Why I Do Not Hate The Accountant: An Autistic Perspective

(Note: This article contains spoilers for “The Accountant”. If you are planning to watch this movie for the first time and do not want any plot points spoiled, consider saving this opinion piece until after you have seen it.)

Back in 2016, an action flick called “The Accountant” was released. Starring Ben Affleck as Christian Wolff, an Autistic forensic accountant, prodigious in mathematics, shooting, and physical combat, the film looked at his ‘adventures’ as he uncovered corruption, and fought and killed ‘bad’ people as a vigilante, often to protect or avenge those he cared about – assisted by someone who was revealed to be a nonspeaking Autistic childhood friend of his who stayed at a center and used her technical proficiency to aid him on missions.  

The film, as one can expect, was controversial. It drew praise and criticism alike from both Autistic and non-autistic individuals.

Many criticisms of the movie, particularly those put forth by Autistic critics, were valid, and I agree with many of them. For instance, I agree that adding flashy strobe lights was an unnecessary and harmful decision. I also agree that Autistic characters should be played by Autistic actors. The film also did not have that much diversity among its’ cast – all things that can and should be improved upon, especially should there ever be sequel(s) written. Autistic people should also be consulted and worked with on projects like these.

However…. In spite of these flaws, I nonetheless enjoy this film, and would like to share why – all the while, pointing out certain criticisms of the movie that I disagree with.

The Accountant’s Moral Compass

One major criticism that some Autistics had of this movie was the portrayal of an Autistic character as a killer. Now, this is absolutely a valid concern. Autistics are, unfortunately, sometimes stereotyped as dangerous, violent people – it doesn’t help that on the rare occasion when Autistic people do commit violent atrocities, they attempt to use being Autistic as a defense – which often results in Autistic people being stereotyped and hated as a consequence.

The problem with characterizing Christian Wolff as some soulless, remorseless, violent killer, however, is… inaccurate.

At most, he is akin to Frank Castle, better known as The Punisher – a Marvel comic character who, like The Accountant, eliminates ‘bad’ people. In fact, if you have seen The Punisher on Netflix, the dynamic between Wolff and Justine was a little similar to Punisher and Micro.

Now, many people also argue that The Punisher is not a good person at all, either – after all, what right do vigilantes have to play judge, jury, or executioner?

However, what is important to remember is that their motivations do not just stem from a desire to kill innocent people – they are not equivalent to mass shooters who gun down innocent people in cold blood, or ‘incels’ who are frustrated at a lack of romance, or political terrorists trying to send a message. These individuals have a sort of moral code, and the people they go after are themselves often violent, dangerous people who have taken the lives of others, many of whom never face any consequences.

Both characters are also motivated by the desire to avenge people they love being lost, and protecting individuals that they care about.

One can criticize the approach these characters take, however it is a complete mischaracterization to paint them as cold-blooded murderers. Especially when a sizeable portion of their kills on-screen were done to protect others – Christian Wolff saved the lives of an elderly couple, and later, a colleague, from extremely dangerous and vile individuals.

Caricature

A common argument put forth is that Christian Wolff is not much more than a caricature.

Now, I think character development could have been vastly improved. However, over time I have realized that as an Autistic character, Christian is not as one-dimensional as some people have made him out to be. True, he sort of fits the stereotype of being a socially awkward math prodigy – but there is a lot more to him than that.

Wolff exhibits a number of other Autistic traits, that are often overlooked in favour of stereotypes. He is perseverant, and has an excellent amount of focus. Determined to solve a case he was working on, he looked at an extensive number of records overnight, working it all out and coming to major conclusions about fraud within a company. What he did takes more than some arithmetic skills: it takes very complex problem solving abilities, the ability to connect dots, to pay attention to minute details, and make logical conclusions based on the data observed.

Accounting itself takes a lot more than just good math skills to understand. When he deals with his clients, he demonstrates a very astute understanding of taxes and government policies, essentially helping some of his clients commit tax fraud.

All in all, his characterization is a lot more than just “quirky white math nerd”, it is of someone who was successfully able to learn and monetize a special interest of his, and develop sophisticated problem solving skills to help the people around him.

Many Autistic people have a strong sense of justice and fairness, and a desire to help others. Christian, as stated before, saved the lives of multiple people, and avenged a friend of his that was murdered.

Treatment of Autistics on Screen

Sia’s flop of a movie, Music, was heavily criticized for a number of reasons, some of them similar to The Accountant. However, one major controversial scene was that featuring a prone restraint, which was egregious enough to prompt Sia to remove it from future screenings.

What was the difference between that scene, and scenes in the movie featuring Christian Wolff’s abusive childhood flashbacks?

For one, that his experiences were portrayed as negative. Whereas Music depicts harmful interactions as positive and healthy, The Accountant does not shy away from the fact that Christian Wolff was raised in an abusive military environment where any supports or attempts to understand him were taken away, in favour of a brutal training regimen in stoicism, combat, and emasculation. As such, Wolff is accustomed to putting himself through sensory overloads on purpose to “overcome” it – scenes that could have been handled better, to be sure. But those scenes are clearly not portrayed as positive things – it was a trauma response akin to self-harm, evidenced by the fact that Christian would relive traumatic childhood memories during them.

Story

Imagine a typical film about an Autistic character. What do you think of? Probably the same story: a perfect neurotypical family has an Autistic family member, usually a child, who provides either major challenges or some tacky ‘inspirational’ message as they struggle to navigate their daily lives. It is almost never about the Autistic person and how they feel.

The Accountant, in contrast, had a plot that deviated from a stereotypical “autism story”. Rather than being about a tragic burden on the family, or going through the motions of ‘learning social skills’, the movie featured an Autistic person successfully navigating the world, going on various adventures and tackling complex scenarios. It had an actual plotline.

While it is important to have authentic movies that take a look at the issues Autistics face, it is important to be represented in media where we are just regular characters going about lives just like everybody else – one of the reasons Carl Gould from the childhood series ‘Arthur’ is a good depiction of an Autistic character.

Overall Portrayal of Autism & Philosophical Considerations

The film’s overall mindset of Autism and Autistic people was surprisingly progressive, especially for its’ time. True, they didn’t get it all right, and true, Autistic people need to be consulted more and more for these types of projects.

However, presenting being Autistic as a divergence to be supported, rather than an illness to be ‘treated away’, was a central point of the movie. If there was any tragedy revolving around Autism in this movie, it was Christian’s abusive upbringing, that left deep scars in his psyche. The overall message was pro-neurodiversity – perhaps one of the first big movies of its’ kind to advocate such a thing. Words that are used by Autistics to describe Autistic traits such as ‘stimming’ was used. Portraying Autistic stimming as a calming, regulatory function was extremely well done – such as Christian’s tendency to recite “Solomon Grundy”, a childhood nursery rhyme, when in stressful situations.

Perhaps one of the most progressive plot points of the movie was to portray a nonspeaking Autistic woman as one of the key characters. It was a surprise reveal that she was the ‘voice’ that electronically communicated with him, by way of typing into a computer. It was quite spectacular to see a nonspeaking Autistic character portrayed in an active role – and it showed speaking and non-speaking Autistic people working together, looking out for one another – a very positive, and important message.

Conclusions

The Accountant is not without its’ flaws, from unnecessary flashy strobe lights to an apparent lack of Autistic consulting. The story development could have been vastly improved – at times it seemed bland, and very confusing to follow.  

However, for its’ time, the movie is quite progressive. And it took a concept that needs to be seen more often in fiction – Autistic people organizing and working together toward common goals – and moved forward with it in a fascinating way.

Its’ depiction of Christian Wolff went far beyond the stereotypical “tragic inspiration” narrative of most Autistic media representation, and it centered the experiences of an Autistic character, that went beyond mere caricatures or stereotypes – and presented Autistic traits in a positive way.

In my opinion, we need more Autistic stories like this – depicting us working together toward common ends, fighting for causes we believe in, and demonstrating versatility in our talents. Stories that focus on Autistic people and what we have to offer to the world. Focusing not just on our flaws, but our strengths, and how we adapt to different situations.

The Accountant’s flaws should be taken as a way for future producers to improve upon movies like it. I, for one, would love to see a sequel – perhaps even one where he faces an Autistic adversary.  

A Mini-Survival Guide to Bullying

Autistic people are likelier to get bullied. In fact, almost all of us have to some extent. And if your childhood was anything like mine, there is a good chance the experiences went beyond some schoolyard jerk calling you a mean name or teasing you.

But bullying in any form can be unpleasant.

People commonly say that anti-Autistic bullying is ever-present. But nobody ever really wants to do something about it. At least not something that helps the Autistic recipient in a way that doesn’t deprive us of our humanity, subtly implying that we are responsible for it somehow.

We know that being Autistic, especially openly, can invite trouble for us. We just do not always know what to do about it. And any real help for bullying is practically nonexistent. Institutions are rarely reliable, and their advice is ineffective at best, oppressive at worst.

Anti-Autistic bullying can occur at any point in our lives, at any age, in any situation. Given that there are no real guides on how to address it that are Autistic centered, I have decided to create one.

Why did I decide to make this?

For one, it has been a passion of mine since getting into Autistic activism, to arm Autistics with the knowledge and skills to protect ourselves in a world that is hostile to our very existence. This is necessary until Autistic acceptance and the embracing of neurodiversity on a grand scale takes place.

All around me, Autistic people continue to suffer from bullying and maltreatment. From being pushed around or systematically excluded in school, to random attacks on us – often planned.

Even the social distancing mandates of the COVID crisis has not stopped people from wanting to be cruel to us – even jeopardizing the health and safety of themselves or their own friends. In one the examples linked above (obligatory content warning for disturbing violence), in an effort to put bear spray into the face of the Autistic victim, they nearly got one of their own, which goes to show the sheer level of hatred for Autistics that some people do carry. Kids getting pushed in the playground. People going behind your back and planning to engineer entire situations with the goal of getting you into trouble. Will our struggles never end?

But enough is enough. Autistic people need to know that we are not alone, and that we do not have to be afraid of bullies. We deserve to live openly without the fear of abuse.

So, what can we do?

Here are some general-purpose tips:

1. Measure your surroundings.

Take context into account – what kind of bullying are you on the receiving end of? Physical bullying? Social exclusion? Cyber-harassment? How did the situation take place? Was there a background story that led to the events that take place? How many people are involved, and what are their roles?

2. Know your enemy.

It’s an old, but still relevant adage – to defeat your enemy, you must understand them. Autistic people are generally universally known to be great at two things: attention to details, and pattern recognition. Use these. Observe.

Who is bullying you? What methods do they tend to use (Autistics aren’t the only people who love routine – humans are creatures of habit)? What is their motivating mindset? What are their strengths and weaknesses?  

If possible, learn more about your bully – about their past, about their current circumstances. This may not only possibly shed light on their actions, but can give you ammunition to fight back.

In short: knowledge is power, and bullying is all about power imbalances – so level the playing field.

3. Analyze the best response.

I wouldn’t be writing this to feed people the same tired nonsense of “tell a trusted adult”, or “be the bigger person, fighting back makes you just as bad.”

Instead, I will acknowledge that there is no one-approach-fits-all response to bullying. Every situation is different. Every person is different. Every environment is different. And accordingly, a response must be tailored to the specific situation.

For instance, a bully that is popular, has a tight-knit group of friends, or seems to be someone who can put up a fight, is probably not somebody you should directly challenge. (And if they’re in a position of authority…. Don’t even think about it. I don’t care how strong, capable or crafty you think you are, it will not end well.)

While “trusted adults” can be scarce, and institutions unreliable, sometimes they can help. I would exercise even more caution taking this route than fighting back, though – because you’re Autistic, and Autistics have our every action scrutinized, and any opportunity they can take to blame you, to take any moment where you might have ‘talked back’ or done something to ‘deserve it’, they often will. However, there may be specific individuals who are good to you. There may be people you can trust. Supportive parents or siblings can also be helpful in some cases.

Sometimes, avoidance can be the simplest solution – which tends to only really work when a bully is not particularly committed toward giving you a hard time. Staying away from them, taking a different path to and from school/work/campus, enrolling in different classes if that is possible (or if not, staying in the opposite side of the room), blocking them online – if these methods work, you may not need anything else.

4. Make a plan.

Another popular saying is that a failure in planning is a plan for failure. So after you have gathered enough knowledge about the situation and decided on a response, go to the drawing board and make a plan that you feel confident in executing. Tweak, customize and personalize it to your liking. Then, execute that plan. Be sure to factor in contingencies and backup plans in case something goes wrong. Particularly nefarious bullies can often be organized and make plans themselves – and some of you may be surprised at just how far some people are willing to go to harm someone. Or, if you’re Autistic, you probably aren’t surprised at all – maybe you have experienced something.

Whether it is reporting the incident to teachers (or reporting harassing online posts), or throwing a witty comeback, planning ahead is important. If you choose to defend yourself from a physical bully, it can be invaluable to plan the environment beforehand – if they are chasing you, luring them to a location of your choice where you feel you have the upper hand, or finding some other way to undermine them can be the difference between getting beaten up and being the person handing out the beating.

In addition to knowing your enemy, know yourself – make an appraisal of your skills and how you can use them to help you get through this situation.

5. Make allies.

When you’re Autistic, this can be a scary thing. Making friends doesn’t always come easy to us. But when it comes to bullying, forming alliances can be easier than you think. Here’s why: in my experience, bullies and abusers rarely have just one victim. There is a decent chance you are not the only one being targeted. Further, if there are more Autistics around you, it is quite possible they are having the same experiences.

This provides an opportunity. Being on the receiving end of bullying, harassment or abuse, is pleasant to absolutely no one. If you can seek out others who have had your same experience – others who may be afraid to stand up for themselves on their own – you can form an alliance, and work together. If your goal is to report them, that is arguably when strength in numbers is the strongest.

6. Reduce your chances of being a target.

Let me be clear on this one – nobody, absolutely nobody, deserves to be bullied. However, it is an (unfortunate) reality for many people. But it doesn’t have to be you.

Bullying, at its’ core, is about power imbalances. Bullies want power over their victims. It is as simple as that. Where there is no power imbalance, there is no bullying. Bullies want victims – not opponents. Giving yourself the appearance of a confident, unapologetic, strong person, or even a person who will not take nonsense from anybody, can reduce your chances of being victimized drastically. Being perceived as someone who is well-liked or has a lot of friends, being someone who appears physically strong, or confident, can help. Consider taking up a martial art or fighting style to further bolster your confidence, and do your best to stay fit.

You do not even need to actually possess confidence or popularity to make yourself less of a target – the illusion itself can be enough. Even being your Autistic self unapologetically, can dissuade some people from trying to harm you – as doing so is an indisputable act of bravery.

All in all, dealing with bullying is something almost every Autistic individual will have to factor into their lives. And these tips, while helpful, may not be sufficient to help you in every situation. This is why, I am working on writing a book that will give more detailed outlines about different hostile situations and how to deal with them. There’s no planned “release date” but you can expect it around the end of 2021. At the soonest.

A quick note on the nature of bullying

Bullying may seem like a complex issue. Many argue that bullying is just a sad reality of life and that people should just suck it up – this is, of course, male bovine manure.

Bullying is ultimately a reflection of broader social ills – specifically, discrimination and oppression. It may not always seem obvious at first – but when examining who tends to be the victims of bullying, they almost always fit into some form of socially marginalized demographic: gender-based bullying can happen. Racialized kids can experience racially charged bullying. LGBTQ children are all-too-familiar with some of the most atrocious kinds of bullying. And people with various kinds of disabilities or neurodivergences may perhaps make up the most frequent victims of bullying. Ableism is, after all, a seeming ubiquitous force – in a world fit for certain types of minds, bodies, and identities, those who do not ‘fit in’ are going to find themselves more vulnerable to various forms of attacks.

Learning how to protect ourselves is a necessity.

But what is an even greater necessity? Working to end these evils.

Then, and only then, will bullying cease to exist – and contrary to what some people attest, it is possible.

The Fallacy of “Social Skills Training”

If you’re Autistic, there are two words you are all too familiar with. In fact, you may be so familiar with these two words, that you grow tired of hearing them. Hearing them can make you feel annoyed, irritated, or even nauseous. Or, in some cases, hearing these two words may be triggering for you, as traumatizing or abusive actions are frequently taken against Autistic people in the name of teaching us this.

If you are related to an Autistic person, however, the story is different. Particularly if you are a non-autistic parent or professional, you may use these words in a positive light, emphasize them, repeatedly. These words are important to you, and you insist that the Autistics in your lives gain mastery over this concept in order to have a shot at surviving this world – no matter what.

Fundamentally speaking, neither perspective is entirely in the wrong. This concept is an important one, necessary to learn in order to survive in this world. However, the way this idea is taught, “trained”, and imparted into us often gets it wrong. It is ineffective at best; traumatizing at its’ very worst. Hence, it is not surprising in the slightest that many Autistic people will have a variety of justified negative reactions to hearing this term – from rolling their eyes, to displays of righteous fury.

There is a good chance you have already taken a guess at what these two words are. But if you are still wondering, I’ll say it: Social skills.

As Autism became more recognized in the 80’s, it was primarily considered to be a deficit of the social kind. Autistic people were different, communicated differently, and because it differed from the majority of neurotypical individuals, that meant something was wrong with us. And thus, one of the priorities of ‘helping’ Autistics has always entailed trying to indoctrinate us with “social skills” of some kind or another.

Usually this is done by teaching Autistic people to imitate neurotypical social norms – eye contact, the mimicking of nonautistic movements, the suppression of outward Autistic traits, and more. In fact, most of the time, especially on children, it is done in ways that would be seen as abusive if done to most people.

Forcing Autistic people to mask is known to be traumatizing, and it is honestly common sense: if you spend your whole life being forced to be someone you are not and suppress your very instincts, you will likely face a lot of struggle as well.

But beyond all that, let us examine the fallacy of “social skills training”. First of all, the idea that learning to interact with other people can be “trained” is… well, questionable.

More importantly, and unsettlingly, it is predicated on the assumption that Autistic people are the ones who are inherently “bad” at socialization. This is categorically not the case, and modern literature actually flips the script, showing that from an Autistic perspective, it is not us who cause most socialization problems – because Autistic people are less likely to make quick thin-slice judgements about other people. (This is not to say that Autistics are free of unconscious bias or prejudice, but we seem to be less likely to jump to conclusions about ‘different’ people than neurotypicals.)

In essence, it means that many neurotypicals will instantly see us as ‘deviant’, sometimes even unconsciously, and automatically judge us as ‘bad’ or ‘undesirable’ based on that. It is a story most Autistics can relate to – even in situations where we are not overtly bullied for our differences, almost all of us are able to sense when we are not quite accepted in a social environment. Sometimes, it is confirmed in the most heartbreaking of ways when we catch people gossiping about us behind our back. If you’re Autistic, the next time you find yourself in a group situation, pretend to “leave”, only to hide behind a corner and try to listen to peoples’ reactions. There is a good chance you will hear something along the lines of “phew, finally he/she/they’re gone”. It is absolutely painful to hear, but sometimes it can be better to know peoples’ true attitudes about you. Moreover, to the neurotypicals reading this – Autistic people will almost never engage in social behaviour that is so cruel. So who is the flawed one, again?

And no amount of masking will help. Even for those who can “pass” more easily, we shouldn’t have to live our lives like that. Nobody should. 

However, all of this does not change the fact that as social creatures, humans must rely on each other to survive. This means needing to develop the ability to interact with other people. We know forced masking does not work, and that treating Autistics as if we are the innate problem is both wrong and cruel. So, what is to be done?

Let us go back to the concept of “social skills”. There is a key word we need to break down: skills.

Skills can be taught, and skills can be learned. Playing an instrument. Driving a car. Sports. Combat/martial arts. Mathematics. Visual arts. Dance. These are all skills that many Autistic people are capable of excelling at (different skillsets for different people) – all, usually, without the cruelty that social skills “training” entails.

So, what is the key difference here? Practice.

Social ‘skills’ are, like all the other examples listed above; skills. And skills are developed with practice. Every example listed above are complex skills that can take years of practice to learn, for some people.

Social skills are no different. And no matter how much people try to train Autistic people to socialize inside a classroom, nothing can truly prepare us for actual socialization other than practicing in a live environment – the same as driving a car. Putting us in a classroom and giving us all these instructions and “roleplaying” hyperbolic and phony situations is not going to do anything to prepare us for real situations, in which dynamics can be a lot more fluid and people can be far more unpredictable. Most of these training programs utterly fail at actually teaching anybody to socialize.

So, I am going to suggest another option: giving Autistic people opportunities to “practice” socializing in live environments; getting to know real people, and having a chance to foster interactions and learn from mistakes in a trial and error setting.

This can be visualized as the saying, “sometimes you need to throw someone into water to teach them how to swim”. This does not mean we need to be thrown into deep water, or in the case of socialization, be put into high-stress situations on purpose right away – we can start as small as we need to, at our own pace.

But trying it any other way than live practice will just set us up for disappointment and failure. Either we realize that whatever roleplay exercises we do will not actually hold up outside of a controlled environment, or worse, we internalize the belief that we are innately broken.

All human beings need to learn to socialize to some extent. And most people practice naturally, and build their skills up. Autistic people deserve that same opportunity.

Autistic people have our own unique ways of communicating – and while it may sometimes seem strange or odd, there are many strengths to it – the tendency toward honesty and sincerity, being free of underlying motives, directness as opposed to subtlety, and for many of us, compassion and reverence for others, a strong sense of justice, and the tendency to question prevailing social norms. Autistic courage is never to be underestimated.

An empowered, happy Autistic individual can actually socialize quite well, and the friendships we make in that manner can be the strongest of all. The few windows in my life where I was confident enough to truly put myself out there, without fear of rejection or bullying, was when I forged the strongest connections of them all. We have a lot to offer to any social interaction, and deserve the opportunity to practice our way there.

Of course, this should be paired with aggressive campaigning for Autistic rights, neurodiversity, and inclusion, in order to decrease the number of hostile environments toward neurodivergent people. And if Autistic people are to engage with the world without masking, we may need to learn skills to defend ourselves – but that is for a different discussion topic altogether.

All in all, the current, popular model of “social skills training” has failed us, repeatedly. Or, to invoke a Mean Girls reference, “Stop trying to make it happen. It’s not gonna happen.”

It has created a sociocultural environment where many Autistics isolate ourselves; afraid to interact with others out of fear of ridicule and abuse. I think the current world circumstances show what isolation can do to a person – even those who tend toward introversion.

Therefore, drop social skills ‘training’. And move to social skills practice.

Autism: Superpower, or Disability?

A common debate that often pops up in media discourse around Autism is whether being Autistic should be considered a superpower, or a disability.

While every person sees being Autistic differently, and not everyone sees it as a ‘superpower’, there are just as many who do: who perceive it as a gift they are fortunate to have; one that can enable them to do great things, perform incredible feats, to demonstrate high levels of skill and talent, to be pioneers who expand ways of thinking and being – to accidentally starting massive social movements.

However, being Autistic very clearly imposes struggle and limitations as well: struggles that are exacerbated by the society we live in.

This once again begs the question: Is Autism a superpower, or a disability?

My answer is one that you might not expect: both.

To analyze why I have come to believe this, it’s necessary to look at what society constitutes as ‘superhuman’. Given that the term ‘superhero’ in the real world is incredibly subjective, there are not many real life ‘superheroes’ (as we know it) to analyze, so I will be primarily drawing examples from fiction.

Being a superhero (or sometimes villain): it’s every child’s dream. To have powers beyond that most people have, to be able to perform incredible feats, to go on incredible, awesome adventures and use these abilities however one sees fit, for better or worse.

A closer look might make one think twice, however. Superhuman capabilities tend to have limitations – which may sometimes be written into the plot, but are typically things that can be seen as an obvious side effect of the powers themselves.

As I am currently going through the MCU’s Netflix shows at a slow pace, a character that comes to mind is Luke Cage. How cool would it be to have impenetrable, unbreakable skin along with super strength? Sounds awesome. But what about the fact that, as comes up in the plot on more than one occasion, it makes medical procedures incredibly difficult? That unbreakable skin comes in handy when stopping bullets; less so when one is incapable of taking vaccines, blood tests, or any other medically invasive procedures that might be necessary. From a certain point of view, this makes his condition incredibly disabling under the wrong circumstances.  

Luke Cage doesn’t seem very superpowered in this situation, does he? [Image Description: a wounded Luke Cage, portrayed by Mike Colter, tended to by Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson).]

One of my favourite video game series, Infamous, features Cole McGrath in the first two games. With the power to essentially “bend” electricity, using it for many different purposes, you would think there were no drawbacks, right? Think again: being unable to swim or even shower, being unable to enter the inside of a car without it exploding, firearms exploding on contact as the hand’s electricity ignites the gunpowder. Interactions with people can be risky, especially near bodies of water, as the wrong move can electrocute a person to death – there will never be any romantic days out at the beach for this hero.

Further, he must be in the presence of electricity, or else his body experiences distress.

Falling into a lake or being trapped without electricity would stop Cole right in his tracks. [Image Description: Cole MacGrath, with lightning emerging from his arms.]

A third major example I can think of would be found in Star Wars: Force-users are beings that I actually consider analogous to Autistics: in some ways, it may be (albeit unintentionally) allegorical. There are many commonalities: hyper-sensitivity to the environment, deep attention to detail, emotional intensity, and typically having above-average skills in certain areas. Having the deep ability to focus, to be insightful, and to find solutions that are not obvious to others. Often being unable to relate to other people who are not like you. Being a Jedi or a Sith sounds pretty awesome, but it’s pretty plainly obvious that their lives are not necessarily happy. More importantly, the Jedi and Sith have limitations (that can also be analogous to Autism): for instance, feeling a “disturbance in the Force” is something that is glossed over, but described in novels to actually be physically and emotionally traumatic; another common way to “beat” Force users in-universe is to cause suffering, which takes advantage of hyper-empathy, or to mask one’s feelings with thoughts to avoid having one’s true intentions detected – something to this effect played a role in Order 66, as the clones systemically carried out their betrayal in a dispassionate fashion that took most Jedi by surprise.

Does it seem glamorous to get an ear-splitting migraine when someone you love is in distress light-years away? [Image Description: Ahsoka Tano clutches her head in pain as she senses something going awry, unknowingly perceiving her former Master’s fall.]

My point in drawing all these analogies isn’t to make direct comparisons between reality and fiction, but rather to show that ‘superpower’ and ‘disability’ are not mutually exclusive – in fact, in many ways they are linked. Both involve the differing of minds and bodies from the norm, and both can result in people who possess these differences being ‘othered’, perceived as freaks or threats. Further, works of fiction often reflect and critique on our real world; Star Wars and certain superhero-based stories very specifically do this.

It should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that people who demonstrate ‘extraordinary’ abilities of any kind in this world, are viewed with prejudice as much as reverence. Gifted kids may be seen as nerds. Monks and yogis in Asia capable of performing incredible physical or mental feats are viewed as freaks as much as they are viewed with awe.

And Autistic people in this world are seen as ‘freaks’ as much, if not more than we are seen as ‘special’ or ‘prodigies’ for any talent we may have. You would think that memorizing complex subjects, remembering everyone’s birthday, or naming a lot about trains would make us more interesting, but the sad reality is that many will just see it as ‘freaky’. Autistics who can read beyond their peers at a young age are not treated with admiration, but resentment. Greta Thunberg herself, driver of one of the biggest environmental movements the world has seen, is met as much with condescension and intimidation as she has rightfully earned the respect of many around the world. She regards being Autistic as a superpower, but it was not always that way for her. Being allowed to find her true path made it that way.

Is being a superpowered mutant worth the price of social stigmatization? [Image Description: A mutant being pointed at by a “regular” person saying, “Human?! You dare call that… thing– HUMAN?!”]

When I watch the X-Men films, or read about how people with extraordinary abilities are treated in various universes, or even how cyborgs – which are essentially physically disabled people with access to advanced technology – are treated, I cannot help but feel as though, like dystopian fiction, it is a commentary on how people with diverging minds and bodies are treated in our world today. It reinforces the concept of the social model of disability: that disability is a construct; a product of social inaccessibility. Ultimately, the same fear of difference that drives the persecution of the X-Men or the extermination of the Jedi Order, are what turn the wheels of ableism in the real world. And the sooner these parallels are seen for what they are, the sooner we as a society can seek to dismantle ableism.

Autistic people have so much to offer to this world, if we are given the chance – and the access – so that our challenges are subsided, and we can allow our superpowers to shine.  

Why Representation Matters: The Sia Controversy

Moreover, when confronted with criticism from the very group you claim to represent, it is unacceptable to insult or berate them, or to minimize their concerns. If you truly love the people in said communities, if you really wish to start a conversation, it means you will listen to what people in your target audience really have to say.

Art is an important part of culture. While it may be considered ‘common sense’ not to solely base insights on the world we live in based on artistic depictions, it is an undeniable fact that art bares a significant influence on sociocultural interpretations of a great many things.

A new controversy has been sparked within the Autistic community. It is a controversy that has brought the Autistic community into a major spotlight of discussion, after a long time of advocating on the sidelines, behind the scenes. When I saw that the hashtag #ActuallyAutistic was trending on Twitter for the first time, perhaps ever, I was initially excited. However, that excitement waned when I started to look into why.

By now, most people are aware of the issue. Sia: an Australian singer, songwriter, and aspiring filmmaker, is releasing a movie ‘Music’, a story centered around a nonspeaking Autistic teenage girl, named Music, played by Maddie Ziegler.

Is there a problem with what I described in the above sentence? If you aren’t Autistic, you may not think so. If you are not familiar with Autism, you may not even notice it. Here’s a hint: it’s the last four words.

#ActuallyAutistic was trending as a result of Autistic advocates justifiably disappointed that a non-autistic actor was being yet again cast in an Autistic role.

Why is this problematic, you may ask? What is fundamentally wrong with having a nonautistic actor portray an Autistic person? It’s been done before, right? Isn’t acting all about putting yourself into another person’s shoes?

Yes, it is. However, Autistic people are just that: a group of people. Autistic brains and minds work differently than non-autistic people, as do our sensory experiences, and while in theory it is possible for an allistic (non-autistic) actor to pick up on some of these, it is almost never an authentic depiction. While movies and shows like Rain Man or Atypical functioned to make society more “aware” of Autistic people, an unfortunate side effect is that a lot of these performances become stereotypical. Such portrayals of Autistics often become like caricatures. More importantly, while it can be easy for a neurotypical to guess at what it is like to be Autistic, they will never truly know what it is like.

It’s one thing to cast someone not representing a group to play a someone from a group once in a blue moon. However, this isn’t the issue here. And those who are accusing the Autistic community of trying to monopolize Autistic acting roles are simply lying. Nobody is saying, “only Autistic people should EVER play Autistic characters”. However, the vast majority of Autistic characters are played by non-autistic actors, and it’s ultimately us who pay the price. If the goal of having Autistic characters in stories, which is a good thing, is to represent us, it is being done wrong.

Representation is worthless if it is not done accurately. More than that, it is harmful. Even more than that, it cannot really be called representation to begin with.

There is also no argument that Autistic actors could not be hired. There are many Autistics in the arts, including acting, who are underemployed. Some have even reached out to Sia about this, only to be rebuffed and insulted. Further, just because Music is nonspeaking does not mean a speaking Autistic cannot at least play the role to some extent – many Autistic people experience situations in which speaking is a challenge, even if they are not nonspeaking, and those familiar with the neurodiversity movement and the “Actually Autistic” community should understand why functioning levels are bogus. Moreover, there are in fact non-speaking Autistic actors out there, such as the person who supplied the voice for the main character of Loop, a short film on Disney+. If an Autistic person has access needs on set, provide them. If you, a presumably reasonably wealthy filmmaker cannot do this, then representational movies are probably not for you. In The Mandalorian, a deaf actor played the role of a Tusken Raider in Season 1. In Unfriended: Dark Web, the role of a deaf character was played by a deaf actress. Access needs can almost always be accommodated if one puts in the effort.

The argument that it was not possible to hire an Autistic actor is patently false.

On “cancel culture”: people make mistakes, and deserve chances to fix them (most of the time, anyway). Sia was not being cancelled – at least, not at the beginning. Rather than accepting Autistic criticism in good faith, however – she took a different approach. It is ironic, then, that a singer who has written songs about bullying, and been open about her mental health, has taken to bullying an online community – that struggles with mental health at considerably high rates.

Berating Autistic people online, accusing Autistic artists of being “bad actors”, and acting as though she is the unfortunate victim of “mean Autistic people” simply defeats any purpose she might have had of releasing a film about Autistic people.  

Sia claims to be passionate about depicting Autism and neurodiversity, and yet she has barely consulted Autistic people in doing so. In fact, as an insult to injury, she has allegedly worked with Autism Speaks, an anti-autistic group and the last group anyone wishing to represent Autism should go to. In fact, if Sia had truly put in the effort to consult Autistics, she would have known this. If you are going to make a film about Autistic people and not have the Autistic character played by an Autistic actor, the least you can at least do is consult Autistic advocates throughout the process – which Sia has not done.

Moreover, when confronted with criticism from the very group you claim to represent, it is unacceptable to insult or berate them, or to minimize their concerns. If you truly love the people in said communities, if you really wish to start a conversation, it means you will listen to what people in your target audience really have to say.

Sia had the chance to respond to criticism in a respectful, mature manner. Instead, she chose to throw a tantrum akin to a teenage Call of Duty player.

Representation matters. We deserve more than a seat at the table – we deserve to be the primary voice and the primary consultants, and whenever possible (also known as most of the time), be the portrayers of our own experiences.

Since originally drafting this piece, I have caught wind of a few updates regarding problematic scenes within the film, such as their depiction of prone restraints. While this is a serious issue, I plan to dedicate a separate article to it.

Help Prevent Autistic Suicides

What is to be done when the services you receive themselves are the problem? When the very system we live in treats us as burdens, and, failing to “fix” what isn’t broken, lock us up in institutions? And what kind of solution is it when we just slap a band-aid and expect everyone to get better?

TRIGGER WARNING: THIS ARTICLE EXPLICITLY TALKS ABOUT SUICIDE AND MENTAL HEALTH/TRAUMA. While in-depth discussion surrounding these topics is important, it is important to recognize and step back from the discussion if or when it takes a toll on your own emotional wellbeing. Take care when reading this.

September is considered to be ‘National Suicide Prevention Month’ in some places around the world. When discussing mental health and suicide, it is important to include Autistic people in the conversation, as a staggering number of us struggle with severe trauma.

[Image description: Various hateful texts said by puzzle pieces to three Autistic kids sitting in fear. Made by Ink & Daggers Illustration]

Autistic activist Cal Montgomery once said, “We do not know what Autism truly looks like. We only know what Autism with trauma looks like.”

Trauma is almost universally found within the Autistic community, tragically. The seeds of trauma are planted in childhood, and grows and sprouts as we grow. The trauma often compounds, and by adolescence a number of us have faced some sort of major mental health challenge. Depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress are most common among us. But far more disturbing than that, is the prevalence of suicidal ideation, and subsequent attempts, within our community.

More than half of Autistic people experience suicidal thoughts. The average life expectancy of Autistic people is, tragically, only 38 years old. One of the leading causes of death? You guessed it: suicide.  

I first learned what the term suicide meant when I was very young. At first, it seemed like a strange concept: people killing themselves. But over time, I began to, quite disturbingly, understand its’ allure. What started as morbid curiosity eventually devolved into a dark, disturbing feeling that started deep in the back of my head. It then began to evolve into passing thoughts during moments of stress. Things always went wrong. It seemed nobody ever truly cared about or cared to even try and understand me. I was different, and that was bad. I was broken.

By my early teens, the thought of suicide was well within my head, but in some ways the concept itself was like a dark mystery. And as a result, it became something of a special interest of mine. I began to research and learn about suicide, what the people who experienced it went through, the scars it left on their loved ones, what the facts and statistics were around suicide – including the usage of different methods, and which demographics experienced a higher suicide rate.

It would not be until later on that I began to embrace my Autistic identity. But there was a time when I rejected myself, based on the tired belief that people like me were broken human beings, and that I was not worthy the way I was, because I could never be “normal”.

And then I realized: this is the problem. This is what people like me are essentially engineered to believe.

The cycle of masking, of camouflaging our true identities, wishing we were someone we were not – is something quite literally engineered into us, as people attempt to hard-wire us into beings that mask our true selves, that imitate neurotypicals, and never get to explore and grow in our own way – the way we were meant to.

And so: we are alienated. We feel pressured to “fit in”. And when we do not, we begin to question our very worth. The isolation, rejection, bullying, and plain coldness of the world.

The biggest misconception about Autism is the idea that we lack empathy. That we cannot feel. It is also by far, the most harmful. Because if we do not have real feelings, why bother to care about us? Why bother to treat us with kindness? Why bother to even treat us like we are human beings? What is to stop people from abusing us just for the hell of it? I am certain every Autistic has at least one story where they were treated like a zoo animal, used and abused for the entertainment for other people. Our existence being reduced to a laughingstock for neurotypicals to mock day and night. Too many of us have our strengths downplayed and our flaws zeroed in on. Even more of us have our hands slapped away when we actually seek help. And above all, a great number of us are starved of any social or emotional connection.

And humans are social species. Some are introverted. Some are less social than others. But virtually all human beings have a biological and psychological need to establish connections with other people.

The intense world theory posits that Autism is the result of extreme sensitivity to stimuli, and to emotions, which results in a chaotic and intense experience of the world. This is not innately a bad thing. We are afforded just as much good from this as we are bad – such as deep compassion, intense passions, strong senses – and the ability to hyperfocus and hone talents in certain areas – sometimes to a superhuman level. And while it is not easy to understand the thought processes of non-autistic people, we can pick up emotions – sometimes, quite intensely.

[Image Description: a field, with two rainbows, one beautiful and vibrant, and a streak of lightning crossing the sky, with text, “Autism in one photo”.]

The downside? A lot of Autistic people report, or confide that we feel overwhelmed by the state of the world. So much struggle, strife, and pain in life. A world divided by chaos, exploitation, hatred, violence, and grief. And it never ends. For a demographic of people who are often indignant at any injustice, it can be too much to bear.

And when an Autistic person finally dies by their own hand, the question is often asked: How did we get here…. again?  

Perhaps the most common contributor to Autistic death is masking. To hide who you are, to suppress your natural state of being – is agonizing. To have to live in constant fear of ridicule, shame, humiliation, and oppression is no way to live. Too many of us come to this conclusion and decide life might not be all it is cut out to be.

This infographic was not made by me.

When the gold standard “therapy” for Autistic people is designed to alter our very being, and requires people to deny our humanity, it continues to perpetuate this cycle of ignorance and hate. Autistic pain is pathologized, rather than having any attempts made at trying to understand us and make our lives more comfortable.

In fact, the very pathologization of being Autistic – of seeing our way of being as a disorder to be ‘cured’ away or prevented through eugenics – sends Autistic children, teens and adults a message: that our existence is ultimately unwanted and undesirable.

And the natural consequence is the general social treatment: bullying and abuse of almost every kind. Emotional neglect. Systemic oppression and violence, which is exponentially compounded if the Autistic also belongs to additional marginalized communities.

People who do not want to befriend us, or who easily abandon us. Being discriminated at against every walk of life.

This can sound very bleak. But here’s the thing: it does not have to be this way.

It does not have to be this way.

It does not have to be this way.

We can create a better world. We can create a world that people want to be in.

I have seen a post with a particular theme going around lately this month. The gist is, that we have reduced suicide prevention month to “check on your friends”, when we should also be advocating for expanded healthcare and social services, proper mental health services, defunding the police, and more. But this stance is missing much-needed nuance.

What is to be done when the services you receive themselves are the problem? When the very system we live in treats us as burdens, and, failing to “fix” what isn’t broken, lock us up in institutions? And what kind of solution is it when we just slap a band-aid and expect everyone to get better?

Blaming suicide solely on ‘mental illness’ is a copout. Mental health is important. Wellness is important. But to treat wellness as something no more than a mere abstract concept divorced from the rigors of daily life, is nothing more than capitalist brainwashing.

In most cases, it takes a lot more than simply a “chemical imbalance” to cause suicide – especially suicide rates as high as what Autistics experience. Whether to absolve social responsibility, or just to preserve the status quo, a lot of people take tremendous leaps to avoid this simple truth:

Suicide is caused by cruelty, violence, apathy, and oppression. In no particular order.

The expansion of services and support to help neurodivergent people is crucial. This can include healthier forms of therapy and mental health support, accessibility accommodations, equal access to healthcare, education, and more. A fundamental expansion and meeting of human rights, legal and social protections, and more.

But beyond that: Kindness. Empathy. Compassion. Understanding. In addition to advocating for better social services, do check on your friends. Support them, and love them. Do the best you can. Have faith when situations are tough.

And then, work to erase the social conditions that allow Autistics to suffer. Work to promote inclusion, neurodiversity, and acceptance. Dismantle the pathology paradigm, ableism, and the system that allows these to fester – capitalism. Empower the Autistic people in your lives. Include us. Listen to us. Make friends with us, and get to know us better – some of us are pretty cool. 

Work to create a world that Autistic people, and people in general, want to be in.

Then, and only then, will you prevent suicides.   

The Kind of Abuse People Don’t Talk About

“A common Autistic experience, this means people deliberately go out of their way to troll, bully and harass us through various ways, to trigger a meltdown. In some cases, they can be subtle – exposing us to unpleasant sensory stimuli, invoking dogwhistles, or coded terms meant to degrade us for being different – so that they can act like they did nothing wrong, and we get all the blame. In some cases, nitpicking and criticizing every single thing we do can also put us under a great level of stress and anxiety – and many individuals pick up on and capitalize on this.

All in all, it is a predatory action designed to entrap Autistic people.”

This article discusses various forms of abuse, which may be upsetting or disturbing to some audiences.

 

While every Autistic person is unique, there are many shared experiences within our community: experiences that are innately part of being Autistic, but also our experiences in a world that fails to accommodate our differences. Unfortunately, one very commonly reported experience is abuse.

 

Trauma is almost universally present in Autistic people in varying degrees, and the root cause of this stems largely from being abused in various ways – often from a young age. Some of us had abusive homes growing up – but almost all of us were brutally abused at some point in school, whether by other students, or even staff.

Sad Autistic Kid
[Image Description: Curly-haired Autistic child sitting in the fetal position with a tear rolling down the left side of their face.] Illustrated by Meredith K. Ultra (Ink & Daggers Illustration)
It really does not help that when you are Autistic, abuse is often seen as “love”, or “tough love” (which is, in my view, an oxymoron). After all, this is what has kept Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA)as a “gold standard” “therapy” for Autistic children.

Anti Autistic hypocrisy
The kinds of messages Autistics receive subliminally in daily life.          [Image description: a blue-coloured background with an A$(Autism Speaks) blue lightbulb dimly illuminating a room with three Autistic children, a child on the left covering their ears, the child in the center sitting crossed legged holding a sign saying, “and you say that WE are the scary ones”, and a child sitting in the fetal position with a tear on his left cheek. Talking puzzle pieces hover overhead saying, “You’re why we can’t have nice things or have any fun!” “Mommy would have killed you were it not for your normal sister!” “We don’t hate you, we just hate your autism!” “Worse than AIDS and cancer combined!” “Anyone who puts up with you must be a saint!” “HANDS DOWN”] Illustrated by Meredith K. Ultra (Ink & Daggers Illustration)
 

 

Abuse, as most of us know, takes many forms. It can be physical – this is likely the most common form of abuse discussed. Then, there are abuses that are less discussed, often due to stigma or ignorance. Verbal abuse, emotional abuse – psychological abuse.

 

In a sense, it can be argued that all abuse is inherently psychological– because all kinds of abuse has lasting, devastating impacts on a person’s psyche. However, there is one particularly devious kind of psychological abuse that focuses specifically on psychological manipulation:

 

Gaslighting.

 

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which an individual is manipulated into questioning their own reality and experiences. In extreme cases, a victim can be manipulated into questioning their very own sanity.

Gaslighting Description
Examples of gaslighting.         [Text description: Purple and yellow background, heading “What does it sound like?” with an ear symbol, and the responses: “You’re overreacting.” “I didn’t do that.” “You need help.” “You’re upset over nothing.” “You must be confused again.” “Just calm down.” “You’re so dramatic.” “I never said that.” “Why are you so defensive?” “What are you talking about?” “It’s your fault.” “You’re so sensitive.” “You twist things.” “Stop imagining things.” “I never said that.” “I was just joking.”] 
From a tender age, Autistics are made to believe that our experiences of the world are inherently flawed. A great many of us have had this burned into our brains through ABA, but even aside from Autistic conversion therapy, we face a great deal of gaslighting from people in general.

 

When you start with the pathology paradigm, the mindset that Autistic brains are broken, everything becomes our fault. Thus, I grew up being told that any conflict, regardless of context or circumstances, was entirely my fault. Oftentimes, little to zero inquiries are made as to the nature of the conflict at all. Moreover, we are coerced into believing that our reactions, no matter big or small, were “extreme”, while those who seek to target or harm us almost always get away with it.

 

In my personal life, gaslighting has involved people deliberately taking my remarks out of context to make me seem dangerous, or threatening. It has led to people trying to explain my social relationships to me, because apparently as an Autistic person I am unable to mange those on my own.

 

In the broader scheme of things, gaslighting is something people in the disabled community experience on the regular. If someone needs an accommodation or support, people assume they always require it – and if someone asks for independence, the immediate assumption is that we no longer need any sort of support or accommodation at all; that our access needs have suddenly gone away.

 

Gaslighting takes many other forms, and like many forms of abuse, can occur in the workplace, at school, or in intimate and familial relationships.

 

When it comes to Autistics (and sometimes other neurodivergent people), however, gaslighting comes in an additional form, a special form of gaslighting that is so common, it is hard to believe that this is not more commonly discussed.

 

There are people who get a kick out of being cruel to people like us. And then there are people who, sometimes subconsciously, recognize the impact of gaslighting on our collective psyche. And when the sadistic enjoyment of cruelty, combined with a basic knowledge of Autistic meltdowns, combined with gaslighting, takes form, it creates one of the most toxic and harmful forms of psychological abuse Autistic people can face.

 

How many Autistics can relate to this following scenario?:

 

An Autistic teenager is at school, and some people decide that they want to get a reaction out of them. So, they start mocking them – perhaps they make mean or teasing comments, perhaps they try to create unpleasant sensory experiences, such as sudden loud noises or unpleasant visual stimuli. Perhaps they quietly throw terrible insults under their breath, or make obscene gestures. Maybe they make a show of whispering mean things making sure the target notices. Perhaps it is passive aggression with very thinly veiled insults.

 

At first, it may easy to brush off – a one time thing, people just goofing around, “I can handle it” – but it continues. Persistently. After all, the goal is to break down the Autistic’s will, to cause a meltdown. Maybe it persists, transitioning into personal attacks, blatant mocking of Autistic traits. Perhaps they say things on purpose to offend you. Slowly whittling down your defenses. Criticizing every single thing they can about you. Maybe they are shouting at you, on purpose, knowing it is hard for you to tolerate.

 

At one point, it becomes too much. Finally, you snap. What happens in that circumstance can vary. Sometimes it is a simple nervous breakdown. Sometimes, the Autistic person is the one who commences yelling. In a grade school setting, it can devolve into physical fighting. Maybe you decided that a threatening aura was the only way to get your abusers to back off. Or maybe, in a moment of extreme anger and pain, you said something equally or exceedingly harsh and cruel. Things you would not be prompted to say about people easily, in most other circumstances.

 

Suddenly, the bullies change dynamics. They go from being cruel and supposedly ‘strong’ individuals to people crying, begging for help – playing the victim. In a scene similar to Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, where Palpatine pretends to cower at the hands of Mace Windu to try and sway Anakin against him.

 

Unfortunately, it works. Suddenly, the Autistic person, the person ruthlessly bullied, brutally harassed, is labeled the aggressor, for “overreacting”.

 

“It’s just a prank, bro!” “Lighten up, dude!” “Jesus, take a joke…” Or, another common one, “there was no excuse for reacting the way you did”.

Mace's_Death
Palpatine/Darth Sidious is a master of manipulation, and here we see him gaslighting Anakin and Mace Windu into believing that the Jedi were the aggressors in the conflict. Unfortunately, Anakin falls for it and Mace dies, leading to the events of Star Wars as we know it.                 [Image description: Palpatine shooting lightning at Mace Windu, who is struggling to hang onto the ledge of a building with just his feet barely holding on as Anakin, lightsaber still ignited, watches on.]
This form of gaslighting has a name of it’s own: reactive abuse.

 

Put simply, reactive abuse takes place when an individual is purposefully trying to instigate a powerful reaction from another person, often of a violent nature – specifically so that they can then turn around, play the victim, and lay the entire blame of the situation on the real victim.

 

A common Autistic experience, this means people deliberately go out of their way to troll, bully and harass us through various ways, to trigger a meltdown. In some cases, they can be subtle – exposing us to unpleasant sensory stimuli, invoking dogwhistles, or coded terms meant to degrade us for being different – so that they can act like they did nothing wrong, and we get all the blame. In some cases, nitpicking and criticizing every single thing we do can also put us under a great level of stress and anxiety – and many individuals pick up on and capitalize on this.

 

All in all, it is a predatory action designed to entrap Autistics.

 

In my personal experience, reactive abuse came in two forms: criticizing and nitpicking every single thing I do – not in a friendly manner, but rather as a malicious way to frustrate me. Contrary to what people think, we Autistics can often pick up on bad intentions rather well, and can sense whether or not someone is interacting in good faith.

 

The other experience I have had is with more blatant forms of reactive abuse – bullying and mockery, all with the intent to provoke a reaction. Sometimes, it is at the hands of anti-vaxxers on the internet gish-galloping me repeatedly with dishonest arguments and constantly linking “studies” to prove Autism as a brain injury, while playing it off as an ‘honest discussion’, even though it is anything but.

 

Other, more nefarious encounters, involve (often anonymous) individuals repeatedly sending me harassing messages on social media platforms, often filled with slurs, and various horrible personal attacks – all with a jeering tone. I always try to respond as non-aggressively as possible, at least at first – but in these types of pressured situations, faltering is inevitable. In some cases, I may threaten them to back off. Or say something exceedingly cruel.

 

Reactive abusers prey on their victim’s insecurities, their main goal being to provoke a reaction just so they can do further damage to their target’s image and safety.

 

It is very important for people to understand gaslighting and reactive abuse in its’ entirety. It is important for Autistics to realize when someone is attempting to employ these tactics on you. When you know what is being done, it is easier to respond – sometimes, the most effective way to stop an abuser is to call them out on the very actions they are attempting to take.

 

For allistic(non-autistic) and neurotypical peers and allies, recognize when your Autistic friends are being targeted for gaslighting or reactive abuse. Assure them that they are good people, that you believe them, and offer them what help you can to cope with the situation. If it is safe to do so, stand up along with your friend, as reactive abusers lose their power once others catch onto their tactics.

 

For educators and professionals, it is crucial that you recognize and watch for reactive abusers who may target Autistic staff or pupils – and step in. Sometimes, it may be necessary to look out for gaslighting from your colleagues as well. Be someone the Autistics in your life feel safe and comfortable around. Listen to them and their story – and in the event that they are in a conflict, take any allegations levied against them with a freight car full of salt.

 

 

Lastly, if you are the kind of person who engages in gaslighting or reactive abuse toward Autistics, then quite frankly, you deserve the full brunt of whatever retaliation you receive.   

The Only Ethical form of ABA Therapy

The following is a 100% true recounting of a story told to me by the mother of an Autistic child.

————————————————————–

“We’re no strangers to love”, I told my beautiful daughter, Karen, who just got diagnosed with Autism.

After I received her diagnosis, the pediatrician immediately recommended a therapy that she referred to as the ‘gold standard’ for Autism. “You know the rules, and so do I… a full commitment’s what I’m thinking of”, she said, as she made the arrangements for me to put my daughter into a therapy known as Applied Behaviour Analysis, or ABA.

However, upon researching further and reading blogs, books, and literature produced by Autistic individuals, I realized that ABA was largely regarded as harmful by the very community it claimed to help.

However, there was a solution. Dr. Rick, a psychologist and a BCBA (Board Certified Behaviour Analyst), promised a revolutionary form of ABA that he described as new, modern, innovative, and perfectly ethical. “You wouldn’t get this from any other guy,” he promised me.

I excitedly lifted Karen up in my arms on the first day of our scheduled appointment. “I just wanna tell you how I’m feeling”, I told her, smiling, and described how excited I was for her first appointment with an ethical ABA therapist! And hopefully this one would be good enough that those pesky activists online wouldn’t shout at me for as I started my Autism Mama™ blog!  

The meeting with Dr. Ricky was not what I had expected it to be. “Gotta make you understand,” he told me, “Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna run around and desert you!” He leaned down to Karen and said, “Never gonna make you cry, never gonna say goodbye, never gonna tell a lie, and hurt you!”

My heart sank in disappointment as I realized I had yet again been rick-rolled.

“I’m not an ABA therapist at all, actually,” explained Dr. Rick. “I am an Autistic psychologist who works with Autistic kids through the lens of the neurodiversity paradigm, focusing on helping them develop and grow as they see fit, accepting them as they are, and constructively having them work through their emotions and sensory experiences. ABA is abuse, no matter what. You can help your child by truly listening to Autistic adults and accepting them as they are, too.”

That was a few years ago. The path has not always been easy, but through understanding my child, I am helping him navigate the world in a way that suits him, and I have learned a lot from the Autistic adult community about acceptance, understanding, and neurodiversity – and you should, too.  

April 2019 Review: William Shatner, ABA Apologism, and More

Another year, another April; by now we know the drill. This isn’t gonna be some encouraging post asking Autistics to stand up defiant like the one I made last year, though I stand by those encouragements (and granted, the post itself was kind of cringe-worthy, looking back at it – the message was good, but the delivery could have used a touch or two).

 

However, I’ve decided to start doing an annual review of the month of April, of Autism “Awareness” (or “Beware-ness”) Month, colloquially known as Autistic Acceptance Month within neurodiversity circles, where I will be reviewing some major Autism-related events from April, all the while discussing my own perspectives on said material.

So, without further ado, let us get started.

 

First off: in similar fashion to last year (and if I recall correctly, the year before), William Shatner, an actor best known for playing Captain Kirk on Star Trek (I haven’t seen much Star Trek as I’m more of a Star Wars fan), once again continued to show his support for Autism Speaks.

 

I believe we can all agree that Autistic people are pretty decently represented in fandom groups, particularly what are considered the “nerdy” ones, from Star Wars, to Star Trek, and everything in between. For many of us these things may be “special interests”, interests we are passionate about and thus end up learning and knowing a lot about, attaining levels of knowledge far beyond that of many non-autistic individuals.

 

As such, when Shatner first announced that he was sponsoring Autism Speaks, the Autistic community, particularly Autistic Star Trek fans, quickly moved on Twitter to try to educate him and explain to him why supporting Autism Speaks was a bad idea. Unfortunately, he was rather dismissive of this criticism, dismissing us as a “vocal minority”, moving the goalposts, and, in a typical reactionary fashion, acting as though he was being “bullied”.

 

This year, however, Bill Shatner doubled down, publicly supporting or defending some rather horrendous things. In this case, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), better known as “shock therapy”. ECT is a part of ABA, a form of conversion therapy in which, through manipulative tactics based on the dogma of behaviourism, Autistic individuals are coerced into mimicking neurotypicals, at our expense – with the stated goal of “reducing Autistic behaviours”, which basically refers to extinguishing stimming and forcing eye-contact.

 

I have made other posts on this blog talking about stimming and importance – and more of those posts will be coming over time. ABA is horrible, and it is unfortunate that the ABA lobby still manages to rally such support (same with Autism Speaks, though). However, if Shatner was only supporting ABA, I could at least somewhat understand that he has been taught that this is a good thing. ABA “therapists” are, after all, experts at manipulating and gaslighting people (I mean, they do it for a living), and they continue to, successfully push the idea that ABA is the “gold standard”, only “evidence based” “therapy” for Autistic people, and worse, our only hope at not living horrific, tragic lives (and ironically, being the very reason many of us do live horrific, tragic, and short lives).

 

Supporting ABA out of ignorance is something the Autistic community at large is working to gradually push back against – but supporting ECT for Autistic people, utilized through ABA, is seriously crossing a line. For one, electric-shocking has been banned in many places, including in the USA, where some centers still use it, such as the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC), an older ABA center which has somehow managed to withstand multiple campaigns to dismantle its’ use of such torturous aversives.

 

Secondly, electric shocking people is just plain inhumane, particularly to get them to stop behaviour that neurotypicals deem “undesirable”. This is compounded by the fact that animals are treated better than this. That can be said for ABA as a whole, however, which is as much based upon animal training principles as it is of gay conversion therapy – in fact, some might say that animals, whom are often taught skills like “intelligent disobedience”, are given more independence and autonomy than Autistics.

 

Seeing a celebrity with such a large number of followers promoting such a dangerous, harmful, and evil practice was disconcerting to say the least, and it was something I did not expect even from him. And when called on it, he continued to dismiss, belittle, and re-tweet us, with the blatant intention of inciting his fans to target and harass those of us who were criticizing him – and harass us they did.

 

A couple of my friends had to temporarily lock down their Twitter, making their tweets protected in order to shield themselves (to which Shatner screenshotted their tweets to continue to sic his followers on them), and I also had a few exchanges with his fans. Some of them were willing to have a discussion in good faith, which we did – and I and fellow Autistics managed to change a few minds or at the very least, have a productive discussion – which is always nice, especially in a time and environment (such as Twitter) where productive discussion is rare.

 

The most unpleasant exchange I had was with another senior individual, who, after throwing several sub-par insults, decided to rub it in my face by making a donation to Autism Speaks, and taking a screenshot of him doing it. There were many others who attacked me – most of whom were pretty easy to deal with, but this was one that left me angry for several days. It’s one thing if you disagree with someone on an organization, but to then donate to said organization and rub it in their face (especially when I was demonstrating evidence showing a former executive of their group fantasizing about murdering her Autistic daughter) is beyond deplorable.

 

Then again, the whole exchange left me feeling angry and uncomfortable, particularly due to people believing that the mother’s attitude was in any way justifiable. It is very concerning that people continue to believe this in spite of the Autistic community’s efforts to kick this mentality to the curb, because it literally kills us.

 

In the end, many of them, including Shatner himself, blocked me, either because I bested them in a debate, or because I’m not the kind of person to stand around and take nonsense, especially when my friends and comrades are under attack.

 

In addition to Shatner, there has been a continuing backlash against the neurodiversity movement and the Autistic community. As we gain ground, certain groups seem hell-bent in pushing us back; in trying to show us our “place”.

 

This has largely manifested through the hate group known as the “Autistic Dark Web”, a group of reactionary, far/alt-right Autistics who portray themselves as self-styled revolutionaries. In a nutshell, they claim that Autistic people should stop acting like “victims” and submit to the status quo, all the while themselves acting like “victims” whenever we speak out against them. Likewise, they claim that we are vile, mean bullies, while several members of their movement have gone out of their way to harass prominent Autistics, often simply for expressing joy at being Autistic.

 

The dark web opposes the neurodiversity movement, but, as per my previous article addressing the six most common myths about the movement, most, if not all their arguments stem from one of the myths on that list; the most common one being regarding functioning labels. Needless to say, the people on the dark web are mostly Autistics who have grown to support eugenics and curebie rhetoric, but try to justify it by referring to “severe” Autism as opposed to “high functioning” Autism, despite them never truly being able to give a concrete definition for either, as well as ignoring the so-called “severe” autistics who actually support the neurodiversity movement.

 

The Autistic “dark web”, at the end of the day, has nothing productive or useful in either its’ praxis or criticism. Most of their time is merely spent giving out fallacious “criticisms” of the neurodiversity movement or harassing pro-neurodiversity activists online, and then turning around and acting like they’re the victim.

 

Next up: ABA. Much of the issues this month that I am talking about are coming from Twitter, and this is no exception. Unfortunately, Twitter can be a rather toxic place for many reasons, and it doesn’t help that people only have 140 characters to express themselves. In this case, Autistics who oppose ABA are generally at odds with self-proclaimed “warrior parents” and ABA “therapists” who are defending ABA, claiming it “works”.

 

Many of the participants in this new front in what I like to term the “Autistic revolution” are actually from my home province of Ontario, Canada. Ontario’s current government (whom I do not at all support, particularly as a left-leaning person who is deeply concerned by the resurgence of far-right political movements), managed to inadvertently do one good thing, which was scrapping the old Ontario Autism Plan.

 

Like with most of their other cuts, this was not done out of benevolence or any real motivation other than to give tax cuts to rich billionaires and whatever new fringe agenda Doug Ford has decided to finance, whether it’s cheap liquor, horse-racing, or frivolous changes to Ontario’s logo. Additionally, the fact that our provincial government has also generally cut funds to education and other social services (including disability support initiatives), does not bode well for the future of disabled people at all.

 

However, the one positive side effect is that the Ford government effectively got rid of the majority of government-funded ABA. Sadly, thanks to the ABA lobby pushing Autistic conversion therapy as the “gold standard” for Autistics, and labeling anything not based upon behaviour analysis as fraudulent or ineffective, and further co-opting other (better) proven methods into their practices (such as AAC usage), Applied Behaviour Analysis was the only “therapy” covered by the previous governments under universal healthcare. So, while cutting funds for Autistic kids might seem terrible, upon examining it more carefully, one realizes that in a sense, it was also kind of good.

 

In Ontario, and the rest of Canada, Autistic-led activist groups are rising up and gaining ground, which has been excellent. Groups like A4A Ontario and Autistics United Canada are changing the landscape of Canadian Autistic advocacy and pointing things in a more positive, productive direction, and we strive to connect and work with the relevant governments and politicians to create meaningful changes to Autism policies, and to build and engage our local communities.

 

As is also happening as self-advocacy movements continue to spread, however, is the inevitable clash between us, the ones who should have been taking the lead from the start, and those who have had the power from the start and do not wish to share it. And thus: members of these groups, from “martyr mommies” to BCBAs (Board Certified Behaviour Analysts), to members of other Autism lobby groups, had taken to starting fights with us on Twitter. It is all the typical “you don’t speak for my child!”, “you’re not like my child”, “but ABA helped MY child and you can’t tell me otherwise”, that one might usually expect from ABA apologists, accompanied with excessive levels of verbal abuse and hostility.

 

Initially, as I generally do, I humoured some of these people, I engaged in conversations with some of them in good faith when possible, and I did my best to civilly educate the general public on why ABA is harmful – however, I still got into the occasional scuffle.

 

There is a part of me that likes to get into skirmishes now and then; a part of me that somewhat enjoys a good fight; that relishes in the thrill and feeling of battle, of righteous anger. However, April is an exhausting month. In addition to a very volatile environment within the Autism community and growing political tensions, the world itself seems to be turning into a more aggressive and hostile place. From the bombing of churches during religious celebrations, to a concerning increase in hate crimes, a rise in terrorism, and a surge of far-right political movements; from an all-around increase in hate and polarization around the world, to having to bear witness to that cringeworthy Sonic the Hedgehog movie trailer, this month starts to take more of a toll than usual.

 

When it comes to social media, and this is a lesson I have yet to master – pick your battles carefully. The task to educate the world and solve conflicts simply cannot fall to one person and taking on too many issues at once will leave you drained and ineffective. And if you are being harassed online, as tempting as it is to respond, sometimes you need to block the blatant trolls for your own inner peace. This is something I have trouble with often, but it is something I also desperately need to learn.

 

I want to at least try to end my review on a positive note, so I will talk about Greta Thunberg, who continues to rise in popularity, particularly as people are starting to acknowledge her Autistic nature, and the role it plays in her activism.

 

For those unaware, Greta Thunberg is one of the youngest people to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She received worldwide attention and fame for initiating a climate strike in her home country of Sweden, subsequently inspiring many other climate rallies around the planet.

 

The thing that makes me so happy to see Greta doing what she does, is how she is also openly and unapologetically Autistic, and speaks a lot about how being Autistic is what enabled her to see through the lies of society, particularly climate change deniers, and gave her the drive to stand up and do something about it. It was particularly delightful to hear her speak about how she feels that in some ways, neurotypicals are the “strange” ones – a sentiment most Autistics understand quite well. Each time I see another article being written about an Autistic child (or adult) being inspired by Greta’s story, it makes me feel delighted.

 

As predicted however, though the sheer audacity was still shocking, Greta has received hate now and then – particularly from conservative lobbyists and climate change deniers, some of whom try to spread the lie that she is being exploited (implying that Autistics cannot think for ourselves), or encouraging and spreading hopes that she is triggered into an Autistic meltdown within the public eye so she can be “discredited”.

 

Greta, however, stands unabated by these attacks, refusing to back down.

 

And that is an example we must continue to follow every April, and every day of our lives.

 

 

 

 

Six Common Myths About Neurodiversity

Neurodiversity. This term has grown in popularity over the last few years. In fact, it has reached a point where if you spend enough time in circles where people discuss Autism, you are bound to hear this term at some point or another. This, of course, is a good thing.

 

The fact that the neurodiversity movement is expanding, that more and more individuals are starting to shift over to this new way of thinking, and that the terminology of the neurodiversity paradigm is finding itself used more and more in mainstream media, pop culture, and society at large, is a great testament to the hard work of Autistic activists around the world. It is heartwarming to see more and more people, countries, and societies that are recognizing Autistic (and other neurodivergent) individuals as important cornerstones of society, rather than as freaks of nature, burdens to society, or worse, diseases/disorders in need of “curing” or prevention.

 

However, the widespread recognition of neurodiversity, like the popularization of any idea, and particularly with the popularization of a brand-new social movement, has led to misconceptions. Sometimes, these misconceptions are peddled from our own side: fellow pro-neurodiversity advocates who did not do their homework and thus do not fully understand the tenets of the neurodiversity paradigm, or what the movement’s beliefs really entail. (I was once this person.)

 

Much more common, however, is, again, similar to most emerging social movements, is backlash. More specifically, backlash from reactionaries – who are more interested in stamping out the movement rather than actually working with us to get things done. And in effect, a lot of strawman arguments come from this backlash: that is, people will write extensive think-pieces about the neurodiversity movement, but few of them actually make a point. That is: few of them actually criticize anything the neurodiversity movement actually stands for. (I was, for an even shorter time, once this person too.)

A “strawman” is a logical fallacy in which people exaggerate or misrepresent another person’s view in an effort to make them look foolish and strike them down (“straw men”). In this case, it takes the form of mischaracterizing or perpetuating myths about what we really stand for.

 

Whether coming from well-meaning advocates who do not fully understand the neurodiversity paradigm, to members of the “Autistic Dark Web”, a reactionary cult-like following that aims to slander the neurodiversity movement (and harass Autistic pro-neurodiversity advocates on Twitter), here are some of the most common myths and misconceptions about neurodiversity.

 

Myth #1: “Neurodiversity is just a bogus opinion”

 

One of the most common things I notice in attempts at criticizing the neurodiversity movement – in fact, the first thing I usually notice – is something that starts like this:

 

“Neurodiversity is this bogus idea that _______” or “We don’t need no stinkin’ neurodiversity!” or pretty much anything that starts with “neurodiversity is/entails _______”.

 

It is from that point on that I am almost certain that the “criticisms” of neurodiversity will amount to nothing. This is because neurodiversity, by itself, is not an opinion, viewpoint, or mindset at all. These are concepts built around neurodiversity. But they are not neurodiversity.

 

Neurodiversity is, quite plainly, the diversity of brains and minds. Neurodiversity is a biological fact. Its’ parent term, biodiversity – the diversity of life – is as much a fact as neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is as real and valid as other recognized forms of diversity – cultural, ethnic, religious, gender, sexual orientation, etc., and neurodivergent people deserve the same protections afforded (or should be afforded) to said groups.

 

When people form ideologies and philosophies that are centered around neurodiversity, that value neurodiversity, that is not neurodiversity itself. Philosophies that work with the concepts of neurodiversity fall under the neurodiversity paradigm, which, coined by Autistic Nick Walker, refers to the view that neurodiversity is a good thing: that neurodiversity is a healthy, natural form of diversity, and should be embraced and accommodated, much like other forms of diversity – and that they are subject to the same power dynamics of privilege and oppression that have historically affected (and continue to affect) other forms of diversity. It is the opposite of the pathology paradigm (also coined by Walker), describing the idea that there is only one correct, normal way for a human brain/mind to function, and that anything deviating from that range of “normal” is a disease. This is antithetical to the neurodiversity paradigm, which posits that just because something deviates from what society ascribes “normal” doesn’t make it inherently bad or undesirable. One can argue against this paradigm, but they cannot say that “neurodiversity” itself is false, and one cannot say that “neurodiversity” itself is a philosophy or movement.

 

The civil rights movement based upon the neurodiversity movement, similarly, is aptly titled the neurodiversity movement. Proponents of the neurodiversity paradigm and movement can be considered to be “pro-neurodiversity”, as we see neurodiversity as a good thing.

 

Neurodiversity, in and of itself, however, is simply a fact of life. It is an obvious, verifiable fact that peoples’ brains and minds differ. If you take a group of random people and scan their brains, and look at how different people sense, react and relate to the world around them, you will easily find that peoples’ brains and minds are different, and that certain groups of people with certain brains and minds act similarly, thus making up a neurominority (such as Autistics), while the general range of what we consider “normal” is a neuromajority (aka neurotypical people).

 

People who criticize movements for cultural justice would never claim that “cultural diversity doesn’t exist”. They may oppose multiculturalism, they may oppose having cultural diversity (which is a bad thing to oppose), but nobody would seriously argue that cultural diversity itself s a bogus myth.

 

This leads to another common misconception, and one I used to believe years ago.

 

Myth #2: “The Neurodiversity movement is only about Autism.”

 

The neurodiversity movement was created by an Autistic woman, Judy Singer, in the 1990’s. And the vast majority of neurodiversity activists since, particularly those who make new and big contributions to the movement, are often Autistic too. And the movement does, at its’ core, focus on Autism, and Autistic rights and liberation. That is the origin, and that is its’ current main focus and trajectory.

 

However, as time slowly passes, the neurodiversity movement, like other movements, have expanded. The neurodiversity movement is continuing to expand – slowly, but surely.

 

As mentioned above: Neurodiversity is the diversity of brains and minds. This means all brains and minds. Neurodiversity is about fighting for the empowerment and emancipation of all neurodivergences – from changing the way we view neurodivergence as something medically wrong with a person to one of diversity and acceptance, advocating strongly against discrimination or targeting someone based on neurodivergence, and supporting inclusion and accommodation for others.

 

Neurodivergence itself can cover a lot of things – developmental neurodivergences, such as Autism or Dyslexia, to psychological/psychiatric neurodivergence – anything currently classified as a “mental illness”, even to brain injuries and trauma, and neurodivergences associated with that, such as trigeminal neuralgia or epilepsy. [The term neurodivergent was coined by Autistic activist Kassiane, otherwise known as Neurodivergent K, who runs the Radical Neurodivergence Speaking blog.]

 

As such, the neurodiversity paradigm and movement advocates for all sorts of neurodivergences, and various causes relating to those. For instance, we (and I in particular), am very invested in fighting the stereotype that people with psychiatric diagnoses are more prone to violence, or a “risk” to others, and then discriminating against them because of that. I am against scapegoating neurodivergent or Autistic people when one of us happens to commit a crime (while simultaneously ignoring those of us who do good things). (I will be writing a blog post about this very, very soon, actually – been planning it for over a year now.) I am also against gun control laws that discriminate against neurodivergent people (which is something of controversy and debate).

 

The neurodiversity movement advocates for all neurodivergent people. It advocates to recognize and respect the diverse ways in which people’s minds work. It fights against discrimination and stands up for inclusion and accommodation.

 

In some ways, this carries over to the next myth about neurodiversity – and this is probably the most common myth, and definitely the most cited one. It is the go-to strawman for every reactionary, every martyr warrior mommy, every person who is interested in attempting to discredit what we stand for.

 

Myth #3: The neurodiversity movement does not recognize neurodivergence as disabilities.

 

I am trying to keep things civil for the sake of writing an informative post, but this widespread lie makes me want to bang my head on my desk, rather hard. The moment I see anything remotely resembling such an insinuation, I am pretty much certain that the person writing another so-called “criticism” of the neurodiversity movement is full of bullsh*t. This myth is without a doubt, one of the greatest strawman arguments of all time.

 

First off, the neurodiversity movement has effectively become the subset of the disability rights movement as a whole – and I could just end this myth-busting right there, but I won’t.

 

Literally NOBODY in the neurodiversity movement – aside from perhaps some who, again, did not do their homework and does not fully understand what the movement entails – ever implies that neurodivergent people (such as Autistics) are not disabled. In fact, proponents of the neurodiversity movement do not shy away from saying disabled and reject euphemisms such as “differently-abled” quite strongly.

 

The difference, however, lies in how a person views disability. One of the first things a person learns if one is to study the theory or philosophy of disability are the different models of disability. The medical model of disability (similar to the pathology paradigm) entails the dominant narrative of disabled people being seen as defective versions of “normal” that we need to accommodate. The social model of disability, on the other hand, (corresponding to the neurodiversity paradigm/movement), is an outlook recognizing disabilities as forms of diversity: everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Everyone has things they cannot do, and things they can do rather well. What disables a person (aka what separates ‘inability’ from disability) is when society is set up in such a way that it discriminates or does not account for people whose minds or bodies work in certain ways. Thus: there is no default human, no factory model for how people’s minds and bodies ought to work – and it is society that disables people.

 

The social model of disability, upon which the disability rights movement and other more progressive theories on disability, works toward disability justice by fighting for accessibility and inclusion.

 

The neurodiversity paradigm advocates for these very same things, focusing more on the needs of neurodivergent people. Both the social model and the neurodiversity paradigm are very important, as it is essential to fight for the rights of neurodivergent and physically disabled individuals.

 

The neurodiversity movement acknowledges that Autistics and other neurodivergent people are disabled. However, we prescribe to the social model of disability, and we believe that the medical model does not lead to proper solutions and inevitably leads to stigmatization and maltreatment. Instead, we focus on inclusion and accommodation, and how we can make a person’s life better without trying to “fix” them.

 

Myth #4: “Pro-neurodiversity/Autistic activists say that being Autistic is all sunshine and rainbows!”

 

Literally no one, Autistic or otherwise, has ever claimed that being Autistic is a universal walk in the park. Being Autistic is hard. Being Autistic can be stressful. From sensory overloads to meltdowns, to facing maltreatment and discrimination from over 70% of society, sometimes being Autistic can be hellish. Nobody would ever claim that being Autistic is always a walk in the park. And people who make that claim know this: anyone who says this is being dishonest.

 

People who oppose the neurodiversity movement, though, assume that just because we talk about Autism positively, that we acknowledge and share the positive aspects of being Autistic (and there are many), that we show that our lives are worth living, and that we like being Autistic, are indicative of us ignoring the struggles or pretending that being Autistic is perfect.

This is not only incorrect, but completely disingenuous. Just because we acknowledge the positive aspects of something does not mean we do not acknowledge difficult aspects or problems with it. Conversely, just because we acknowledge that being Autistic has difficulties, it does not mean we see being Autistic as some kind of horrible tragedy or a life/death sentence.

 

Most of us have nuanced views on Autism. We see being Autistic as something neutral; something that just is – with many also arguing that the positives outweigh the negatives. We believe that being Autistic is still worth it in the end.

 

One thing that we do consistently postulate is that the struggles of being Autistic, primarily occur due to a lack of accessibility, or, in other words, how society treats Autistic people. From a lack of inclusion/segregation in schools, to sensory unfriendly environments, to forcing us to “mask” being Autistic (supressing stims, forcing eye-contact and making us imitate neurotypicals) – commonly done through procedures like ABA, to consistently gaslighting our perceptions and violating our autonomy and then turning around and claiming it is “for our own good” – these are the primary causes of Autistic struggle. And these struggles have one thing in common: they are rooted in the pathology paradigm, in the idea that Autism is a disease or “disorder” that needs to be “treated” or “cured” away. This is but one example of how the pathology paradigm harms everyone while attempting/pretending to help us.

 

The neurodiversity movement, meanwhile, focuses on accommodating Autistic individuals so that, while we may still have certain challenges or impairments, they should not impede our ability to live life to the fullest, or bar us from fully participating in society.

 

We do think being Autistic is awesome in many ways – but not without its’ struggles. Struggles that need to be understood and accommodated.

 

This myth goes hand-in-hand with the next myth, which is another common one: just as, if not more common than the previous misconception.

 

Myth #5: The neurodiversity movement only cares about “high functioning” Autistics.

 

Again, this is untrue, as described above. We recognize the struggles that all Autistics face, whilst also advocating for each individual’s strengths. However, more importantly, this is a blatant strawman of our true position.

 

It’s not that we care for “high” or “low” or “mild” or “severe” Autistics more or less: more so, that we reject functioning and severity levels altogether. Perhaps one can debate us on that (good luck winning, though), but to say we only care about “high functioning” Autistics is a deviation from the fact that we recognize that “high/low/mild/severe” Autism doesn’t exist.

 

There are countless think-pieces written on both the uselessness and the harmfulness of functioning labels. I will briefly touch upon these, though the main purpose of this essay is again to focus specifically on myth-busting.

 

The basic summary is that functioning levels, aside from being completely arbitrary and ambiguous and having no concrete definition, are a silencing tactic. Any Autistic person who questions the status quo or lays down truths people do not wish to hear, are told, “you’re too high functioning” to have an opinion on the matter. That they couldn’t possibly speak for “severe/low functioning Autistics”.

 

Of course, given that many of these interactions take place online, never mind the fact that most of the time they have no idea about one’s life and struggles; they will use functioning labels as a way of moving the goalposts, evidenced by how they change the definition of “low functioning” with each shift. I’ll give a basic example below:

 

“You’re not like those Autistics! You don’t bang your head in the wall or have meltdowns!”

 

“Actually, I have struggled a lot with self harm, sometimes still do, and have had aggressive meltdowns before.”

 

“Yeah, but you’re verbal!”

 

“Actually, there are periods when I go nonverbal during stress, during which I use AAC (Augmentative Adaptive Communication).” (Or, alternatively, the person they are arguing with may actually be nonspeaking.)

 

“Well, you can type this and express thoughts, therefore you’re clearly not too Autistic to have an opinion!”

 

That last statement is where the shifted goalposts typically end – and this pretty much sums up the perpetuation of this myth. Functioning labels are a silencing tactic, and what they are really saying is that Autistic people cannot and should not have opinions.

 

It is also worth mentioning that some of the loudest voices for the neurodiversity movement, come from people who would be considered “low functioning” or “severe” by proponents of such useless terms. This fact is often ignored, mostly because it is inconvenient to the narrative of anti-neurodiversity reactionaries.

 

When people say that the neurodiversity movement ignores “those Autistics”/ “that kind of Autism”, they are simply wrong. We advocate for the inclusion of ALL Autistics, regardless of ability or background. The only reason people think we don’t care about certain Autistic people is because we speak of all Autistics in humanizing, respectful, non-exploitative ways.

 

Autism is not a linear spectrum. It is better described as a continuum, or a colour wheel, with people falling into different areas of strengths and shortcomings. Autistic traits overlap, too – fully speaking Autistics can struggle with meltdowns or self-harm. Nonspeaking Autistics can be able to articulate themselves excellently through writing and are often capable of demonstrating excellent intellect when supported. Some Autistics speak less early on yet become very articulate later on in life. We are all different, and we all learn and grow at different paces.

 

Myth #6: The neurodiversity movement opposes all forms of therapy.

 

This is another myth that is perpetuated, often by the ABA lobby. That because we support acceptance, that because we oppose ABA because of its’ abusive history, we must automatically therefore oppose all forms of therapy and support that an Autistic may require. This is another gross strawman.

 

We support any therapy or support system that is inclusive and respectful. This also means that it respects the autonomy of the individual in question. Many neurodiversity activists are also very strongly against forced treatment, including involuntary commitment and other forms of psychological/psychiatric coercion.

 

More importantly, as we believe in inclusion and accessibility, we support any sort of system, technology (like AAC), or therapy that helps include Autistics.

 

The neurodiversity movement, however, does condemn the mindset that Autistic individuals need to be “fixed” or “cured”, as we have seen time and time again that this inevitably leads to abuse.

 

The only therapies that we truly condemn are those based on abusive principles, like ABA, or those which are blatantly fraudulent, such as anything that claims to biomedically “cure” Autism.

 

On the whole, pro-neurodiversity activists generally oppose anything that treats neurodivergence as a pathology that needs fixing, and rather focuses on accommodation.

 

To this end, we are not anti-medication, as certain drugs are proven to help neurodivergent folks – and we support having easier access to said drugs. That being said, many of us are against forced medication under any circumstance, as often happens in psychiatric units. Psychological autonomy, also known as cognitive liberty, is a cornerstone of the neurodiversity movement.

 

The neurodiversity movement recognizes the current power dynamics present in many situations involving therapy and treatments – and as such, we are wary of the potential for abuse and harm, which continues to be rampant. And unlike those who have nothing better to do than complain about us, we actually campaign and work to solve these problems through speaking out.

 

Closing thoughts:

 

These are only a few of the common myths, misconceptions, and straw-man arguments thrown around regarding the neurodiversity movement. However, most of the arguments that I have seen fall into one of these six categories at some level or another.

 

The neurodiversity movement is a civil rights movement. Like every other social movement that advocates for equality and human rights, it will face backlash. It will face opposition. But this does not in any way undermine the importance of the movement.

 

That being said, it is important to listen to the needs of others, and it is essential that we listen and address valid criticisms, whether they be of individual advocates, or a trend within the neurodiversity movement as a whole that could be better handled. And having these important conversations is crucial for improvement.

 

However, it is equally important to realize when a person is not arguing in good faith. Many of us are already limited on energy in a world that taxes us to our limit every day, and it is better not spent fighting with trolls or wallowing in toxicity.

 

One may oftentimes find that a person’s opposition to the neurodiversity movement is inversely proportional to one’s understanding of it.