Friday, June 19, 2009

Why Autistic Pride?

Yesterday was Autistic Pride Day, and as I was pondering what, if anything, I would write about autistic pride, I came across these comments on Gonzo's Autistic Pride Day post:

Norah said...
... I never saw the point of an autistic pride day myself. It would be like having a 'long blond hair pride day' to me or something (although of course technically I'd fail that one since I dye my hair).

kathleen said...
I don't understand the idea of a pride day either...It could just be me...but I find it condescending...and yet another way of categorizing people...instead of just saying people. Don't know if that makes sense. I know I would be horrified if there were a "fat ass" pride day...I am more than my ass! :)
What these commenters are saying does make sense to me --- I feel this sort of neutrality toward --- and sense of being more than --- quite a few categories to which I belong.

My autism is not one of them, though. To me, my autism isn't just one more thing about me --- in one way or another, it touches everything about me.

That's not to say that the above-quoted commenters are any less autistic than I am, though! I think lots of factors go into determining which aspects of our (complex, multifaceted) identities we see as fundamental, and another, only semi-overlapping, set of factors influences which traits we decide to carry over into a sense of collective identity.

It's this idea of collective identity that I think determines whether a person regards a given trait as politically salient. If you are acutely conscious of your minority status --- that you differ in some nontrivial way from all, or most, of the people around you --- you might react with particular interest when you meet other people who share this difference. You might begin to think of yourself as a kind of dual citizen, belonging both to the community in which you actually live and to the smaller, more dispersed community of people sharing your particular minority status.

I think this partly explains why I do not see my atheism as being very important, while many other atheists consider it very important, and certainly politically salient. I grew up in a secular home, and in the small town where I spent much of my childhood, religion was a nonissue in our neighborhood and in the schools I went to. Thus, I never experienced being marginalized for my irreligion, as many young American atheists do, especially in the Midwest.

While my atheist example might give the impression that it's the traits we're harrassed, excluded or otherwise singled out by other people for that always end up being most important to us, I don't think that's quite true. I think the trait also has to relate somehow to one's deepest values, or to encapsulate a large part of one's sense of self*. To go back to autism, I don't remember having been targeted for any particular ill-treatment because I was autistic; I was always conscious of being different from others, but this difference was generally treated as a benign one.

It definitely went beyond consciousness of myself as different, though --- and even beyond knowing how I was different. I was going to special camps and activities for autistic children off and on throughout my childhood, and thus met quite a few other autistics, with whom I was always conscious of sharing something I didn't share with my regular classmates.

"Autistic" is probably the first thing I learned to identify myself with. This word, and the differences it implied, began to permeate my diffuse awareness long before I could even be said to have a self-concept.

For me, the statement "I like being autistic" is a close relative of the statement "I like myself."

*I think this, as well as personal experience and shared histories of oppression and exclusion from mainstream society, explains why race and class are still such important aspects of identity --- the people who share one's race or class are likely to be one's own family, and thus pressure to reject that race or class is often felt as pressure to turn one's back on one's family.


kathleen said...

very well said..I want my kids to like themselves-to think that the way that they see and do things is just a unique part of who they are..and that who they are is something special something to be proud of.

Gonzo said...

Ha, it's just so provocative! :)
You're not *supposed* to be proud of something most people only perceive as an impairment instead of a difference (that would be disability in general), or something people are used to looking down on (maybe without admitting it).

I mucho agree with you on the identity thing, atheism is something I kind of take with a shrug, having never believed in a god it wasn't a conscious decision to reject religion. It's just not a big thing, if you don't have to "come out" upset or alienate your religious family, etc.
On the other hand, I had to "come out" as an Autistic, because they missed that when I was a kid, and that alienated quite a few people.