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.
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)