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Who should lead the autism rights movement?

Posted Oct 07 2011 8:10pm

An article up on the Washington Times Communities poses the question: Who should lead the autism rights movement? The article cites an amazing discussion that has been going on at The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism .

If you ask me, “who should lead the autism rights movement?” the answer is simple. No one. Emphasis on one. As in no one person can or should. We are talking about too diverse a group of people for any one person to lead.

Frankly, I think a leader/follower idea isn’t right anyway. Part of this is my own personal bias. I am always suspicious of people who want to lead. Especially people who are absolutely sure of their positions and never waiver from them. That’s just a recipe for disaster. I shy away from people who don’t understand that just because someone doesn’t want to lead, that doesn’t mean that he/she wants to follow. I run from people who are too enamored with leadership and power.

One comment out of the TPGTA series that has resonated with a number of people came from one of Zoe’s posts: “It goes like this: ‘Some parents just want disabled children to speak and disabled adults to shut up.’”

It pretty well sums up much of the divide, and much of the question of “who should lead”. Autism is a spectrum. There is are divisions between adults and parents, and the degree of challenge the autistic faces. Not all “high functioning” autistics are self-advocates. Not all “low functioning” autistics are not self advocates. (and, yes, I hate those “functioning” terms). We need people to advocate for the rights of all on the spectrum. We need advocates who have experiences relevant to the various parts of the spectrum.

That means we need people, plural, call them leaders if you will, who will represent the self-advocates. We need people who will represent those who, for whatever reason, can’t or don’t self-advocate. Most of all, we need these people to work together. To not only be the allies of autistics, but allies of each other.

There are many things that parents like myself—parents of young children with great challenges—should realize. This, of course, in my own humble opinion. I’ll list only a few.

It is in our children’s own best interest to be allies with self advocates. They not only can teach us things, but the fact is our kids are the minority. Seriously. First, there is a big population of unidentified adults out there. Kids are the minority, even amongst autistics. Even if you have problems accepting that, the “classic” autistic kid is the minority even amongst the autistic children of today. For example , most parents report their autistic kids are getting letter grades. Only 2.4% were reported by parents as “can’t speak”.

A common theme I read is from parents writing, “self-advocates are not as disabled as my kid. They can’t relate.” I really dislike the “more disabled than” idea, but accepting that—we parents aren’t as disabled as our kids either. Self advocates can have an understanding of our kids just as we can. Self advocates may have different priorities than our kids. And that’s where being allies comes into play. We support their priorities, they support those of our kids.

Whatever your goal for your kid, improvement, cure, recovery, education…whatever it is, isn’t “becoming capable of self-advocacy” a laudable goal for any kid, disabled or not?

Being an autistic self-advocate (or an autistic non-self-advocate) doesn’t make someone right, nice, friendly, or likeable. Just like being a parent doesn’t make one right, nice, friendly or likeable. No one is saying you have to accept whatever a self-advocate has to say, just like self-advocates don’t have to accept what parents have to say.

The thing about writing a piece like this is that it is sure to annoy someone. Many someones. As Ari Ne’eman wrote in his piece for TTPGTA: “As far as I’m concerned, if we’re uncomfortable, we’re making progress and we shouldn’t stop.”

Back to the idea of leadership. With the passing of Steve Jobs this week, I’ve heard his address to Stanford Graduates a number of times on the radio. One paragraph keeps standing out in my mind:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

He didn’t say, “find someone to follow” or “be a leader and find some people to follow you”. He said, “Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.”

We don’t need a leader. We need leaders. Thousands of them. That’s why it’s a “movement” not a political party.

  1. Jackie:
    What irritates me is similar to the statement from Zoe's post, about parents ignoring adults with a form of Autism. I have Hyperacusis, when children cry or scream it triggers my anxiety & fight or flight response. Everytime I read a parent commenting people should understand when their child with Autism meltdowns. I tell them I have Asperger's Syndrome and Hyperacusis. That almost no one understands when I say sounds cause me pain.I tell them they have every right to advocate for their child, but if things continue the way they've been going, once their child becomes an adult, nobody will care that they have Autism. They will have to pretend it doesn't affect them unless it's obvious. That parents will say if you can't handle crying children, you should stay at home. Restaurants will have staff telling you patronizingly that you're in a family restaurant, when you ask to sit away from children, even if you do inform them of your condition. If parents want to see the world is a safe place for their chikd with Autism, they need to become involved with providing advocacy for adults with Autism. I'm sure it might be easier for parents to not upset themselves with the reality that once their child becomes an adult, they will not be accepted. Yet that is the future their children will face if things don't change.

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