In response to Autism Speaks’ pathologizing, offensive, bigoted characterization of autism, various autistic writers and pro-autistic allies are writing our own accounts of what autism really is.
So what is it?
I need to go to the post office to mail a package. This is autism.
I also need to pick up groceries to cook dinner tonight. This is autism.
I’ll probably spend this chilly evening reading under a blanket. This is autism.
I spent much of this morning doing laundry. This is autism.
I spent much of this afternoon spending too much time on Facebook. This is autism.
I love my husband with all my heart and I adore my children with my every breath. This is autism.
I am drinking a glass of Diet Coke. This is autism.
But don’t non-autistic people do those things too?
Yes, they do, but right now I’m talking about an autistic person (me) doing them.
But what about flapping and not-talking and sensory pain and social awkwardness?
Those things are autism, too.
You see, as I’ve mentioned before, “autism” is not a substance unto itself. You cannot have a jar of autism. “Autism” is an abstract noun used to describe a type of person. A type of person with a certain shape of brain, certain traits, yes, but who still has every human attribute of personhood.
The goal of Autism Speaks and other organizations that seek to “prevent” or “eliminate” autism is to eliminate autistic people from the world. This would mean eliminating the aspects of autistic people which they loathe and desperately wish to abolish (like difficulty with speech), but it would mean eliminating every other aspect of autistic people as well. Non-existent people don’t have traits, attributes, talents, disabilities, strengths, or weaknesses. Non-existent people have nothing and are nothing.
A non-autistic person could drink Diet Coke and go to the post office, just as I do. But if I were not an autistic person, I could not do these things. Because if I were not an autistic person, I wouldn’t be a person at all. If I had been prenatally identified as autistic and aborted before I was born, I would never have lived to taste my first Diet Coke. If I underwent surgery to strip away the specifically autistic structures of my brain, I would die on the operating table, and never make another post office run again.
The way that autistic people go about our lives may in some ways be different than the way non-autistic people do. For instance, when I go grocery shopping, I probably put far more concern into choosing a quiet, uncrowded, dimly-lit store than most non-autistic people do. And, of course, there’s tremendous individual variation within the categories of “autistic people” and “non-autistic people.” But all of these individual variations fall well within the larger category “people going about their lives.” None of these varying aspects of humanity could exist without the existence of people who fill them.
Which is the real problem with organizations like Autism Speaks—it’s not about their offensive rhetoric, or their lack of autistic representation in positions of power, or their allocation of funds, or their methods of going about achieving their goals. It’s their goals themselves, the elimination of all autistic people, everywhere. The elimination of autistic people means the elimination of autistic children screaming, and the elimination of autistic teenagers building robots, and the elimination of autistic men playing piano, and the elimination of autistic children fingerpainting, and the elimination of autistic women folding laundry, and the elimination of autistic seniors golfing, and the elimination of autistic babies sucking pacifiers, and the elimination of autistic writers watching trashy television. Autism Speaks wishes to eliminate us and everything about us: the good, the bad, and the utterly boring.
Autism is not a stereotype, or an image, or a set of pathologized “symptoms.” It’s not a moment in isolation, or a metaphor for modern alienation, or a term to embody all of a parent’s worries about their child. It’s not an illness or a virus or a demon that steals souls. It’s simply a description of a type of people. Autistic people. Living, breathing, conscious, autonomous, concrete, complex, multidimensional, non-hypothetical autistic people: This is autism.