This blog series is rapidly closing in on its second week and I have only just gotten started. I have a lot in mind to cover—autistic gender and sexuality in parents’ guides, autism and sex ed, autism and masculinity, the pathologization of gender non-normative behavior—and I have barely scratched the surface of portrayals of autists in film, television, and news media. As I did with my previous post on Erasure and Asexuality, however, I want to take a moment to step back and pause before charging on ahead. I got a lot of great comments on that post, and the aim of this post is to provide a similar space for dialogue and reader input. (I mean, that’s theoretically the nature of any blog that allows comments but I’m specifically asking you for feedback again.)
I have already called out John Elder-Robison on his privilege-denying and damaging rhetoric, but like Robison and pretty much all autistic people who are able to bend the ear of a mainstream audience, I am a “high-functioning” autist with the arguably less stigma-ridden diagnosis of Asperger syndrome. I’m one of a crowd of articulate, impassioned young people with Asperger’s and HFA trying to promote the concept of neurodiversity, while “low-functioning” voices are still being silenced. I am far from the only person talking about autistic sexuality. (Note: The “Queering Autism” tumblr I linked to hasn’t been updated in several months, but it’s still worth a look.)
The very concepts of what it means to be “articulate” and to be capable of passion are deeply ableist, as are the deeply-cherished ideas of what it means to be “whole” and “independent.” In my last post, I gushed over the 2008 film Chocolate because it features a nonverbal autistic protagonist who is powerful, protective, and resourceful and who also happens to require intensive daily support to navigate the neurotypical world. This portrayal is thus far unique within popular culture, but it isn’t just a fantasy. Nonverbal and “low-functioning” autists are denied agency because mainstream culture cannot yet accept that someone who requires one-on-one support and who cannot communicate in a normative way is still a thinking, dynamic individual. The unspoken definition of personhood is caught up in the use of language and the ability to perform designated “simple” tasks. The result of this dehumanization is that capable and complex people are routinely ignored and discarded.
Since I am neither nonverbal nor considered “low-functioning,” I have to be wary of ventriloquizing for other people on the spectrum and unwittingly becoming complicit in the marginalization of my fellow autists. There are experiences that I do not share, and spaces to which I do not and should not have access. This doesn’t mean I ought to shut up, but I need to be careful and to adhere to the old maxim of listening more than I speak.
Are there any issues that are unique or of particular significance to nonverbal and/or “low-functioning” autists that this series ought to address? Do you have any suggestions for language that conveys the variety of autistic experience without reinforcing the oppressive concepts of “high-functioning” and “low-functioning?” Even after thinking hard about autism and autistic self-advocacy for quite a while now, that second question has me stumped. Nonverbal/non-speaking isn’t synonymous with “low-functioning” and I haven’t yet encountered a non-problematic alternative to the latter term.
As this series continues, I hope that it will grow as a dialogue in which autistic experiences are made visible in a feminist space. As Double Rainbow keeps rolling forward, I hope you will keep responding with your thoughts and suggestions.
Previous: Sweet, Sweet Chocolate; Erasure and Asexuality
Shift Journal (I definitely do not agree with every assertion made by Shift and its contributors, such as the odd theories on autism and evolution, but it provides a space for “low-functioning” voices)
Push(back) at the Intersections: How About Some -isms With Your Feminism?
3 Comments Have Been Posted
Many non-verbal or "low
Courtney replied on
Many non-verbal or "low functioning" are believed to have no feelings or emotions, or that because they can't speak, they don't understand language. This is a big factor in why so many people with developmental disabilities are so often taken advantage of and sexually or emotionally abused. This is a topic in particular that I've been meaning to write about. It's a very unique struggle. One video from Autism Sspeaks displays this really well - Autism Every Day, in which a mother of a young autistic girl says she considered driving her car off a cliff, with the daughter in the car. Now I understand some parents feel this way very often because of stress, but this woman said this while her daughter was literally 5 ft. away. Just because someone may not visibly reach out to make connections with people, he or she does understand what you are saying and people with autism do have feelings. It's something we REALLY need to be more aware of.
Betterish term than HF/LF
Kassiane replied on
At the ASAN meetings I go to, we tend to talk in terms of support needs (more support needs, fewer support needs, variable support needs...) rather than "functioning", which is a ridiculous concept because they tie your whole identity to your ability or lack thereof in maybe 2 areas (and use this to tell you to STFU bc you're Not Like MyChild).
There's a lot of assumption that people with higher support needs can't understand sex or sexuality & therefore can't, you know, "do it". Then there's also the revolting assumption that people with higher support needs don't really understand if, say, they're abused.
Ew. I feel dirty typing that.
I never know what to do with
Norah replied on
I never know what to do with the weird functioning labels anyway because people have such different definitions for them that I'm all over the place (the meaning of the labels mostly changes with the point the wielder wants to prove with them).
I do require, for instance, support for living. In various capacities (I mean ranging from administrative aid to help with the dishes). I also usually have an aide for most of the things outside of the house, with a few exceptions.
I've also been partnered up with an NT(ish) person for 11 years now.
I tried looking for "supported living" arrangements here (basically a cluster of separate homes with 24-hour support in a separate building available when needed). There's lots of that around. But not if you've got a partner. They still just don't consider someone who needs anything aside from entirely independent and unsupported living capable of having a "real" relationship.
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