Friday, August 20, 2010

Disability and Division

One of the attitudes about autism that really bothers me is the idea that autistic people are divided into neat little groups that have nothing to do with each other. Functioning labels – “high-functioning” versus “low-functioning” – exist to separate autistic people into categories. Once these categories have been formed, it’s easy to start generalizing about differences between the groups. Some people might say that “high-functioning” autistics are valuable and “low-functioning” autistics are not. Others might say that “low-functioning” autistics are actually autistic and “high-functioning” autistics are really just normal people who want an excuse to be mean. There’s a lot of prejudice reflected in these categorizations, and no truth.

Curebies – that’s a somewhat pejorative term for neurotypicals who want a cure for autism – are often really into the categorizing thing. If you say to them that as an autistic person, you find the idea of eliminating autism offensive and scary, they will quickly try to divide you from the people that they want to cure. They might say, “You can type/talk/pass/go to school, so you’re not really autistic.” They might say, “Of course we don’t want a cure for people like you; we want a cure for people with more severe autism.” They might say, “How dare you think that you have anything in common with my severely autistic child?”

Answer: I think I have something in common with another autistic person because we are both autistic.

Sadly, some autistic people wouldn’t agree. “Aspie” supremacists protest the removal of Asperger’s syndrome from the DSM because they don’t want to share a diagnosis with people who
“might have to wear adult diapers and maybe a head-restraining device.” (Amanda at Ballastexistenz and Bev at Square 8 have both written great posts about why this attitude is such a problem.)

When I say that I identify as autistic, or start talking about disability politics, people sometimes bring up the perceived categories of autism. They ask me, “Do you know what severe autism looks like? What do you have in common with people like that? Why shouldn’t we look for a cure for those people?”

Those people. People like that, as opposed to people like me.

My parents were alarmed when I came home from college with a renewed interest in disability. They’d spent a lot of time teaching me how to appear neurotypical, and here I was talking about the autism spectrum, and identifying with the autistic community. They recommended that I spend the summer working with non-verbal, non-passing autistic people, people who they thought of as entirely different from me. I think they hoped that when I met these people, I would get scared and decide that I didn’t have anything in common with them after all.

It didn’t work.

Earlier this week I was approved to start an
ASAN chapter based at my school. I’ve spent the summer with autistic kids, and now I’m looking forward to hanging out with other autistic adults during the school year. One of the things that I really want is for the chapter to be representative of people across the spectrum – verbal and non-verbal, passing and non-passing. I don’t want to stand apart from other autistic adults just because they do things that some neurotypicals think are scary. I don’t want to be another person trying to put as much distance as possible between myself and “those people.” “Those people” bear the brunt of our society’s horrible ideas about autism. “Those people” are just as much a part of self-advocacy as I am.

Those people. People like that. People like me.


  1. Acknowledging the division into functioning categories or distinctions makes sense, even with any of the few confusions resulting from trying to generalize. I doubt that there are many who claim that the high-functioning aren't autistic. But many think that whatever things you see that you have in common with the low-functioning ones, are trivial while the differences in ability are what matter.

    Curebies, who by the way are not only among the NTs, are justified in pointing out the division between your strata and those who are in question of being cured. I however think there are better ways of describing your privileged position rather than only saying that you can type, talk, etc., that would actually emphasize how well off your strata is and how immense the disparities in ability are within the spectrum.
    I like the idea of an organization being representative of those across the spectrum, that would actually include the highly impaired, who comprise the majority of the spectrum.