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.
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.