Non-autistic parents of autistic children, are apparently privileged. What does that mean, and why does it matter? And does it really justify silencing and attacking us, as seems to have become a popular pass-time for a few autism bloggers?
“Privilege” here means that we’re in a position of power, particularly as relative to other autistic adults and autistic parents. We live in a world where being not-autistic is some sort of advantage, a world where our voices as non-autistic parents is apparently already strong.
Whether that is true or not, is one question. The second part of the question is what this supposed privilege entails or justifies.
The argument I see coming through the most often when privilege is cited, goes like this: Because of our privilege, we non-autistic parents of autistic children, are meant to make way for the voices of autistic parents and autistic adults; pass them the speaking platform when it is offered to us, and give them the ability and position to verify our own views as correct and acceptable. Their views take primacy, and must always be heard over and above our own.
Whether that is a reasonable and defendable response to privilege (imagined or otherwise) is also debatable. But first, are we really in a position or power and privilege, relatively or otherwise?
Clearly, parents of autistic kids are in a position of weakness and lack of power when it comes to society and particularly to the parenting world. We go largely unheard and ignored in the mainstream world, and we have to fight for basic rights to health and education for our children in a way that other parents rarely understand or encounter. Our lives are typically exhausting, under-resourced, and misunderstood. So when it comes to writing or speaking about parenting, we are not in a position of privilege at all, we are the ones who need to be facilitated and heard.
What about in comparison to autistic adults and autistic parents; are we non-autistic parents not “privileged” in comparison to them? The superficial answer is yes. However, this is not always the case. Is a Maori, lesbian, physically-disabled, non-autistic mother, privileged when compared to a white, male, heterosexual, autistic father? The obvious answer is no, but there is a potential reply here: That in the context of talking about autism and raising autistic children, the non-autistic individual remains in a position of power and privilege because autism is largely understood and defined already through the non-autistic viewpoint. However there is a major consideration about the nature of disability that I think goes under or unappreciated here.
Very often the rhetoric of privilege and power goes hand-in-hand with the notion that disability is a socially defined construct (in preference to the medical model of disability): Both “privilege” and the social definition of disability, come from sociological roots (and routes) of understanding the world and our interactions in the world. Here’s the problem then: If disability is a social construct, then how you experience something like autism is hugely informed by your position of wealth, your ethnicity, your nationality, your gender, and a lot of factors completely independent of the condition of autism, since they are used to define and construct disability. Therefore, when talking about experiences and realities of living with autism, it would always be relevant to consider those other factors at play, so the question of privilege becomes much for complex than simply “does or doesn’t have autism,” even when simply discussing autism.
So, if this is true, then those with autism who are not-poor/white/ heterosexual, would have to be ready to give up their own speaking platforms and verify their own view-points in relation to autistic people who do not have their privileges (if this is what we think privilege requires; giving up speaking platforms and verifying our views and understanding by running them past those who have the deeper and more genuine understanding). At which point you really are stuck, because society is full of comparative privileges that impact on how we experience and understand things; we all carry around various impactful privileges, particularly when it comes to something like autism where the experience and understanding of it is so very much informed by other societal considerations.
Let’s make things “simpler,” and accept that autistic people (particularly autistic adults) better understand autism than their non-autistic counterparts, because they themselves have autism. First off, we need to be clear that who does and does not have autism is not always quite that straight forward, many parents of autistic children do themselves have autism or autistic traits, that give them the relevant insights. Some are diagnosed some are not, they do not and should not have to tell everyone their “autistic status” in order to be heard, at the very least one should not assume the parent who is writing is not autistic, as so many people do assume.
Let’s simplify it even further then, how about purely non-autistic parents, surely they do not have the insights into parenting an autistic child that an autistic parent does. Again, I don’t think this follows well, because autism itself is so various from person to person, in both intensity and even symptoms (though the new DSM-5 should help clear that up a bit); raising a severely autistic child is not the same experience as raising a mild one (I should know, my son has moved from one end of the spectrum to the other, they are extremely different parenting experiences on multiple levels).
What about the deeper understanding that comes from having autism inside you, quite apart from the actual parenting experience, surely that matters more and the most? There’s a problem again: There is no consensus on view-points on autism amongst the autistic either. There are a huge variety of perspectives on whether autism is great or a curse, is easy or hard to live with, from the very people who have autism; views that vary just as much as those held by non-autistic parents of autistic children. So unless we want to say these people are wrong and inauthentic, we need to allow for that variance, and if you’re going to allow for that variance which often sits alongside the exact variance you see in parental viewpoints too, then why silence or belittle the non-autistic parent viewpoints? Just because they have “privilege?”
Here’s what this actually comes down to, because this is what I see all the time in these discussions: “It’s OK to speak from a position of privilege if you agree with us.” If you disagree, you are expected to be quiet and make way for the “genuine” voices. Who are “us”? Whoever currently thinks they are the most enlightened; it is not defined by group membership per se, but by conforming to a particular view-point. This impression has been strongly reinforced due to the number of times I have seen the attack shift once someone finds out the parent they’re having a go at is indeed autistic: The attack doesn’t simply stop because the argument of privilege is gone, the attack continues on new lines once the privilege argument fails. Which is to say, the key is not privilege or power, even though that is the go-to argument when our views are deemed unacceptable. It is used to shut down the discussion, to put the speaker in their place, to silence dissent.
The way I see it, when the privilege argument is used in this way, it is just an ad hominem argument: Because of who you are, your argument fails. No need to engage in premises and truths and discussion, just dismiss the view you don’t like by claiming the other person has privilege. This is also a type of discrimination: Dismissing a view and an experience on the grounds of something outside of someone’s control; their neurology. Your understanding and experience of raising an autistic child is irrelevant and wrong because of your brain. That, to me, is no different than attacking an autistic person’s views just because of their autism. We should be engaging with what the person is saying, not simply with who is saying it.
Don’t get me wrong, there are times that being autistic is relevant and essential to an argument, but we have to distinguish when it is relevant and why (I have written on this topic), because it is not always relevant, and this is particularly going to be true when it comes to writing about a unique experience like parenting. It is hard to grasp the experience and challenges of parenting if you’ve never done it. That doesn’t mean you can’t have experts on parenting or people with insights on parenting who have never done it. And by the very same token, neither does never having had autism predetermine that you can’t have insights or expertise on autism itself. The structure and premises of an argument matters; one should avoid rather than seek out ad hominems when trying to persuade others. And privilege used in this simplistic way – as a stand-alone attack – is a type of ad hominem argument.
Here’s the point then: Privilege is not as straightforward as many claim. People have many privileges, and many privileges are relevant even in singular discussion contexts (like parenting an autistic child). Privilege is an observation, a possible consideration, but it is not a winning argument. It is not grounds to silence those you disagree with. It is not even grounds to tell someone they have to give up their speaking rights to others less privileged, since there are not finite ways in this world to communicate and be heard. It is, again, a reason to think about providing more opportunities to those who may be going unheard, but it is not grounds through which to justify silencing those who are already marginalised in society – parents of autistic children. We already have to battle to be heard in the world, to tell us we must also give up our voices each time and seek permission and verification from autistic adults when we speak, is to squash us from two directions at once. We are squeezed out of the narrative, unless we tow the party line, in which case we’re welcome to the podium.
The arguments to hear autistic voices – on parenting or other topics – doesn’t and shouldn’t rest on the claim of privilege and power. It’s much simpler and stronger than that. It’s about respect, it’s about being heard, it’s about hearing diverse viewpoints and experiences. Which is to say, the very same reasons that us non-autistic parents of autistic children need to be heard too. Respect. Diversity. Difference. We parents do not speak with one voice. Autistic parents and autistic adults do not speak with one voice. The argument of privilege is a distraction, a too often used ad hominem attack. It is not always relevant, and almost always unhelpful. Identify and acknowledge privilege, sure, but don’t think it’s a trump card. You want to play the great privilege card battle with me? Fine, go for it, but I carry around more privilege and disadvantages than you could imagine, and neither of us will ever convince the other on those grounds alone. The privilege game has no winner, so stop playing it.