Monday, July 7, 2008

A Few Words on Autistic Identity and Activism

Shiva at Biodiverse Resistance has a post up about his impending presentation at Autscape 2008, asking commenters for input on the proposed topic: "Autism Rights Activism and Disability Activism."

From the blog entry:
Do you think [the topic is] a valid one for discussion? Do you think that "autistic rights" is just naturally a subcategory of "disability rights", and therefore that the autistic rights movement is simply one part of a wider disability rights movement, or do you think that they are separate - and, if so, why? What about the autistic rights advocates who express the view (for example, ABFH's post here) that autism "isn't a disability"?

I think I am one of the people who don't think autism is a disability --- I typically describe it in conversation as "an alternative way of being human" or "a different cognitive phenotype." In my experience, autism is as much a boon as a bane: my hyperacute senses and inability to distance myself from them make me a great observer, and my observational skill helps make me pretty good at drawing; my need to "translate" everything I read or hear into my own, pictorial language pretty much guarantees good reading comprehension; my childhood spent almost completely insulated from other people and their opinions got me into the habit of thinking independently and amusing myself (I'm never bored); and my tendency to perseverate means I finish most of my thoughts. It might take me a few days, but I do tend to resolve thorny philosophical, ethical or semantic questions when they come up. I could probably come up with a much longer list of my personal Gifts of Autism, but I think you get the point.

The problem is, even if autism were to be accepted by everybody as Not a Disability, Just a Difference, we would still be at a noticeable disadvantage in the NT world, merely because we do differ from NTs is fairly basic ways, and the world is set up on the assumption that everyone is NT. When we are not being actively discriminated against in hiring (or wherever else) because it's just easier when everyone's the same, just navigating the NT world can be a logistical nightmare (how many of us can't drive?) and draining as all hell. If one of the aims of autism-rights activism is, as I believe it to be, improving the quality of life available to autistic people and allowing them access to as much of independent, public life as they want to pursue, then it would seem that activists should work toward redesigning public spaces to make them more accessible to autistics. That, of course, involves taking a leaf out of the broader disability movement's playbook.

To sum up, I think the quibbles over whether autism is or is not a disability are largely irrelevant. We experience barriers that NTs do not, because our society privileges NTs over non-NTs, so we need a movement (or constellation of movements) to overcome them and even things out.


stevethehydra said...

Thanks for linking :)

Have to dash out of the house now, but will reply later...

abfh said...

I don't in fact argue that autism isn't a disability. Like anything else, it can be, depending on the circumstances. When I write about disability I tend to focus on how society defines the concept, rather than arguing that autism or any other condition is or is not a disability.