When it comes to acknowledgement and understanding of autism, we have come a long way in the past few decades. It’s easy to forget that this condition was once understood to exist only in two states, “high-functioning” and “low-functioning”, that it was predominantly diagnosed only in young, white men, and that was forgotten about once children reached 16 and entered adulthood.
With a neurodiversity movement taking influence from disability rights activism and the LGBT+ rights movement, discussions have shifted towards understanding, support, acceptance and even taking pride in the condition.
There are significant attempts to break down stigmas, taboos and barriers, opening up discussions that broaden our understanding, make us question the gendered and racialised nature of autism diagnosis, pushing for a better understanding of autism in women, in trans and nonbinary people, and in people of colour.
We have broadened our understanding to accept that autistic people can have and maintain personal, romantic and sexual relationships. The community has allowed many to realise both our need for acceptance, and for support.
However, with any progressive movement comes backlash, and within spheres of discussion around autism, it is no different. Whether it’s the rising anti-vaxxer movement, or those who insist on attempting to cure children by force-feeding them bleach, there was always going to be an eventual push back.
In many online spaces, this surprisingly comes from non-autistic parents of autistic children. Parental support groups are notorious within communities of autistic people for being unfriendly and unsupportive. A practice of gatekeeping has come about within parent-focused spaces where autistic people are not present from the start.
These individuals silence autistic voices by either claiming they’re “not autistic enough”, and that their communication skills online somehow disqualify them from participating in discussions. Or, if they are unable to communicate clearly, they’re “too autistic” or have “too many problems”, leading to many being completely ignored, presumed incompetent.
This is a dangerous and hypocritical precedent to set, and has its roots in discrimination. Dismissing autistic people due to internalised bias, claiming they “aren’t like” your child and couldn’t possibly understand them, is a tactic that allows any group to fully ignore autistic experiences despite the fact that non-autistic parents do not know what being autistic is actually like.
Accusations and rumours fly within these spaces, with a concerted attempt to silence autistic people’s voices, with parents being supported by small groups of practitioners suggesting they’re able to somehow cure a neurological condition.
Looking at discussions around prominent activist Greta Thunberg, you can see this silencing in action. Many climate change deniers who wish to discredit her use her autism diagnosis to completely disqualify anything she says, invalidating a loud and outspoken climate change activist and harming attitudes toward all autistic and disabled people in the process. It’s a quick and easy method of silencing by a press unwilling to recognise a wider problem with our climate.
However, this isn’t even the worst way that autism has been twisted to explain or excuse bigotry or cruelty. In 2017, James Damore made claims that it was due to him being autistic that he wrote and published a 10-page document arguing that men should be working in the tech industry more than women. In the same year, media sources claimed that Stephen Paddock, the man responsible for the Las Vegas shooting that claimed 58 lives, may have been autistic. Other studies have examined Elliot Rodger, the white man behind the Isla Vista murders and the publishing of a 140-page long, sexist and racist manifesto, linking his autism to his violence. There is a real danger to using autism to explain away white male violence.
In many spaces, autism has become a get out of jail free card for cruelty and bigotry. Whether it’s the media justifying white male violence, or entitled and privileged autistic men using their diagnosis to defend discriminatory acts as simply the way they understand the world, each position reinforces dangerous stereotypes that a wider progressive neurodiversity movement is still fighting to discredit.
There are so many reasons that these need to be tackled. Neurological differences need to be clearly understood, not just exist as an easy target for a media unwilling to recognise discriminatory violence.
Parents need to recognise the validity of their autistic peers or they may never recognise the voices of their own autistic children. Stereotypes need to remain broken, else we will take steps backwards, continue to wrongly isolate autistic people in mental health institutions and be treated as threats, rather than people.
Errol Kerr is chair of Autistic UK
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies