Five Steps Toward Autism Acceptance

June 16, 2014

Steve Silberman is a journalist and wonderful human being who’s done some superb writing on autism and neurodiversity. He’s currently working on a book entitled NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, which I’m certainly looking forward to reading.

On April 2, 2012, Steve posted on his blog an extraordinary piece entitled Autism Awareness Is Not Enough: Here’s How to Change the World. For this piece, Steve reached out to some of the leading activist voices in the Autistic community – including Kassiane Sibley, Lydia Brown, Ari Ne’eman, and myself, among others – and also to several non-autistic people who have done significant work to promote autism acceptance. Steve posed a question to each one of us: What are five things that could be done to make the world a more comfortable, respectful, and nurturing place for Autistic people?

The resulting blog post, listing all of the responses Steve got, is one of the best documents on autism and neurodiversity that’s been produced thus far. When I teach courses on autism or neurodiversity, it’s always among the readings I assign. 

I’m currently engaged in the project of reposting on this blog various things that I’ve written elsewhere, so that all of my significant online writings can be found here. So reprinted below is my own list of five things that could be done to make the world a better place for Autistics (and, I think, for everyone). Aside from a few very minor wording changes for the sake of improved clarity, this is the same list that I contributed to Steve’s fantastic blog post in 2012. If you haven’t already done so, it’s worth checking out that whole original blog post, to read Steve’s great introduction and everyone else’s “five things” lists.


1. De-pathologize autism and Autistic people.
Autism is a natural form of human neurodiversity. Labeling it as a “mental disorder” or a “disease” has no scientific basis, has no benefit for Autistic people or their families, and leads inevitably to stigmatization, shame, and marginalization. Blind people, Deaf people, and many other disabled people get the services and accommodations they need without being labeled as having mental disorders. We don’t have to call autism a disorder or a disease to acknowledge that Autistic people are disabled and can require accommodations. Stop worrying about the latest changes to the DSM’s diagnostic criteria, and just remove autism from the DSM entirely, just like homosexuality was rightly removed years ago.

2. Use the language of diversity, not the language of pathology.
Language matters. The language that is used in talking about autism and Autistic people affects how Autistic people are perceived — by themselves, by others, by society – and thus how they are treated. In an Autistic-friendly world, anyone speaking of autistics would observe the same linguistic conventions that civilized, non-bigoted people observe when speaking of any other social minority group (e.g., African-Americans or gays). You wouldn’t say that an African-American “has negroism” or “suffers from blackness,” so don’t speak of an Autistic person as “having” or “suffering from” autism. (For a more in-depth discussion of this topic, see my essay, Throw Away the Master’s Tools: Liberating Ourselves from the Pathology Paradigm.)

3. Forget “normal.”
Recognize that when it comes to human diversity — including the diversity of minds — “normal” is a highly subjective, culturally-constructed fiction. Recognize that there is no “normal” mind, and that conformity to the local conception of “normal” is in no way synonymous with health, well-being, or personal fulfillment – and is, in fact, often in direct conflict with those things. A healthy, thriving Autistic person looks very different from a healthy, thriving non-autistic person. In nurturing the development of Autistic individuals, the goal of parents, educators, therapists, etc., should be to produce healthy, thriving, Autistic people, rather than Autistic people trained to stifle their true selves in order to pass as “normal.”

4. Equal protection under the law, broadly interpreted and strongly enforced.
Recognize Autistic people as a social minority group, grant them the same legal protections that are (or should be) extended to ethnic minorities. Interpret those legal protections as broadly as possible, and rigorously enforce them. When an Autistic person is abused for acting Autistic, prosecute it as a hate crime. Anytime an ABA “therapist” grabs an Autistic child’s hands to stop her from moving like an Autistic person, prosecute it as criminal assault and as a hate crime. Individuals and organizations that speak of autism as a “disease” or “tragedy,” and that talk of “curing” it, should be prosecuted for hate speech and incitement to violence, just as if they were advocating a “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.” Anyone involved in seeking or implementing prenatal tests for autism or any other sort of prenatal prevention of autism should be prosecuted in international court under the Genocide Convention, which classifies as genocide any attempt to prevent births within a targeted group.

5. Work for global peace and economic justice.
Many non-autistic parents worry that if they don’t subject their Autistic kids to extensive (and expensive) “treatments” to bring them closer to “normal,” the kids will never be able to take care of their own basic survival needs, and will end up in awful institutions or on the streets. This is an entirely legitimate concern. But the reason it’s a concern is that we live in a world in which the forces of global capitalism have replaced the true spirit of community with an artificial sense of competition, isolation, and “every man for himself,” and in which all but the most wealthy are kept in a constant condition of anxiety and fear of scarcity. This is not the natural state of humanity, and not the way the world has to be. Every disabled person in the U.S. could be supported for life on a fraction of the money that our government spends killing people in the Middle East each year – to say nothing of the funds that would be available if we made giant corporations and the wealthiest 1% of Americans pay their fair share of taxes. Instead of working so hard to change Autistic people in the name of helping them survive in a cruel world, why not work to make the world less cruel?



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