"I Just Think I'm a Problem": We Are All "Like That"
One of the things that inspired this series of articles on privilege was seeing the movie The Help. I've already written about how much it bothered me that the movie, which I enjoyed, depicted a cartoon version of racism that nobody sane would see themselves in. I didn't talk about how unrealistic it was that all of the African American characters seemed to believe that they should be treated equally. None of them showed any evidence that they had internalized the message that they deserved to be treated as property. None of them thought that white people really were smarter than them, and that it would be better to leave things as they were.
Leaving out that part simplifies the story, and it might make the characters easier to relate to, but the most terrible thing about bigotry, and the hardest to admit, is that it makes the people who are its subjects believe that they are worse than the people who despise them.
Another inspiration for this series was the ruckus surrounding a piece that parent advocate Robert Rummel-Hudson wrote about bigoted language in the movie The Change Up. Zoe, an autistic self-advocate complained about Robert's piece, and Robert and a bunch of other parents descended on Zoe with such force that Ari Ne'eman felt the need to call others to rally around.
And Robert treated Ari, who is the only openly autistic person ever to receive a presidential appointment, and all of the other self-advocates who were angry with him, like angry trolls. And other parent advocates seemed to me to offer Robert nothing but support.
This made me angry enough that I wrote this.
This week, The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism is hosting a series of letters between Zoe, Robert, and Ari. Zoe wrote the first letter, which was published today, and which you should read.
This is my loose and lengthy response to it.
"I just think I'm a problem."
An autistic teenager said that to me after the bullying he was undergoing at his school became so bad that his family withdrew him for homeschooling. He knew the school was a problem, and he knew the way other kids treated him was a problem. But he also thought that he himself was a problem. And that breaks my heart.
And it's why it matters to me that parents of kids with autism learn to understand and respect autistic people.
I learned to manage my autistic behavior through self-hatred. I was taught that who I was, the way my brain works, the way I relate to my body, the way I relate to other people-- all of these things were not merely different, not just things that I needed to mitigate in order to relate to others-- I was taught that they were retarded and lazy and crazy and nasty, and I learned to behave in ways that were completely contrary to what I actually wanted or needed. I was not taught these things through abuse or direct messages. I was taught them just by growing up in the world.
And I created an empty life that I hated, around a fictional version of myself that I hated, around a hidden and deformed real self that I hated most of all.
Autistic people have so many other problems that we tend not to notice how much we have internalized the contempt with which society views us. But we have.
We cannot help being part of a society that does not value people who have brains that work differently, who cannot always communicate at a sophisticated level, and who have difficulty relating effectively to other people. Part of the way that society works is by punishing people who cannot follow its rules: we keep people as marginally polite as they are by shunning those whose rudeness goes beyond a certain point.
And we all do this, even people who have autism. I hurt people's feelings all the time because I do not follow the social rules that I am expected to. And other autistic people hurt my feelings all the time because they do not follow the rules that I expect them to. I expect others to adjust when I do not understand the rules myself, but it's awfully hard to offer others the sort of accommodation I need.
I know that the other person has autism. I know what it is. I've got a little, myself. But it's still hard, not just not to be hurt, but not to feel that the hurt was intentional.
And not to want to shun that person.
I am a fat person. Some of you are wondering why I would point out something so obvious, but not all of you have seen me. I mention it because of this weird thing I do. When I am around other people, and a TV show or movie includes jokes about fat people, I laugh. Audibly. And I'm not amused at all. But it's completely reflexive-- I have to think and deliberately stop myself if I want not to do it.
I am fatter than I am supposed to be. Society seeks to reinforce a certain type of body by ridiculing people who look like me. I feel that I am allowed to participate in society because I show that I understand that I fail its standards by participating when people like me are ridiculed. I may not be able to follow the rule, but I understand, and I agree with it. Fat people are funny. I know my place. Ha ha ha.
I think this kind of thing happens in a much more complex way with people who consistently behave in ways that fail to meet social standards. We in the autism community want to show that we understand those standards, even though we cannot follow them, by marginalizing others for their failures.
I love the letter that Zoe wrote to Robert, but I think she also leaves out the most terrible part of bigotry:
Some parents just want disabled children to speak and disabled adults to shut up.
For the record, I am aware that parent advocates are Not All Like That. I have had great discussions with parents who are Not Like That. I don’t think of my own parents as being Like That at all. And though you, Robert, have been Like That to me in the past, I don’t think you’re Like That all the time, or else you would not have agreed to hear what I have to say on this issue.
I suspect that we are all "Like That." I know that I am, sometimes. I want autistic adults to shut up when I don't like the way they say or the way that they say it. And if they are more apparently disabled than I am, I expect them to shut up if I tell them to. And a lot of the time, they do.
I do not treat people whose autism is more obvious than my own disrespectfully because I intend to-- it's the last thing I want to do-- but my sense of privilege is so deeply a part of me that I cannot help it.
Yes, we need to work on creating a more positive dialogue between parents and autistic adults-- that's one of the main things thAutcast is for-- but we also need to recognize that we are all conditioned to treat people with disabilities with pity and contempt rather than with respect. Even disabled people do.
And that to me is the reason this discussion matters. We need parents to work hard on listening when people with disabilities say things they don't want to hear. Not because it matters so very much how Robert treats Zoe, but because how he treats his daughter is so very important. The messages he sends her about how he acts when people with impaired communication are angry with him will shape the person she is.
This is why I get furious when I see other parent bloggers sending the message that autistic people should shut up unless they have something nice to say. I can be perfectly nice when I am talking about things I don't care about very much. But when it's an area where I feel too emotional, my social skills go away. That's not an excuse, I should still be nicer to people, but that's what I'm working with, and it's not unusual for autistic people.
I read all the time parents saying that autistic people shouldn't talk about something unless they can follow neurotypical social rules and be polite. For me, that would mean never talking about anything that really matters to me. And it scares me that kids are being steered away from important conversations because the manner in which they approach them is so abrasive.