Autistic Pride

If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands—April is back, and that means it’s Autism Acceptance Month! Some organizations attempt to focus on awareness campaigning, which often has a negative tone; it focuses on attempting to “cure” Autism, forcing Autistic people to “act normal,” and treat Autism as if it were something devastating. I’d like to set the record straight here: Autism is nothing to be afraid of. Autistic people don’t need awareness campaigns, we need acceptance movements!

Autism itself is a difference in neurological processing. Our brains are wired in a way that means we connect to the world in a unique way, but even among all of us, none of us are exactly alike. Regardless of our individual differences, Autistic Culture is built on mutual respect and celebration of our neurodiversity (diverse minds). Sensory processing and communication tend to be the first topics that come up regarding Autism.

Sensory processing for Autistic people tends to be either more or less sensitive than allistic (non-Autistic) experiences. To use a personal example, many people have assumed I am Blind/Low Vision because of my sunglasses. In reality, I am sighted, but light sensitive—what is simply a fluorescent classroom light bulb for my peers feels like staring directly into the sun for me. This ties along with fluctuating between sensory-seeking and sensory-avoidant moods. In sensory-seeking moods, Autistic people yearn for ignition of the senses (or at least one). Touching interesting textures, dancing and singing, or even just eating flavorful foods are a few sensory-seeking activities. On the opposite end, an overwhelmed person may be sensory-avoidant. Everything is too loud, too bright, or too much. They may cover their eyes and ears, trying to ease the panic out.

To address sensory processing needs, allistic allies would do well to ask us about what we need and how to accommodate us. Often sudden changes in the sensory environment overwhelm us: bright lights in a room that was dark, loud noises after dead silence, hands on us without warning. In most situations, a gradual change is preferred.

Language and communication are usually at the face of any discussion on Autism. Some Autistic people, both hearing and deaf, are nonverbal. Most are nonverbal in situations where we are too overwhelmed to use language, and others are nonverbal all the time. This means different things for different people. Nonverbal episodes may only apply to voiced language, or it may apply to signed language as well.

Ironically, being deaf was one of the reasons my Autism was not discovered until I was much older. As a child in a mainstreamed environment, I was silent for most of the day unless directly spoken to. When I did try to speak, it was stilted and mumbled. I was assumed to be a shy deaf child; and this was true, but there were other cards in play here. Regardless of what language I use, it comes out oddly. Processing in the form of word production and order work in a convoluted way for many Autistic people. Phrases come out in the wrong order, or words are not produced correctly. Someone may use the wrong handshape or movement. Often, Autistic people get by with scripts; specific phrases memorized and produced in the same way each time, often without much effort or thought put into it. These can come from movies, novels, language books, or even other Autistic people.

What allistic allies can do to make communication easier is to simply exercise patience. Sometimes, due to all the deliberation it takes to plan out a sentence, communication on our end can be slow. We’re trying to map out our facial expressions, movements, enunciation, and word order—our hard drives are overheating and it will take a lot of effort to get the information out. This is okay. Let us take our time, and wait for us to respond instead of plowing through to the next sentence or repeating yourself (unless asked). If we are comfortable with you, we may drop all those pretenses and just communicate in the strange ways our brain want to. Don’t worry too much about eye contact–In Deaf culture, it’s often emphasized strongly, but many Autistic signers struggle with eye contact. It can be physically painful or elicit fear responses. Some of us know how to fake eye contact, but regardless, find ways to ensure both people know they’re being focused on during communication without compromising comfort. Nodding or a hand up (signing “watch,” for example) can be a good substitute when eye contact is not possible.

While preferences vary, in general Autistic people ourselves usually prefer Identity First language (Autistic person) rather than Person First language (Person with Autism). To highlight the reason, consider how the phrase “person with Deafness” feels. Autism is not separable from people. Without Autism, I would not be who I am—I would be someone else entirely!

April may be Autism Acceptance Month, but Autistic people exist year-round. We have different ways of connecting to and processing the world and different ways of communicating. In terms of symbolism, we are not puzzle pieces; we’re human beings. Nothing about us is missing from who we are. Nothing is wrong with the way that we move, whether we’re touching the wall to keep our balance, walking on tip toe, or flapping our hands in glee. Nothing is wrong with the way we communicate, whether we sign awkwardly, type, point to pictures in a book, use scripts, or have no standard language.

Nothing is wrong with Autistic people.

We need acceptance and allyship in appropriate ways. Sadly, many people choose to support organizations that claim to speak for us, but only speak over us. This would be similar to wanting to support Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people by donating to AGB. Instead of focusing on exclusively parent-run or ally-run organizations, allies would do best to seek organizations run by Autistic people ourselves. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network and Autistic Women’s Network are two such organizations that seek to empower Autistic people and celebrate who we are, rather than mourn who we are not.

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