(cn: bullying, abuse, ableism)
Note: This article is commentary inspired by this article.
At the very end of Autism Awareness Month 2018, there was an incident in London where 25 year old Tamsin Parker, an autistic woman, got thrown out of a British Film Incident screening of her favourite film for essentially NTs taking offense for her laughing too loud at the film. There was ableism involved including a man using sexist language, another person using the R-word towards her and others laughing and jeering to give some detail. Although there were some people in the screening who walked out in solidarity, the environment (from what I could tell through reading up on it) was toxic. With these events serving as a starting point for today’s post, I would like to discuss why we need autism acceptance and not autism awareness.
Firstly, I would like to say that I’m not going to speak for Tamsin or anyone else involved in the incident because I don’t know them so I can only speak for myself. However, like many autistic people I have had experiences of social rejection like this and some aspects of this incident has resonated with me. I am writing these thoughts based on the reported facts and my own experiences.
Firstly, the fact that she was laughing so loud is noteworthy it is was considered socially unacceptable to many NTs in the room around her. That could happen to any autistic person especially those whom are in other vulnerable groups too. However, when an autistic person is behaving like this it is possible that they have a happy state of mind, often because it involves something they enjoy. Expressions and mannerisms are exaggerated compared to NTs but it is their authentic autistic self that is showing in their behaviour.
There are people out there who don’t want to see that. Why don’t they want to see someone who wears their heart on their sleeve (as many autistics do) and expresses their emotions so vividly? Presumably this is because they feel uncomfortable with seeing something they don’t consider “normal?” These people are mostly non-disabled allistics.
If an autistic person shows their truest self, then they are indirectly trusting you. They are trusting you not to negate their feelings. They are trusting you not to take advantage of them. Many autistic people have had their willingness to show their true autistic self beaten out of them over the years due to NTs not accepting them or abusing them when they do. Thus, this leads to masking and repressing their true selves just to pass and be accepted by the NTs around them. This has consequences for the mental health of autistic people including developing comorbid physical and mental illnesses, losing their sense of self and developing autistic burnout.
However, there was one thing that the autistic woman reportedly did that stuck out to me. She said, as she was being taken out, “I’m autistic.” I have a few thoughts on this.
There are many assumptions that arise when you say “I’m autistic.” I used to think that saying “I’m autistic” to people would lead to them accepting me and have that “Aha! That’s why Subtle is different!” moment. Also, saying “I’m autistic” is a hope that people will be able to accommodate you in the best way possible. Finally, saying “I’m autistic” relies on the hope that the other person is knowledgeable about autism and they can help you as best as they can. It leads to inclusion, right?
Sadly, this is not often the case. In my experience people had no idea how best to help me and this still lead to bullying and social isolation. In their eyes, saying “I’m autistic” is an excuse and an attempt to deflect from what they see as bad behaviour. Hence, for now at least, these positive hopes when you say “I’m autistic” are idealistic at best (with some very rare exceptions).
Something else that also doesn’t help when someone says “I’m autistic” is that many autistic people aren’t able to elaborate what their individual needs are for various reasons. As autism is a spectrum, it affects everybody differently. Therefore the autistic person (or a credible advocate for them) needs to convey their specific needs across to the people around them. This can be done orally or written down by the autistic person themselves or the credible advocate. I believe this is one reason why organisations often make autism cards for autistic people to give to authority figures to help with self-advocacy when autistic people become temporarily non-verbal during meltdowns.
In my experience, people were aware that I am autistic but didn’t really understand how it affects autistic people broadly, yet alone specifically. This applies to many people in the lives of every autistic person there is. Broad knowledge is required to understand the deeper, more intimate knowledge of how being autistic affects each individual differently. Hence we reach the main point of this post.
Allistics (and even some autistic people) have their own preconceived ideas about autism, brought on by misinformation and stereotypes like “Autistic people are like Rain Man” and “Autistic people are more likely to be violent and become school shooters.” Not to mention negative connotations like puzzle pieces and “light it up blue.” Some people with these beliefs aren’t even bigoted rather genuinely nice people that are misinformed. This is what autism awareness does. Much of the campaigns that surround autism awareness are not managed by autistic people for the benefit of autistic people therefore the wrong messages are being sent out.
Autistic people know the most about autism. They live it every day. If autism acceptance became the main discourse there would be far less BFI-esque incidents. This is because more people will know and understand and will try their best to help as the basic general knowledge is there. Autism acceptance puts autistic people at the centre of everything and helps autistic people get their needs met through campaigns like Red Instead and Light it up Gold.
Hopefully Tamsin is doing well now. She didn’t deserve this. Nobody deserves this. Hopefully this is the start of change.
That’s all for today.