For some time now, I’ve noticed an increasing polarisation of stances amongst those who have anything to do with autism. I’ve started to call these stances ‘Autism-Negative’ and ‘Autism-Positive’. There isn’t really a ‘Autism-Neutral’ stance, as the default still tends to be the negative one, alas, given the prevailing public understanding of autism. Those who disagree with it are almost required to be positive in order to counteract that.
It’s usually pretty easy to grasp which people are which of course, but to make it crystal-clear, I’ve listed the prime characteristics of each stance.
If you’re Autism-Negative, it’s likely you will –
1) View autism predominantly via the ‘medical model’ of disability, which sees the autistic person as ‘unwell’, ‘abnormal’, or simply ‘bad’.
2) Talk of autism as a ‘disease’, ‘epidemic’, ‘brain damage’ or a ‘thief’ of the ‘real’ child, and/or describe autistics as ‘afflicted’ or ‘suffering from’ autism/Asperger's.
3) Insist on person-first language when describing autistics, ie ‘person with autism’, implying the autism is somehow separate (and hence can be detached and gotten rid of).
4) Conduct or uncritically support ‘research’ that frames autistics as ‘abnormal’ whenever they differ from neurotypicals.
5) Misinterpret autistic behaviours, eg lack of eye contact, because you never consult the actual autistics, even those adults who are able to speak.
6) Devote much time, energy and money to either searching for a cure, or supporting and/or working for organisations that have this objective in mind.
7) Insist that all autistic children should be subjected to long hours of ‘therapy’, designed to ‘cure’ them or at least render them ‘indistinguishable from their peers’.
8) View this goal of ‘indistinguishability’ as the ONLY worthwhile goal for autistics. Suppress stimming and any other obvious autistic behaviour, and punish meltdowns.
9) Tell autistics or their parents that if only they/their child was ‘normal’, they wouldn’t be bullied. And hence give the bullies a free pass.
10) Be hostile to autism advocates, telling them they are ‘too high-functioning’ to understand the ‘real’ autistics, who ‘need these treatments’.
11) Complain about how ‘stressed’ you are, how autism has ‘ruined’ your life, and similar pity parties, if you’re the parent of an autistic child, or write about autism like this, if you’re a journalist.
12) In the most extreme cases, support ‘cures’ such as MMS and similar, even when they’ve been judged illegal and abusive.
On the other hand, if you’re Autism-Positive, it’s likely you will –
1) View autism via the ‘social model’ of disability, which sees autism as simply a different neurology, and society and its attitudes as the problem.
2) Talk of autism using positive words, eg ‘neurodivergent’, ‘neurodiverse’, etc.
3) Use identity-first language when describing autistics/yourself, ie ‘autistic person’, because you view the autism as intrinsic to the individual, affecting their/your perception of the world, self-expression, thinking and emotional processes, etc.
4) Severely critique all research that frames autism negatively, and possibly conduct your own to find out the truth, even if it’s just an informal poll on social media.
5) Investigate the true motivations behind autistic behaviours by asking autistics. Or at least not assume the reason is a negative one.
6) Insist that autism doesn’t need curing, but rather acceptance and understanding.
7) Allow autistic children to BE children and to be autistic, to play and to develop in their own way, using non-invasive therapies only when absolutely necessary.
8) Acknowledge the problems, but also talk of the strengths and advantages of being autistic. Celebrate and be proud of being autistic. Stim happily and frequently, and/or allow your child to do so.
9) Promote inclusiveness of autistics in the classroom, workplace, etc, and protest the bullies, even punishing them if you have the power.
10) Either support the autism advocates, or be one yourself, and letting people know that ‘functioning levels’ are not a useful way of measuring autistic capabilities.
11) Either never experience high stress because of your autistic child, or have learnt ways to understand and deal with disagreeable behaviours, often by getting support from other autism-positive parents. And probably never appear in the media, because you’re not ‘newsworthy’. Or get reported as ‘different’ or ‘unusual’ if you do.
12) Be horrified by, and adamantly against, all harsh, abusive ‘cures’, even perhaps campaigning against them, signing online petitions, emailing your MP or representative, etc.
There are probably other items that could go on the list, but you get the picture. Note that you don’t have to tick every item to fit in one category or another, eg some Autism-Positive autistics would perhaps still prefer to say they ‘have autism’, rather than that they ‘are autistic’. It’s often a matter of personal choice.
Plus, there are bigger issues than what terminology you use. The attitudes and practises of the Autism-Negative crowd predominate, and they are hurting us badly. Very badly. I don’t think there is an autistic on the planet (unless they are very young and protected, or live on some remote island without access to the outside world!) who hasn’t met an Autism-Negative person, or experienced some of the ‘treatment’ they dish out. It has to stop. It’s time to change the public perception of autism, from Autism-Negative to Autism-Positive.
So which one are YOU?