What follows is my contribution to the This is Autism flash blog, where many wonderful people have pieces that bring to life the beauty of divergent neurology. They are positive and glorious and you will be enriched by reading them.
However, bear with me while I am slightly less sunny. I am recovering from a couple weeks of trying to be a part of the world and getting smacked down with one access fail after another. I am cranky.
Suzanne Wright is the co founder of Autism Speaks along with her husband Bob. Last week, she wrote a vile fear mongering piece of hate speech, which is not shocking because fear and demonization is Autism Speaks bread and butter. They have used fear and money to build an empire bent on wiping autistic people out of existence. What shocked me was that this piece struck a nerve with so many people who had overlooked Autism Every Day and I am Autism. She explained that autism is living in fear. In that we agree, but while her fear is of naked hopping autistic refrigerator raiders making parents lives dreadfully inconvenient, my fear is of people, fueled by the rhetoric of the Wrights and others of their ilk, who want me dead.
Ms. Wright, This is Autism, the Autism you helped create.
This is Autism: Autism is having to work too hard.
The cultural pressure to pass is so intense, my failed attempts sneak up on me. Being natural or relaxed in public is impossible. While I’m a few generations too old to have been subjected to ABA therapy, the ABA paradigm colors how the world views us. Indistinguishable is good. Anything else is dangerous.
This is Autism: Autism is having needs treated as preferences.
Recently, I was to be involved in a project, about which I was very excited, designed to further the empowerment of individuals with developmental disabilities, but my statement of access needs, in writing, through proper channels, was ignored. I was not warned ahead of time that the environment would contain the very seizure triggers I specifically mentioned in my registration. I tried to tough it out, but after three seizures (not counting absence seizures) in less than two days, I had to admit defeat. Understand, I was dealing with people who are professionals in the field of developmental disability. These are the people who should already get it. By no means is a seizure disorder autism, but I do not doubt that my autism is why my needs were not taken seriously. It has happened too many times to be a coincidence. Autistic needs are viewed as wants, then labeled Behaviors. We are expected to control those Behaviors, or have them trained out of us.
This is Autism: Autism is having to explain myself over and over when explaining is the hardest thing to do.
When I use verbal speech to communicate, understand I am meeting you considerably more than halfway. I am expending energy that takes away from my responsibilities and loved ones. My reserves are not unlimited. If I then have to explain the same thing over and over again because it “doesn’t make sense” to you when I “look normal” or because you “know this other individual with autism who does that just fine” you insult me.* If you cannot give me enough time to form words without talking over me and (incorrectly) finishing my thoughts, you are disrespectful.
This is Autism: Autism is knowing no matter what, the majority of people I encounter will always view me as a little less than fully human. That is your legacy, Ms. Wright. In eight short years, you changed the dialogue surrounding autism. That is powerful, and impressive, and so very wrong.
There is a dollar figure attached to my right to exist. Do not tell me it is not there. That is a lie. I see it every time I look in the mirror as if tattooed on my forehead. There exists a ledger; a balance sheet of what I contribute and what I take.
Intangibles count for nothing.
Joy counts for nothing.
Every op ed piece I read defending food stamps or other benefits bend over backwards to point out the majority of recipients are employed. The majority are good people. Good people work.
But I do not work. I am autistic, and being the autistic I am means I am real world, social model disabled. I do not work because I cannot. There are a dozen hypothetical ‘what if…’ or ‘should be…’ scenarios in which I could hold down a job, but that is not my reality.
How much of myself do I have to lay bare for you to accept that work, as it exists today, is a thing I cannot do? I tried, and I had to choose between powering through another year or two that would kill me or come damn close, or admitting I cannot so my children could grow up with a mother.
My childhood was infused with a popular feminist theme. I was taught that a Real Woman is financially independent. She doesn’t need a man be it a husband or larger entity (The Man) to support her basic needs or the needs of her offspring. A Real Woman knows children are an accessory to a career, not something one builds a life around. I regularly heard the words “housewife” and “brood mare” used interchangeably. I am loathe to believe this is real feminism, because empowerment that exists on the denigration and neglect of other’s needs empowers no one.
Growing up, I was also told over and over again my worth was tied to doing Great Things. That lesser people lived ordinary lives, and that for me to live an ordinary life would be tantamount to complete failure. In order to be a worthy human, I needed to be financially independent while actively improving society. Nothing less would do.
So do I own my complete failure, or do I redefine what it means to do Great Things? I embrace both, which yields a very messy work in progress.
I started to apply for disability once, but every worker I spoke to asked the same question: if you are too disabled to work, how can you be a fit mother? I was told, repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that if I submitted an SSI application, a Child Protective Services investigation would be in my future. That is not a risk I could take. My children need me. I know this as much as I know anything. I am the best possible mother on earth for those particular children. That is not negated by my sometimes inability to speak, or walk, or work.
I cannot do it, and I am sick to my teeth justifying myself on this. I had to justify my dirt poor, EBT dependent self daily. Now I am privileged enough to not be poor. Now I am loved unconditionally for exactly who I am by a partner who can work, but I refuse to hide behind that veneer of acceptability. I cast off strangers’ easy assumption that I choose to stay home. If I could choose, I likely would stay home, but I don’t really have that choice. I’m too disabled for gainful employment, and it would be a slap in the face to too many people I respect to fake that.
So here I sit, grateful for the privilege of things I still do not take for granted. Indoor plumbing on demand. Food my children can actually eat. Health insurance, and the ability to make copays. But all those privileges; privileges that should be rights, do not make me a better person than I was when I bartered baked goods made with food stamp purchases for enough cash to make sure my cancer was still in remission.
I am just as autistic,
I am just as disabled, and
I am just as valuable.