Autism Acceptance Month 2021
It’s Autism Acceptance Month, and this month matters a lot to me! There are a few things happening this month that you might be interested in.
First, to frame my own approach to this month:
I do my best to be actively inclusive of autism in my life and my work, not only because I love autistic people (and am neurodivergent myself), but also because I work in queer and trans community as a queer and trans person, and there is significant overlap between gender and sexuality diversity and neurodiversity, including autism (see this post at Spectrum on the topic).
Being ‘actively inclusive’ means listening to autistic voices. This means using identity-first language, not using the puzzle piece or ‘light it up blue’ images, not linking to or taking any guidance from Autism Speaks, rejecting ABA and all forms of coercive ‘behavioural’ therapy for autistic kids, honouring that the spectrum of autism includes folks who have a wide range of support needs and that people at every point on the spectrum deserve dignity and agency, and really considering how we can challenge ableism and neuronormativity in how we speak about and understand autism and autistic ways of being.
So, with that intro, here’s what’s happening this month!
Maybe the most exciting is that An Unexpected Light will be reading and talking about three pieces of short writing by autistic writer Ada Hoffmann this month. If you’re part of that course, you can join us for the chat on April 18! But I’m also including the study guide here, so that anybody can participate. It’s down below.
Shiny! a speculative writing group continues to meet every month. This offshoot from An Unexpected Light is open to anyone, and is free of charge. This month, our writing prompts will be drawn from the three pieces of writing featured in An Unexpected Light (and later in this post). We’re meeting on April 13 from 6-7:30 pm mountain time. We write together, with the opportunity (but not the obligation) to share and respond to each other’s just written work. It is a lovely time! Register for the zoom link and find more information here.
Possibilities: Bi+ Community Group will be talking about autism and/in the bi+ community on April 15 from 6:30-8 pm mountain time. You can find more information and register for the zoom link here.
And I’ll be talking about autism and narrative therapy with the narrative practitioner peer consultation group tomorrow!
Here’s the study guide, if you’d like to read some excellent pieces of writing along with me.
A small study guide for three pieces of writing by Ada Hoffmann
The first is her essay, ‘Towards a neurodiverse future: Writing an autistic heroine‘ at Tor.com.
The second, which I would consider a companion piece, is this twitter thread on writing worlds inhabited by autistic people.
(The essay primarily addresses character, and the thread primarily addresses setting – both are important!)
And finally, not story about autism but a story by an autistic author, her short story, ‘A spell to retrieve your lover from the bottom of the sea‘ at Strange Horizons.
Before reading, consider these ‘deconstructing discourse’ questions:
- What commonly accepted ‘truths’ or ideas about autism have you encountered?
- Do these commonly accepted ideas match your own experience with autism, or with community members who are autistic?
- Where have these ideas come from? Who determines which stories about autism become accepted and which stories are dismissed? Whose voices are heard, and whose are missing?
- Based on these ideas, what kind of person do you think might be autistic? Who might have an easier or harder time accessing a diagnosis? Which autistic experiences might be more or less visible?
- Who is impacted by these ideas about autism? Do you think the impact of these ideas might be helpful, harmful, or both?
- What do these ideas about autism make possible in terms of available actions, ways of speaking about experience, or understanding ourselves and each other? What might become possible if these ideas changed, or if more nuance was added?
- Are these ideas about autism in line with your values, or what you believe about how we should speak about and treat each other?
The goal of these questions is to really examine what we “know” about autism, because for many of us, unless we are autistic or have intentionally sought out autistic voices, so much of what we learn about autism comes through poor representation in media, or through highly pathologized and medicalized models of neurodiversity. Ideas about autistic folks “lacking empathy”, or stereotypes of autism as an issue for young, white, middle-class boys, or stories of autism that centre the experiences and voices of neurotypical parents and professionals rather than centering the voices of autistic folks themselves – these are all incredibly common, and cause real harm.
‘Deconstructing discourse’ questions is a practice I learned from both queer, trans, and feminist spaces, and also from narrative practice spaces. These specific questions were adapted from the series of questions offered in the BPD Superpowers document.
While reading the essay and twitter thread, consider:
- What stands out to you in Ada Hoffmann’s essay or twitter thread about who might populate a neurodiverse world, and what their lives might be like?
- Is there anything that surprises you in the essay or the twitter thread, or that you hadn’t thought of previously?
- In the essay, she writes, “I also know the peculiar pain of stories that seem to betray an author’s contempt for autistic people, their belief that we’re emotionless or wretchedly irritating or just not quite human.” To me, this is the most critical reason we must examine what we’ve been taught and what we think we know about people who are pushed to the margins and subjected to medicalizing and pathologizing discourses (including ourselves, in some instances!) But particularly for neurotypical writers of autistic characters, there is the risk that in an effort to write someone unlike us in ways that will be legible, sometimes we write in ways that are incredibly painful and harmful – leaning on stereotypes that we don’t realize are wrong, or representing people in ways that are hurtful.
- In the twitter thread, Hoffmann talks about how to include high-support people in an autistic world while maintaining their dignity and agency. This seems so important to me, because writing a truly neurodiverse world means more than just highlighting the easy and pleasant aspects of neurodivergence. Acknowledging challenges with executive function, and including people who have higher support needs, but doing this in dignifying and honouring ways feels like one of the most important aspects of writing visionary fiction.
- In the essay, she writes about autistic villains. I love this part! I appreciate the care she brings to this, recognizing how autistic villains can work in harmful ways and align with stereotypes that vilify autistic people, but also recognizing that well-written autistic villains can work really well. What is your initial reaction to this idea? (My own reaction was that I would love to see more of these characters written by autistic authors, but not by neurotypical authors. When I examine this reaction, it’s related to how I don’t want to see queer or trans villains written by cis or straight authors because that aligns too easily with the ways in which trans and queer folks are vilified in dominant culture. And, of course, this desire to see only #ownvoices villains is problematic, because it demands that authors always be ‘out’. Layers and layers!)
While reading the short story, consider:
- What stands out to you in this story? What particular images or phrases stick with you?
- What do you think of the three possible futures?
- How does Hoffmann maintain hope in this story, if you think that she does?
- Is there anything about this story that changes how you think about your own life?
For me, the idea of respecting when someone says no to help was really powerful, and deepened my thinking about autonomy.
In a recent training with Vikki Reynolds, she said something like, “autonomy and paternalism are always in conflict, and many helping agencies are deeply paternalistic.” During Autism Acceptance Month especially, questioning whether the help we are offering or the help being offered to the autistic folks in our lives, aligns with autonomy or paternalism feels critically important.
In the story, Hoffmann writes, “When he says “don’t,” you must stop. That sounds obvious, but it will not be. It is such a small step from helping someone to hurting them, against their will, for what you think is their good. You have been hurt like that before. Take that step even once and he will be lost to you.”
I read this, and thought about ABA, and about all of the coercive therapies offered to autistic kids. “It is such a small step from helping someone to hurting them, against their will, for what you think is their good.”
I want to scream this from the rooftops all through Autism Acceptance Month. All through every month. Until every person who holds the power to help and forgets that it is also the power to hurt hears it, knows it, acts on it.
What are you doing to celebrate Autism Acceptance Month? Who are you listening to, learning from, and being influenced by?