April is Autism Awareness Month, which is an important opportunity for non-autistic individuals to strive to be better allies. People with intersecting identities are often left out of mainstream conversations about equity, including intersections of disability, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender. Neurodivergent people in particular are often spoken over and ignored in conversations about disability because of stereotypes that make it seem as if they are unable to contribute to them. To become a better ally, self-education is the most effective way to learn about those you seek to support without tokenizing or placing the responsibility of education on these individuals.
An ally is someone who recognizes that there is unfairness and inequality for social groups they are not a part of and takes responsibility to acknowledge one’s own privilege, endeavoring not to contribute to the problems that oppress others and their communities. Privilege takes many forms and may not be entirely obvious to someone who experiences it. For example, the ability to downplay the existence of one’s advantages is an expression of privilege. Defending yourself to emphasize that you are not part of the problem that oppresses marginalized communities is another example. Deeply listening to the messages of oppressed individuals and making an effort to understand them can help guide the accountability of the privileged. It is not about convenience or merit, so there is no room to make these messages more palatable to your own ear. Aim your attention on what you can do to support the relationship and mutual learning without placing yourself on a pedestal for wanting to offer support (Kashtan, 2020). For the autistic community, support looks like learning how to effectively listen and take feedback regardless of how the feedback is given; how autistic individuals communicate is not more important than the content of what they want to be heard.
In addition to listening, allies have the responsibility to be conscientious of the language they use to address those they support. At times it looks like changing one’s own vocabulary and at others it is standing up to oppressive vernacular. As explained by Lydia Brown, an intern at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), saying “person with autism” instead of “autistic person” has negative connotations because “autism as an inherent part of an individual’s identity.” Brown argues that “person with autism” implies that “the person can be separated from autism.” But autism is not a disease or something to be cured, nor do the developmental differences inherent in autism diminish one’s quality of life; “it is a neurological developmental condition […] it is an edifying and meaningful component of a person’s identity, and it defines the ways in which an individual experiences and understands the world.” Furthermore, Brown states that, “[r]eferring to me as ‘a person with autism,’ or ‘an individual with ASD’ demeans who I am because it denies who I am” (Brown, 2011).
Using the term “autistic person” is known as identity-first language whereas “person with autism” is called person-first language. Brown explains that person-first language asserts that “the person has value and worth, and that autism is entirely separate from what gives him or her value and worth” because autism is damaging to the worth as a person, therefore the condition is separated with the word “with or “has.” Person-first language expresses that the person would be better off if they weren’t autistic. Identity-first language recognizes “that being Autistic is not a condition absolutely irreconcilable with regarding people as inherently valuable and worth something.” Brown advocates that identity-first language accepts that “the individual is different from non-Autistic people–and that [it is] not a tragedy, and we are showing that we are not afraid or ashamed to recognize that difference” (Brown, 2011). Recognizing these differences in language can help prevent harmful ramifications such as suppressing an individual’s autistic identity.
Hurtful language extends beyond incorrectly labeling the autistic community; it includes ableistic discourse as well. Ableism is the belief that a person’s body and mind should conform to socially constructed ideas of alleged normalcy, intelligence and excellence; it rationalizes discrimination and prejudice against persons it defines as inferior because they do not function the same way as someone who is entirely typical of mind and body. For the autistic community, ableist language includes unsolicited advice about how to “manage” or “ease” their condition. Unwarranted advice is most often made under the assumption, no matter how well-intentioned, that a person’s daily existence is something to be fixed. Samantha Renke, a disability rights campaigner, explains, “you belittle them and their ability to make decisions about their own wellbeing.” Claiming to know more about a condition than the person who possesses it and then relaying that information in an attempt to help is not support. Ableism also takes shape in the form of talking over autistic people or speaking as if they aren’t there, which sends the message that they are not capable of understanding your comments nor deemed worthy of being spoken to directly. Every autistic person experiences autism differently, and this includes the way they communicate. For example, some autistic people are nonverbal but that does not mean that they are unable to understand you. Simply because autistic communication does not always fit within pigeonholed parameters of language does not permit non-autistic people to treat them as invisible and exclude them from conversations.
To effectively combat ableism, allies cannot pick and choose when to support autistic individuals. Choosing to disengage from an uncomfortable situation in which an autistic person is being discriminated against is yet another instance of privilege. Marginalized individuals encounter oppression and discrimination every day and they do not have the option of taking respite or hiding. To act in solidarity with the autistic community means not justifying yourself for occasionally turning a blind eye towards ableism because in the past you have shown support for an autistic individual, or that you follow various autistic social media accounts, or that you have been to a few conventions for autism. Providing support should not be a novel occurrence. Being an ally is not easy or simple, nor is it meant to be, but it is necessary to continuously show support for people of all intersecting communities so that they can feel safe within their own identities.
Brown, L. (2011, August 4). Identity-first language. https://autisticadvocacy.org/about-asan/identity-first-language/.
Kashtan, M. (2020, October 3). Privilege, Responsibility, and Nonviolence. The Fearless Heart. https://thefearlessheart.org/privilege-responsibility-and-nonviolence/.
Renke, S. (2020, February 11). You’re probably being ableist and don’t even know it. Metro. https://metro.co.uk/2020/02/11/what-does-being-ableist-mean-12221655/.