people than the substance of what any of us are saying, doing, or trying to accomplish. If you focus constantly upon our psychological motivations you can ignore the injustices that each one of us tries to bring to light.
The same thing, by the way, happens to autistic people who end up using some more direct and violent methods of asserting their rights or personhood. People who self-injure or attack other people or destroy property are said to merely be acting on pathological behavior, possibly entirely biological (mine was once blamed on “septal rage syndrome”, another time blamed on poor functioning of my prefrontal cortex), certainly tied to the “pathology” of being autistic in and of itself, and the idea that we might be reacting to real injustices the same way anyone else might when put in our position, is ignored entirely. I knew a girl who tried to pull the (abusive) staff off of me in a mental institution and all they did was regard her as manic and psychotic. Another girl had organized ward rebellions in a different mental institution and gotten the label of borderline personality for her efforts. And I went to school with an autistic girl who’d been labeled oppositional-defiant for organizing a protest at her previous and highly abusive school. This is not to say violence is the best way of handling these problems (or else I would still be handling problems this way, which I don’t), but you can’t divorce it from the situation and act like it’s just an individual pathology borne of mysterious internal forces. Or just people who have the supposed character trait of just being “angry” or “unable to let go of the past” or some other nonsense of that nature.
All of this psychologizing conveniently (whether intended or not) draws on the stereotype of autistic people as fundamentally selfish, self-contained, and self-centered (after all, autism literally means “selfism”). Never mind that some of the most selfless people I’ve known have been autistic (not that we have a corner on that or special powers in this regard or anything). Never mind that most autistic people I know are caring and empathetic about people besides ourselves, or else we wouldn’t be doing the advocacy work, whether in public or behind the scenes, that we’re always doing. We are supposed to do things only for the fulfillment of internal, psychological desires and needs. And we are supposed to stay in the role of only speaking about our own situations.
This ties into our role as self-narrating zoo exhibits and nothing more than that. I have a friend who rarely even reveals herself as autistic for fear that she will be asked to either tell her life story or educate parents, and be regarded as selfish and not fulfilling her natural role in society if she doesn’t do these things (and I’ve been told not only those things, but that as an autistic person I have no right to privacy and that if I believe in privacy then I must not be autistic!). When I say things like this, people think I’m against educating people about what it’s like to be autistic. I’m not, at all, or I wouldn’t do it so often. But it needs to be on our terms. Our lives are not textbooks for other people to pry open and read as they see fit. People have no intrinsic right to our lives and our self-dissections. For them to alternately insist, threaten, flatter, and wheedle us to give up those things to them is a problem, no matter how pure they think their motivations are. And anyone who does that should be aware that we can usually recognize the flattery and wheedling a mile away.
It’s also clear something’s wrong from what happens when we step out of that role. Telling our stories is not a particular threat to anyone’s sense of security, except those few who still want badly to believe that autistic people are by nature incapable of doing so. Actively stating ethical ideas (such as when I commented about the problems inherent in the idea of mental age) does step on some people’s toes, especially people who’re wrapped up in seeing themselves as “the good guys” and their idea of “goodness” being wrapped up in never doing anything wrong that one might have to change. Autistic people aren’t supposed to step on people’s toes. And when we do, what we have to say is psychologized, and it goes back to us supposedly being mean people who hate parents. If we’re mean people who hate parents (as someone will inevitably proclaim whenever we start talking ethics), then nobody has to listen to the substance of what we’ve got to say. And if we’re entirely self-narrating zoo exhibits, then the only substance of what we have to say is in the facts of how we function and nobody has to necessarily change their ethical behavior on that basis.
So what psychologizing our advocacy work, confining us to a role as self-narrating zoo exhibits, utilizing every disability stereotype possible, and confining our ethical statements to being “only about one person” or “only about autistic people” or “only about one kind of autistic people” or “letting people into our world of autism,” all have in common, is that they conveniently shrink the influence of our ideas and actions down to as few people as possible. It’s a way of missing the absolute most substantial aspects of what we have to say. If you read everything we write in terms of either our individual and psychological motivations or us “telling our own stories,” you never have to think that hard. And I think some people are doing this by accident, but for others (particularly those who know full well what’s at stake if people listen to us) it’s a very deliberate way of not listening to us, shrinking us down to size, and keeping us in our place.