Reactive Dialogues

It seems that for many in the autism world, “acceptance” is about letting autism take over every part of who you are and what you do. That acceptance means wearing t-shirts proclaiming your link to autism, writing and speaking about autism pride, and tying autism into one’s very identity.

By Mykl Roventine

I’ve come to see this is “reactive acceptance:” As a type of acceptance that happens in the face of negative stereotypes about autism. As such, it tends to over-sell the “good side” of autism and gloss over the hardships. This makes sense because it’s not simply trying to tell people what autism is, it’s trying to change an existing negative view towards autism, to replace over-the-top negativity with a balancing dose of good-vibes.

The problem with this are many, but perhaps the one I see most often and find most frustrating, is when people try to counter-balance reactive acceptance with a dollop of negativity. For example, when someone sees a positive or prideful declaration of autism, and counters it with a harsh dose of how hard it really is. This typically swings the pendulum too far in the other direction, so you get the endless and exhausting “autism sucks, autism rocks, autism sucks, autism rocks” dialogue.

This is really just people talking past each other: Each acting like the other is trying to paint a comprehensive view of what autism is all about, when really they were trying to rectify an incomplete picture of autism in the first place. It’s like two people arguing over whether an elephant has a long truck or has a short tail. They may or may not realise what they’re doing, sometimes it suits particular agendas to overlook the purpose of the statement they are reacting to.

In a world where the disabled are treated poorly and ignored, it may make sense to over-sell the good, in the same way that it may make sense to push the awesomeness of women in a misogynist society. There is a point though at which even with that explanation of pushing the up-side, things have gone too far and lost their way: When the thing you were born with (or came to have through no conscious decision or fault of your own), starts being treated as an independent source of pride or as a reason to be considered better than others. For autism, this would be when people start treating autism as something itself to be proud of or that makes them better than non-autistic people.

This is just another version of racism, sexism, or otherwise treating people as if they are better or worse by accident of birth: To consider someone to be better due to something they were simply born with, is in turn to consider people worse simply by virtue of something they weren’t born with. This is just buying into the very rhetoric that is at the heart of discrimination in the first place: Judging people by something completely outside of their control. This is why I increasingly find the idea of “autism pride” somewhat perverse: Not because autism is not a good thing, or because autism is a bad thing, but because it is outside of one’s own deliberate choices and actions. To me, meaningful pride is taken in something earned and worked for, in an achievement. Empty and confused pride is taken in something for which you had no input, as odd as me taking pride in my neighbour’s well-tended garden.

Reactive pride, and reactive acceptance, of something well understood, can be easily seen for what it is. But reactive pride and acceptance of something not well understood – like autism – just furthers the confusion of the public. When they’re told in one breath that autism is awesome and something to be proud of, and then they hear someone else saying it’s actually horrendous to live with, you’re asking them to choose who has got it right since the messages don’t match, and chances are they will side with the “its’ horrible” side because people fear the unknown and the different, and are unlikely to accept a message that tells them they are lesser people by merely not being autistic (for instance).

Furthermore, the “it’s horrible” message, will appear to carry with it a sense of revelation of truth; people are going to be naturally sceptical when you tell them that something labeled as a disability is really not what the manuals and professionals say it is. Who is more likely to be carrying an agenda; the professionals and manuals, or the lay-person telling them autism is actually great?

Some people will realise there is truth in both the horror and the beauty, despite being fed two contradictory messages, but most of the time people tend towards a view that just reinforces what they already think. I much prefer the idea of emphasizing the individuality of autistic people, rather than packaging them into some tidy message to react against some other tidy message. In my experience, the public thinks about autism in a very simple sense: They think all autism is caused by and will eventually cured by, some single thing. They think of autism in terms of whatever stereotype they most recently saw in a movie or read in a book. The astounding diversity is lost on them. So when someone does something horrible, who happened to have autism, or something wonderful, who happened to have autism, they quite naturally extend that impression to autistic people in general, and there are plenty of people who would happily reinforce that view for them.

The reactive dialogues feed rather than breaks that pattern of thought.

Encouraging people to recognise that autism is just part of what a person is, instead of their whole, is a good step towards freedom from the endless pendulum between the tail and the trunk. That way the next time someone with autism does something horrible or great, we won’t have to jump back into reactive dialogues, we can examine the individual’s choices and actions for what they are. Sometimes autism is relevant to what someone does and says, sometime it isn’t. Simplifying autism, and packaging it into tidy t-shirt print messages, can just end up simplifying and packaging autistic people too. Autism is complex. People are complex. Reactive dialogues pay superficial homage to the true complexity of both autism and humanity.

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14 Responses to Reactive Dialogues

  1. Angela says:

    I am interested in your thoughts on this noting however that your son is still very young. Your viewpoint may be quite different as he grows and you personally face more of the world’s perceptions of autism. I think the ‘public” are always going to be confused about a lot of things-not just autism! In general the “public” aren’t really that interested and why should they be if autism doesn’t touch their lives? All we can do all individuals on the spectrum and parents and friends is to know and care about how our particular “autie” feels and really not give a monkey’s about the “public”
    My son wears his”AUTISM” t-shirt “Awesome, Unique, Totally, Interesting,Sometimes, Mysterious” with pride-is autism just one part of him like his brown eyes-absolutely- but despite all the hardships we also want to acknowledge him and be “out there” about how amazing he is too. I do feel pride in him-I don’t care that he didn’t choose to be autistic-it’s still “meanIngful pride” to those of us who love him.

    • On the point of pride in our children, the pride we take there is in what they achieved and how hard they work, surely not in what they were simply born with..? I have great pride in my son, but not because (or in spite) of his autism.

      Even though we appear to disagree in some ways on this, I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts and what you do around these issues. And I very much agree and am open-minded to the fact that my attitudes may change as he ages (since my attitudes have changed a lot in the mere 4 or so years that we’ve had his diagnosis).

      Thanks very much for your comment 🙂

  2. keith says:

    Blacks are fine so long as they don’t use our toilets or buses. Gays are fine so long as they don’t hold hands in front of us. Jon Brock, considered to be one of the more humane autism researchers, couldn’t understand why autistics would want heroes like Alan Turing: autistics are fine so long as they aren’t leaders or visionaries. It’s a truism that advocacy for nebulous groupings leads to a clumsy dialogue, no one could argue with what you say here, but currently autistics are being hindered by the mindless assumptions of vast swathes of people who believe themselves to be good. It’s the right time for autism pride. Hopefully the time will pass.

  3. Quintorpian says:

    The way i see it is that what appears too much for some is just right or not enough for others. So for where one autistic person is at, it might make a lot of sense to wear their autism pride t-shirt and even be in people’s face with it, whereas others will see that as overdoing it and they will choose quieter ways of understanding and declaring themselves. And that i reckon is how things are and will always be. The world needs those moments of flashy in-your-face expressiveness just as much as the subtler ways of being.

  4. Sharon says:

    As always, a very interesting perspective.

  5. Sunshine says:

    Yes! Great points. I have always been left feeling a little uneasy by this kind of tribalism, and so I’ve never fully embraced the Autism as Identity mindset, but I never really thought about how dismissing all the collectivism and looking at autists as individuals may really change public perception of autism for the better. Something to think about.

  6. Excellent post: few things are black or white, night or day, good or bad. My son’s autism gives him some wonderful gifts, but it also comes with many obstacles. Accepting both realities doesn’t diminish the weight or import of the other.

  7. Carolina says:

    I’m really interested in the different ideas you are putting in conversation here. Here’s another one to add on. I have a lot more direct experience with LGBTQ pride than autism pride, but could offer one. insight from that arena to stir in with these other phenomena you are thinking of. I think in the LGBTQ community there is some use of “pride” to mean something like “I am not ashamed, though you seem to be telling me I should be” (which, as you identify, can swing too far since in fact that identity is not a personal accomplishment any more than heterosexuality is).

    However, it is also used to signify pride in what undoubtedly is a personal accomplishment–finding ways to survive and thrive despite sometimes suffocating levels of oppressive treatment. I think in this sense, “pride” really is the word we are looking for–“I have found a way to be me, be healthy and well, and engage ubiquitous hatred in a way that neither ignores it nor lets it define my life.” This is a significant personal/psychological accomplishment, and one of which I think many people feel rightfully proud (in the usual sense of the word).

    I wonder if the analogy might apply in some parts of the Autism Pride community as well (although I think in both communities there are also generous helpings of all the other phenomena you describe above). Certainly there is a complex mix of approaches and motivations going on in both movements, which each contain a great deal of diversity and multiplicity even within a similar-named group.

    • Really thoughtful and interesting comment Carolina. I understand what you’re saying, and yes I think with the detailed context built in that you refer to, that “pride” may indeed be the appropriate word to capture the complexity of the situation. I really appreciate your response, and will think on it further. Thank you.

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