3 Late New Year’s Resolutions I’d Like the Autism Community to Make
I have three resolutions I’d like members of the autism community to consider adding to their New Year’s resolution lists for 2016.
1. Let’s resolve to remove the word “blame” from all discussions of autism.
That means no more headlines “blaming” autism on genes/environmental factors/take your pick, or any more online or in-print discussions about “the autism blame games.” The word “blame” is potent, often poisonous and often intertwined with “shame.” The reason for the “blame” ban is simple: when we use the word, we send the message to autistic people that their autism is something to be blamed for and something to be ashamed of. No one wants to be blamed for their identity or their existence. Parents don’t want “blame,” either, for it can set off a spiral into guilt and other corrosive emotions. When we see the word, let’s explain to the writer or the speaker why it’s not OK to use it in this context.
2. Let’s resolve to try to treat each other with respect when we disagree.
I am not talking about censorship, not disagreeing or not standing up for critical issues, like civil rights. Civil discourse is what I’m after. I think the guidelines of civility set out by the University of Texas at San Antonio are a good start. I like the way the discussion about a thorny autism issue unfolded with respect on the blog Diary of a Mom. That said, I think it’s helpful for those of us who are not autistic to recognize that some autistics have difficulty communicating and may come off as tactless to some, but that’s not their intention. I’d like all of us to consider that when we respond in words and tone that are charged and disrespectful, we trigger anxiety (often and especially for people on the spectrum) and ignite division (often and especially between autistics and parents). When we show respect to each other, we speak from strength as we demand respect in courtrooms, classrooms, legislatures and the world at large.
3. Let’s resolve to make connections this year.
Instead of automatically hunkering down with people who share our worldview, let’s find some commonalities with people we don’t automatically agree with. While we may not agree on the role of genetics or the value of various autism therapies, perhaps we can agree that, say, providing augmentative communication devices to autistics is a good thing. Working together on some things may make it easier to fulfill resolutions #1 and #2, after all.
Another way to fulfill this resolution is to reach out to someone with a different perspective. That’s why I asked a few people (mainly writers and activists who are autistic or parents of autistic children) for their opinions before trying to publish this piece. Their responses challenged me to rethink this piece and reinforced my conviction that we need to create safe spaces online for dialogue.
These commenters expressed empathy and advocacy for people with a different perspective. A writer on the spectrum suggested I consider “that parents often feel blame when discussion turns to cause, too.”
A parent advocate reminded me, “While mutual respect is a wonderful goal and is tremendously important, it can so often be a false premise — i.e. parent or so-called advocacy organization does something horribly dehumanizing to autistic people and then autistic activists are chided for not being ‘respectful’ of those people when standing up for their own and their community’s dignity and most basic civil rights. So I’d caution that it’s far more nuanced than it sometimes appears.”
Having learned from them, I’ve asked myself two questions before commenting and posting: “Do I want to change this situation or do I want to be right? Do I want to react or do I want to learn?” I’ve also learned that when someone reacts in a way that hurts me initially, I need to pause, leave my hurt on the shelf, then come back and ask myself if there is something I can learn from them.
I realize my resolutions are idealistic, akin to asking for peace on Earth in an election year. But as I wrote them, I kept thinking of two quotes. One is from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.” The other is from a holiday hymn: “Let there be peace on Earth and let it begin with me.”
Personally, I resolve to start the new year with a dose of idealism and end it, I hope, with a larger measure of civility.
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