Every now and then, not really frequently, but often enough that I am going to say something about it, I see a sentiment brought into conversations by non-autistic parents of Autistic children that goes along the lines of ….
“Autistic advocates are always asking us to accept Autistic people and not expect them to change, but they don’t really accept us even though we are doing our best to support our kids/be our kids voice/learn how to advocate for them/be a good ally……it seems like they want to silence us, when we are just trying to help.”
In my opinion, this sentiment is problematic in many ways. I could write an essay on the issues around parents failing to recognise that advocating with their child is different, and preferable to, speaking for them/being their voice. Don’t start me on the topic of people thinking they can waltz in and “help”, I could spend all day discussing with you the ways self declared “allies” actually hurt the neurodiversity rights movement. I could show you example after example of times when parents have silenced the voices of their children’s community- the Autistic adults who give freely of their time to support and discuss and educate and care for families with Autistic members- and have rewarded their efforts with disdain and defensive anger at the first sign of even gentle disagreement with something a parent has said or done. But I won’t. Not today, anyway.
There is another issue I’d like to address today. It is the issue of privilege and the assumptions made from within it. The idea of acceptance being a “two way street”, something that must be reciprocal in the relationship between Autistic and non-autistic people, is based on a conversational dynamic that is unhealthy and dangerous. Acceptance is not a two way street.
To clarify, in this article I am not using the word “acceptance” simply as a word defined in the dictionary as ‘the action or process of being received as adequate or suitable’. It is that, yes, but in this context there is a broader meaning, more nuanced and complex as part of a human rights movement advocating for the equality of Autistic people with non-autistic people in society. It focusses on the ‘action’ part of the definition, and the fact that a lack of acceptance leads to significant disadvantage and damage to Autistic people.
Non-autistic parents have a privilege in discussions about Autism that Autistic people don’t have. This might be starting to change a little- I do see parents beginning to acknowledge the wisdom of seeking out Autistic perspectives on Autism in relation to parenting their Autistic children. But there is still, when there is a disagreement over what is good and helpful in supporting Autistic people, a default position of dismissing what the Autistic advocate is saying out of hand, betraying the still pervasive opinion that Autistic people cannot be experts in their own lives and that the non-autistic perspective is inherently better because non-autistic people have a better understanding of what children need to get on in the world.
I’ve seen it said many times and in so many different ways, “I accept my child, so I am going to provide them with therapy to teach them every strategy and give them every tool they need to prevent them being bullied and to help them cope in this world.” Now, don’t get me wrong, wanting your child not to be bullied and equipping them for the world is not wrong… but the above statement is not evidence of acceptance.
Acceptance says, “I know this world will be cruel to you, but that is not your fault because there is nothing wrong with you. It is the world that needs to change”.
When Autistic advocates speak about acceptance we are not asking you to come and ask us questions about Autism as a token gesture toward passing yourself off as caring about Autistic perspective.
When Autistic advocates speak about acceptance we are not asking you to just find a kinder sort of therapy for your child.
When Autistic advocates speak about acceptance we are not asking you to be our ally.
When Autistic advocates speak about acceptance we are saying there is nothing wrong with being Autistic, and asking you to truly believe us and take steps to change the world that says there is.
When Autistic advocates speak about acceptance we are saying that when your child runs into problems they do not need you to assume you know best how to fix it, but that you need to listen to them (no matter how they communicate) and then speak with them in order to help them achieve their goals and resolve their own challenges.
When Autistic advocates speak about acceptance we are saying that right now, attitudes to Autism are such that when a parent of an Autistic child harms or kills their child, people sympathise with the parent. And that needs to change.
When Autistic advocates speak about acceptance we are saying that Autistic people are valuable in society, right now, just as we are, and we do not want you to change us or fix us or cure us because doing so causes us harm and in some cases endangers our lives.
Here’s the thing. The idea that Autistic people not “accepting” non-autistic people is a big deal, is false. Non-autistic parents do not face the same discrimination and oppression that Autistic people do, and that their children will if attitudes toward acceptance do not change.
When non-autistic people do not accept Autistic people it puts our lives in danger. Asserting that an Autistic person disagreeing with you about something to do with Autism is not “acceptance” and is somehow harmful to you, is nonsense.
When non-autistic people won’t change their attitudes and behaviours to accept Autistic people in the world as equals it leads to further stigmatisation and oppression of a minority group. Saying that Autistic people don’t “accept” non-autistic parents in conversations about Autism, and accusing Autistic advocates of “silencing”, simply serves to illustrate, in a heartbreakingly ironic way, how little understanding and empathy parents who use this attempt to shut down conversations have of the experience of being Autistic.
The idea that acceptance is a two way street is another form of discrimination. It does not acknowledge that non-autistic people are not even marginally disadvantaged by any “non-acceptance” by Autistic people. It does not acknowledge that Autistic people’s basic human rights are violated by the non-acceptance hurled at them by non-autistic people every day.
Autistic people have a right to ask for acceptance, because it is not currently something they experience. Autistic people have a right to demand they be left un-“fixed” and not expected to change for the comfort of non-autistic people and their expectations.
The demand for acceptance, based on the human right of not being discriminated against based on neurology, is not a request for a transactional relationship in which you agree to accept us and we agree to do something for you. And, acceptance of a person as valuable is in no way similar to agreeing not to disagree with someone who expresses a view or opinion that is actively harmful to people of a minority neurology.
Attempting to turn around a minority group’s argument in defence of their own rights, and use it against them as a self defence tactic, exposes the enormity of the power imbalance that exists in these conversations. In a world that is built for them,and caters to their needs already, non-autistic parents co-opting this argument, saying “but you don’t accept us”, and turning it against Autistic advocates, is dismissive of the struggles the world enforces on us. Worse, it adds to those struggles, and will ultimately be to their own children’s detriment.