diversity is beautiful cartoon

Diversity is Beautiful

ableism, Autism, comics, Disability, Education, Infographics, Neurodiversity

One of the most frequent questions I hear from parents of autistic children is, “how do I tell them they are autistic?” They want to explain autism to their child in a positive way; to frame the information as something that empowers.

My favorite way to approach conversations about autism and other forms of disability, especially (but not only!) with children, is rather than singling out the autistic or otherwise disabled child, begin with the larger context of diversity.

Diversity is, after all, an essential ingredient in a thriving natural environment; it is valuable for its own sake.

What I love about this approach is that it de-centers any one “typical” way of being, unlike the old way of explaining autism as a brain with a set of deficits that makes it something other than normal. There is no one correct or even best kind of brain, any more than there is one correct or best kind of dog or bird.

I have this “Diversity is Beautiful” cartoon for sale in my shop, on posters and mugs and a bunch of other cool products. If you choose to purchase something from there, your support is greatly appreciated! But I am also offering free printable PDFs (see below) so that anyone may use this information. As with all of my infographics, you have permission use these for personal, educational, and any other not-for-profit purpose, retaining credit to me (and any other sources listed in my graphics).

diversity is beautiful cartoon

The Simple version of Diversity is Beautiful gives you more space to create your own accessible explanations for the concepts in the image. I recommend this one for audiences with less complex receptive language and/or reading skills.

Image description: title is “diversity is beautiful.” First row of drawings shows a variety of animals, with the caption “diversity in the animal world.” Second row shows an assortment of kids: from left to right is a person with a limb (arm) difference, person using a wheelchair, person with no visible disability, person signing “hello,” person using forearm crutches, person wearing glasses, person using a white/probing cane. Caption is “diversity of people.” Third row shows four heads with smiling faces and on foreheads are drawings of multicolored brains, caption is “diversity of human brains.” ©Erin Human 2017

Printable PDF:
Diversity is Beautiful (Simple)

"diversity is beautiful" cartoon w explanations

The version called Diversity is Beautiful (Explained) has a more lengthy explanation for each form of diversity shown. This is a nice choice for anyone who does not wish to create their own script, or would like people to be able to access the image’s concepts independently (for example, as a poster in a school classroom).

Image description: title is “diversity is beautiful.” First row of drawings shows a variety of animals, with the caption “diversity in the animal world / there are millions of different kinds of animals – more than we can count!” Second row shows an assortment of kids: from left to right is a person with a limb (arm) difference, person using a wheelchair, person with no visible disability, person signing “hello,” person using forearm crutches, person wearing glasses, person using a white/probing cane. Caption is “diversity of people / people come in a great variety of shapes, sizes, genders, abilities, and appearances – we are all unique!” Third row shows four heads with smiling faces and on foreheads are drawings of multicolored brains, caption is “diversity of human brains / no two brains are alike, but we have names for different types – like ADHD, autistic, dyslexic, typical, & more!” ©Erin Human 2017

Printable PDF:
Diversity is Beautiful (Explained)

 

 

 

Neurodiversity 101

Autism, Disability, Infographics, Neurodiversity

neurodiversity 101

Neurodiversity 101

It’s a big word for a simple idea!

neuro/brain [image of head with brain]
+
diversity/range of different kinds [image of landscape with trees, water, animal]
= a range of different kinds of human brain

neurodiversity is not
– a belief system
– a personal opinion
– a political position
– a theory

by itself, it is just a neutral fact of human life:
neurodiversity exists!

[image of text/speech boxes]
more and more, people are saying they
are pro-neurodiversity
support neurodiversity
celebrate neurodiversity
those are personal opinions; people may agree or disagree that neurodiversity is a good thing, but that it is REAL is undeniable.

bonus neurodiversity vocab words:
neurotypical: having the most common, typical kind of brain
neurodivergent: having any kind of brain that is not neurotypical
neurodiverse: having a variety of people with neurotypical and neurodivergent brains; refers to a group or group environment, such as a family or workplace

© Erin Human 2017
for more information:
erinhuman.com
autisticfamilies.org

This infographic also comes in a printable PDF:

neurodiversity 101

Autism Acceptance 101

Autism, Disability, Neurodiversity, Parenting

Autism Acceptance 101

Image is an infographic with the following text:
guide for parents
Autism Acceptance 101
Autism Acceptance sounds simple enough, but what does it really mean for parents of autistic children?
[photo of a red tricycle on a sidewalk]
Autism Acceptance is NOT:
– ignoring challenges for parents or children
– giving up on your child or having low expectations
– pretending that life is all unicorn farts and rainbows!
[photo of a smiling child on a swing]
Autism Acceptance IS:
– accepting that autism is an inextricable part of your child
– acknowledging your child’s unique challenges & needs
– providing supports & helping your child thrive….
as an autistic person!
Erin Human
facebook.com/theeisforerin
erinhuman.com
This infographic also comes in a printable PDF:
Autism Acceptance 101

How many people are affected by ableism?

ableism, Autism, Disability, Neurodiversity

[The following text is also a transcript for the featured image description]

How many people are affected by ableism?

Everyone is affected by ableism.

* At any given time, about 1 in 5 people worldwide has a disability.

* People who were not born disabled, or aren’t currently disabled, may become disabled later in life.

* Some people who do not identify as disabled or recognize themselves as disabled are in fact disabled and directly affected by ableism; for example, people with psychiatric disabilities such as depression and anxiety.

* Disability Rights are highly intersectional; civil rights issues for women, people of color and LGBTQ+ people are intertwined with disability issues. Disability rights also overlap with issues such as healthcare, education, poverty, and more.

[sidebar has an image of a caution sign and the following text]

CAUTION

Descriptions of ableism as a disorder is this series are satirical and not to be taken literally.

Ableism is not a form of mental illness or psychiatric disability; in fact, blaming bigotry or prejudice on mental illness or any other disability… IS ABLEIST!

Intro: Ableism Awareness Month

Part 1: What is ableism?

Part 3: What causes ableism?

Part 4: Is there a cure for ableism?

Part 5: Ableism Therapies

Ableism Awareness Wrapup Post

What is Ableism?

ableism, Autism, Disability, Education

[The following text is also a transcript for the featured image description]

What is ableism?

Ableism is a cultural disorder that can affect people’s language and communication skills, social relationships, and other interpersonal behaviors.

Symptoms may include:

* Deficits in respectful, disability-inclusive communicate skills; may include the repetitive use of language that discriminated against or excludes disabled people, and a failure to provide communication access to disabled people.

* Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity with disabled people, ranging (for example) from lack of empathy toward disabled people to failure to include disabled people in social activities; in severe forms, may include abuse, homicide/filicide, and/or total apathy toward the abuse of disabled people.

* Restricted patterns of discriminatory behavior, for example: insistence on segregating, mocking, and/or abusing disabled people; unusual interest in “inspiration pornography” that objectifies and demeans disabled people, etc.

Ableism is any form of discrimination or negative bias toward disabled people or disability in general.

Intro: Ableism Awareness Month

Part 2: How many people are affected by ableism?

Part 3: What causes ableism?

Part 4: Is there a cure for ableism?

Part 5: Ableism Therapies

Ableism Awareness Wrapup Post

 

April is Ableism Awareness Month

ableism, Autism, Disability, Education, Neurodiversity

For several years, autism organizations led by non-autistic parents and professionals have focused on Autism Awareness in the month of April.

Autistic people have pushed back on the Awareness campaigns (and their usual pathologizing, othering frameworks) by asking for less talk of awareness and more acceptance for autistic people of all ages.

This year I was inspired to flip the old script with a new kind of Awareness campaign:

This April is Ableism Awareness Month

Join me in the coming weeks as I roll out some basic information and awareness of this epidemic of ableism, including examples and symptoms, treatments and alternatives, and more.

Part 1: What is ableism?

Part 2: How many people are affected by ableism?

Part 3: What causes ableism?

Part 4: Is there a cure for ableism?

Part 5: Ableism Therapies

Ableism Awareness Wrapup Post

5 Supports That Changed My Life

Autism, Identity, Neurodiversity

It’s been over a year and a half now since I first began to realize I was autistic, and what originally kicked off that process of self-discovery was that the demands of ordinary life were beginning to outstrip my personal resources, and I needed to know why. I’ve since heard this described by autistic people in different ways, from “rolling burnout,” to “my workarounds were no longer working,” to Cynthia Kim’s phrase “playing life in hard mode.” I myself often described myself as being in survival mode on a daily basis, and my therapist once said that I needed to get “out of the basement level of functioning.”

When I sought a diagnosis in spring of 2015, there was some magical thinking involved in my expectations for psychological diagnosis and therapy. My goal was to go from being a flailing, falling-apart passing-as-neurotypical person to a thriving autistic person, which I still think is an excellent goal. However, it doesn’t happen by magic and as it turns out my psychotherapist was not the Blue Fairy.

bluefairy

Image is from Disney’s Pinocchio: The Blue Fairy points a magic wand at the nose of Pinocchio the puppet, who is sitting on a shelf amongst pots of paint.

It’s been a gradual, trial-and-error filled journey, but I’m finally getting to a place where I know what kind of supports I need in order to thrive, and can access them. By no means should anyone assume that what works for me will work for them, which I’m sure my readers already understand. But here are some of the supports that have been integral to my ability to cope with ordinary life without feeling like I am overdrawing my energy bank every single day. These things have gotten me out of survival mode and made me feel more like myself again.

BoseQC15

Image is a pair of black and silver Bose QuietComfort noise canceling headphones.

Noise canceling headphones. The particular pair that I own are Bose QuietComfort 15 (I asked around and was told by a few people that the older 15s are a bit better than the new 25s). This was one of the first things I did for myself after getting diagnosed with autism: I stalked eBay until I found the make and model I wanted for a good price. They are expensive, but if you are noise sensitive and can afford to splurge or save up for them, they are well worth the cost ($250-300 on Amazon, I got mine for under $200 on eBay). Bose QC are high quality, comfortable, and are wireless when you use the noise canceling feature only (that runs on a AAA battery). If you want to listen to music with these you have to use a headphones cord. Bose does also make a Bluetooth enabled pair so you can listen to music wirelessly – those are called SoundLink ($250-280 on Amazon).

Lately I have not needed noise protection quite as much, but for a while I wore my headphones every day, and on low-spoon days (when I didn’t get enough sleep and/or was recovering from a social event) sometimes I wore them all day long. You can still hear people talking at average volume in a room with you, so I could hear my kids and husband and do everything I needed to do – but they dampen really loud and/or high pitched sounds, and also ambient sounds like the refrigerator running, iPads playing cartoons, and so on. I didn’t even realize how much that kind of background noise was zapping my energy until it was gone. The downside of these, besides the cost, is that while they are super comfy by themselves, I have trouble wearing them at the same time as my reading glasses. So people who wear glasses all the time may have some issues with fit. Also, they are (obviously) conspicuous, and I can tell you from experience that if you wear them out in public people WILL stare.

Herebuds

Image shows a pair of white Here Active Listening earbuds in their case, a white iPhone with the Here logo on the screen, and a pair of sunglasses. The sunglasses make me laugh but I choose this photo because it shows the buds, case and app.

Noise canceling ear buds. Yes, I have noise canceling headphones AND earbuds. After I purchased my headphones I started hearing a lot of buzz (no puns intended) in the autistic community about Here Active Listening earbuds. These actually do a lot more than noise canceling – basically they are a smartphone-controlled EQ system for your ears – but I mainly use them to block sound. They started off as a Kickstarter project and now are issuing a trial run of the buds, which means you must sign up on a waiting list, and when a pair are ready for you, you receive a code in order to purchase one pair. For me this took exactly 6 weeks (plus a 2-3 days’ shipping), which seems typical from what I’ve heard. Currently a set of Here buds costs $200 but once out of the trial phase they will likely go up to $250.

I was nervous about buying Here buds because, like many people, I worried about whether they would be uncomfortable. I have small ears and many earbuds do not fit me at all. Here buds come with two or three different sizes of squishy flexible bud attachments, and yes, they fit me well. There are some times when I don’t like the feeling of them in my ears, but most of the time, they’re fine. I would say if you HATE earbuds do not get these, but if you can tolerate a soft earbud, they are pretty comfortable.

The EQ itself is very good, has powerful noise canceling ability and can be adjusted in many ways, by turning up and down the decibels, bass, treble, etc. It comes with a number of preset “filters” and also a custom live EQ setting. One common complaint is that it does not have a directional microphone; that means you can tune out everyone’s voices or tune in all voices, but you can’t tune in the person sitting across a table from you while blocking out the people behind you – though I’ve read they may try to add that feature in a future model.

My main complaint is that my Here buds are a little buggy. Sometimes I hear a buzz in the left one. And I often have trouble with trying to disconnect them from Bluetooth and reconnect within a single day – so it’s usually easier to just leave them on, and switch back and forth between a noise blocking filter like “Office” and a tune-in filter like “Human Speech” if I need to, for example, hear the kids playing in another room, and then tune out again. These issues can be resolved by resetting the buds, but that’s kind of a pain in the ass if I’m in a state of overload and needing relief. Even so, I use these quite a lot. They are less cumbersome than my headphones, I enjoy not having something on my head when I use them, and they’re so small and discreet that it’s very convenient to throw them in my bag when I leave the house in case I need them while I’m out. For anyone with noise sensitivity who doesn’t mind earbuds, I recommend them highly (more than the headphones, if you have to choose).

drugs

Stock photo of an orange bottle of prescription drugs lying on top of a notepad that says Rx. Note: these are NOT my actual pills.

Prescription drugs. This is NOT a support I am comfortable recommending to just anyone, since everyone is different and some people do not do well with medications and some choose not to take them, which is their right. However, I wanted to include meds because for one thing, it’s the truth – they have helped me immensely – and for another, this is me doing my little part to push back against ableist attitudes toward psychiatric medications. I view meds as just another support, one that people should be able to freely choose for themselves, and hopefully should be able to get help finding one that really works for them.

A thing about being a neurodivergent person, particularly one raised and socialized as a girl, is that you tend to defer to anyone in anything resembling a position of authority, even when you know they are wrong. You’re pretty sure they’re wrong. But they probably know better so maybe they are right? I won’t go into all the boring details but I took an antidepressant that wasn’t helping me, instead of the ADD med I knew I needed, for nine months, because I didn’t fully trust myself to know better than a doctor how I felt and what would be good for me. Eventually I found a better doctor and a better support.

Taking a drug doesn’t mean that I don’t accept my neurology – if anything, I am better able to appreciate the beauty of my ADD-autistic mind now that I am not scraping the bottom of the barrel for the inner resources to function. I don’t feel like someone else, I feel like my real self, the self I was before things got overwhelming. Maybe if I could move out to the seaside and live in a wifi enabled cottage and my kids were a little older and more self-sufficient or I had more help – and if life were simpler, maybe I wouldn’t need meds, but right now my environment is such that I need a little pharmaceutical support and I am not ashamed of that. Nor should you be if you need that too.

(Side note that I dislike the terminology of “attention deficit disorder” (I mean, really!) but am using it to be understood by a broad audience. I would love a better term, maybe attention divergence?)

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 2.25.55 PM

Image is a screenshot of my Habitica browser page: at the top left are my avatar and stats, with my party’s avatars lined up to the right. Below that from right to left are lists of: Habits, Dailies, To-Dos, and Rewards.

Habitica. Oh how I love Habitica!

When I got off the antidepressant and on ADD meds, the boost in mood was immediate, but executive functioning improvements still took more time and effort. Fortunately I remembered another autistic person I knew online had mentioned months back (when I was still too overwhelmed to even consider it) that they used Habitica to get their stuff done. I suspected that a task manager set up like a video game would be perfect for me, and I was right.

The above photo is a screenshot of my actual Habitica dashboard on my computer (I also have it on my phone but I use the desktop version more). At the top left is my avatar: yep I’m a Level 14 Rogue riding a golden lion and accompanied by a white bear cup, and proud of it. To the right of that are the members of my party, a social function you can use, or not. Below all that I let you see some of my tasks and how they’re organized on Habitica (as you can see I’m in a bit of a nest feathering phase with my to-do list).

I looooove this game. I don’t avoid or forget to check my to-do lists anymore because… it’s fun! This is another thing that I’m sure won’t work for everyone, but for me, getting a couple of pieces of virtual gold for doing the dishes feels motivating. It helps me manage my time, not stress about deadlines, and it also helps me to relax and enjoy my downtime because I don’t have to worry that I’m forgetting an important task.

downtime

Image is a photo my 4 year old took of me. In the foreground are chairs around a table with toys and a bowl on top; in the background I am seen from behind looking out through glass doors – a person with short brown hair and a gray sweater. To my right is a wooden hutch.

Downtime. This is not an app or a medication, but actual downtime. And plenty of it. Half a lifetime of “playing life in hard mode” has conditioned me to feel like I always have to be hustling just to keep up with the minimum standards of getting by. I’m aware that it doesn’t always appear as such from the outside, but I have always felt like I am working twice as hard just to do the things that everyone else seems to do with ease. A former friend once described me as “ambitious,” and at the time I was genuinely shocked by that characterization, but now I think I understand that being driven to succeed, somewhat perfectionistic, hard on myself, and religious about productivity, are adaptations I have cultivated (mostly unconsciously) in response to having an invisible disability.

But the cost of those adaptations is that I repeatedly push myself too far and crash. That worked well enough – I could hide it, mostly – when it was just me, but now I have a family, and it’s too hard on all of us for me to be crashing all the time.

So I am learning to build in lots of downtime as an essential support. It helps that my kids need this too (one of them especially does) so it’s not really an option to skip it. The actual *time* has been available ever seen we chose to homeschool, but the pressure I put on myself to “be productive” every day was still there. Additionally, getting to the point of rolling burnout meant that I never actually experienced relaxation – only crashes. There is no downtime in survival mode, only survival. So, all of the above supports enabled me to access downtime, and untangling myself from the internalized ableism that drove me to always-be-productive is necessary in order to truly relax.

(Easier said than done, I know.)

‘Cognitive Dissonance’ at NeuroQueer

Autism, Books, Neurodiversity, Writing

NeuroQueer is a very cool online journal whose editors are some of my personal heroes and favorite bloggers, so I’m honored and excited that they have published my review of In A Different Key: The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker. Many thanks to the wonderful Ibby Grace for making it happen!

***

The press release for In A Different Key : The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker says that this book was “written by two journalists personally committed to widening respect, understanding, and support for the loved ones in their families – and in every family touched by autism.” I want you to keep that sentence in mind as you read my review. I want you to note that the supposed object of this widened respect is the autistic person, and remember that as you read on.

In the preface the authors lay out the premise that this book will be about parents, and that “their two main goals – to find out why their children have autism and to make it go away – remain unfulfilled.” 

#SayTheWord, Not “Special Needs”

Autism, Disability, Education, Neurodiversity

The deeper I go into autistic culture and autistic rights activism, the more I find myself pulled to align my goals, my activism, and my identity with the broader disability rights community.

There’s a social media campaign going on right now to #SayTheWord – it was started by Lawrence Carter-Long, the Public Affairs Manager for the National Council on Disability, and is an active Twitter hashtag. The word, of course, is disabled.

The importance of this campaign is driven home to me over and over again as I see people performing ludicrous and painful contortions to avoid saying it. Reminder that when I make a criticism the way well-meaning people interact with disability, I am not attacking the people (parenthetical reminder that I was immersed in ableism myself not long ago), but inviting people to think about things in a different way.

Instead of saying disabled, nice people say things like:

  • differently abled
  • handicapable (yes, really)
  • physically/mentally challenged
  • special needs

It’s that last one, special needs, that I really want to take aim at, because I believe that seemingly innocuous phrase does serious damage to disability rights.

Every time someone says “special needs,” they reinforce the false notion that disabled people are asking for “extras” when we require accommodations, modifications, and/or support to access the same things that non-disabled people are able to access, such as education, public spaces, community involvement, and so on.

That’s the first problem, because access is not “special” for disabled people. It’s our right. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protects disabled Americans from discrimination, requires us to be accommodated in the workplace, and grants us equal access to public spaces and institutions. Other countries have laws in place to protect disability rights in similar ways.

The second problem is, the phrase “special needs” flies in the face of the social model of disability. The social model says, the disabled person’s inability to access things is due not to the disabled person’s failings, flaws, or deficits, but on the environment’s failure to provide access to the things. For example, a Blind person is not disabled because they can’t see, they are disabled because the world was set up by seeing people for seeing people and is made of many things that are inaccessible to non-seeing people.

To make a metaphor of it, imagine taking a brand new car and submerging it in a lake. The car is disabled; there’s nothing wrong with the car itself, it still does everything it’s designed to do, but it cannot operate in its current environment. If were in an environment well suited to its needs and purposes, like say a road, it would be able to do all the things a car does.

Or, take a look at this short (1 minute 26 second) animation explaining the social model – it has captions for those who have auditory processing or hearing disabilities.

So, when you say “special needs” instead of disabled, you are saying, this person needs all sorts of special things to help them do what we can do. We, the people who designed the buildings, the curriculum, the programs, the services, so that they are tailored to our needs – we don’t need anything special to access those things. Well of course!

Some people shy away from the word disabled because they feel that it’s stigmatizing. (Some people feel the same way about the word autistic.) But you don’t remove stigma by dancing around it and being coy and hush-hush about it. That actually increases stigma. Disabled is not a slur and never was; it’s a neutral description. I believe that the truth is people are not just uncomfortable with the word, they are uncomfortable with disability itself.

Disability is a normal part of human diversity; somewhere around 15-20% of the human population is disabled. Like other forms of diversity, the presence of disability in the world enriches humanity in ways that we probably can’t even imagine. Being disabled is not something to be ashamed of, and it’s not something to be scared of; it’s just a fact of life.

I #SayTheWord because I believe that only by saying it over and over again, with pride, with confidence, can we accept disability itself. Say it with me.

(Another great post on this topic is Disabled? I Am Legend! by unstrangemind. And if you are on Twitter, be sure to check out the #SayTheWord hashtag, which is full of excellent.)

buy me pizzaImage says “#saytheword / eisforerin.com / disabled not ‘special needs'” on a blue background.

Dangerous Assumptions

Autism, Books, Neurodiversity, Parenting

Trigger Warning: This post will discuss ableism, abuse and filicide of disabled children and adults, dehumanizing language about autistic people, and harmful behavioral therapy. I’m placing a trigger warning here as a matter of courtesy to readers who have forms of PTSD that could be triggered by these topics.

I recently read a book called Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorious. This remarkably compassionate and sensitive memoir relays the story of how Pistorious fell ill with a virus at age 12, went into a kind of waking coma for a few years, and reemerged into consciousness in his mid-teens. When he awoke from that blackout state he had very little control over his body, so that he was unable to signal to anyone in any way that he was again aware, listening, and wanting to communicate.

Eventually an attentive caretaker noticed that he seemed to want to communicate and she advocated for him to be evaluated as a potential AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) user. He was able to use eye gaze to prove that he could communicate, and eventually, with hard work and great passion, learned to use a few different AAC tools, including of course typing out his memoir of these experiences.

Meanwhile, I’ve also been reading Typed Words Loud Voices, a book of essays edited by Amy Sequenzia and Elizabeth J. Grace. It’s a slim volume out of Autonomous Press but I’ve been savoring it slowly. These essays (and a few poems) are all written by people who type to communicate; some are autistic, some are not, some are functionally non-speaking, some are partially non-speaking, and some speak most of the time but communicate better through typing than through talking. A common thread through these works is the experience of typed communication as freedom for the authors – freedom from the pain of being misunderstood.

A book review came out in The New Yorker last week that has set my mind on fire. In “Seeing the Spectrum,” Steven Shapin reviews the new book In A Different KeyThe Story of Autism, but he has a few choice editorial comments to make about autistic people himself. I’ll leave my thoughts on the book for another time as my copy is currently in the mail and I plan to read and review it fully.

One of Shapin’s remarks goes thusly: “It’s a searing experience to have a child who doesn’t talk, who doesn’t want to be touched, who self-harms, who demands a regularity and an order that parents can’t supply, whose eyes are not windows to their souls but black mirrors.”

His choice of words here strikes me as notably harsh and hateful, but the truth is, the sentiment beneath them is far from original. The idea that having a child who does not speak or like certain kinds of touch is soulless and tragic is, unfortunately, not only not new – it’s terribly commonplace. Shapin, like everyone else who parrots this narrative, leaves aside the question of why such a child might self-harm, but let’s not.

A common straw man argument that people use against autistic adults who argue for acceptance is that we are not like those so-called low functioning children and therefore cannot speak for them or even about them with any credibility. This argument assumes quite a lot: it assumes, for one thing, that none of us are parents to autistic children. It assumes that none of us were once non-speaking children who were thought to be “low functioning.” It assumes that functioning is a set of two static, binary categories. And it assumes – and this is so important to point out – that none of the autistic activists fighting for acceptance and equality online, in articles, in blog posts, and on Twitter, is actually non-speaking themselves.

Shapin makes the absurd distinction that “the capacity for independent living is an important factor in whether an individual is held to be ‘high functioning’ or ‘low functioning’.” I’ve also heard it said that the ability to hold a job is what qualifies an autistic person as high functioning. Of course, the ability to live on one’s own and hold a job are things that are only pathologized for disabled people, right? Lots of non-disabled people struggle with those things without being called low functioning.

If you stop to think for even a few seconds about what these labels mean, I think – I hope – you will see how little sense they make. Which label do you slap on a person who does not speak, needs significant daily live-in care, but can write a book? Which label do you slap on a person who speaks fluently, and lives alone, but relies on disability payments for income? I hope that it is obvious how arbitrary it is to qualify a human being’s “functionality” if you really consider it for a moment or two.

Of course, people like Shapin bolster their arguments by dismissing out of hand those who require assistance to use AAC – sometimes called “supported typing” or “facilitated communication” (FC). (The link in previous sentence goes to an awesome post on Unstrange Mind that includes videos of FC users in action.) FC was supposedly “debunked” in the 90s, but that research is now known to have been bad science, and there are many wonderful FC success stories, including that of Amy Sequenzia (co-editor of Typed Words mentioned above) and poet Tito Mukhopadhyay (one of the autistics featured in Spectrum: The Film). By dismissing both the autistics who speak and those who don’t but use assisted typing to communicate, the people who want to discredit the neurodiversity movement get us both coming and going.

Where am I going with this and how does it all relate? I want to return to Shapin’s statement about the searing experience, if you can bear to reread it: “It’s a searing experience to have a child who doesn’t talk, who doesn’t want to be touched, who self-harms, who demands a regularity and an order that parents can’t supply, whose eyes are not windows to their souls but black mirrors.”

By dismissing the voices of those who type to communicate, by erasing the souls of children who do not talk, Shapin and others who perpetuate this kind of narrative dehumanize autistic people. Dr. Ivar Lovaas, the founder of ABA therapy whom Shapin extols in his piece, once said of autistic children, “You have a person in the physical sense—they have hair, a nose and a mouth—but they are not people in the psychological sense.” I hope that if you ponder it for even a moment, that quote runs a chill down your spine.

This dehumanization and dismissal of autistics as not-people, as not really there, as soulless, as without thought, is precisely the kind of story – the kind of lie – that leads to abuse and murder of autistic children and adults. We don’t have to speculate that such awful things could happen; they do happen, with disturbing regularity. What sorts of things would people, in their carelessness, callousness, and sometimes cruelty, do to a person whom they think is not really, in any practical sense, there?

Martin Pistorious tells us in Ghost Boy of the awful things that were done to him when he was unable to communicate. He was treated like a thing, like an annoyance, treated worse than an animal, when people viewed him as not-a-person simply because he could not speak.

Aaron Greenwood tells us in Typed Words, “i was never ok with being treated like i needed to change. it is a horrible reality only to have people in power treat you like an object only without asking you or respecting you.”

It’s inexcusable, inhumane, and utterly irrational to persist in the belief that people who don’t speak do not think, when over and over and over again – given access to some usable communication tool – they tell us that they do.

There’s a concept from Disability history called “the least dangerous assumption.” As applied to people with communication differences, including non-speaking autistics, it means that in a very real way, the least dangerous assumption parents, teachers, caregivers, and the public can make about a person who currently is not able to verbally communicate is that they have complex thoughts and feelings just like any other person, but are not yet able to express them.

What harm, after all, could be done by treating this person with respect and assuming that they do understand you, they do feel a wide range of emotions, they do have thoughts and opinions, and that the ways they do communicate – be it laughter, echolalia, screams, or even self-injury – are meaningful? At worst, they never do find a method of expressing their complex thoughts, but have been treated like a human being.

The most dangerous assumption, meanwhile, is that they don’t understand. Their eyes are not windows to any sort of soul. They are people in form but not in substance. Their communications are disregarded as meaningless or rudimentary. Imagine if, all along, a person treated this way understood absolutely everything they were told, understood that people underestimated not only their cognitive abilities but their very humanity, understood that they were seen as less than, damaged, or not even there. Imagine the danger to a soul viewed as soulless.

Imagine how you would feel in that person’s place. Would you feel angry? Would you want to scream? Would you lash out sometimes? Can you imagine something like an inner struggle to express rage without hurting other people that might lead you to self-harm?

The desire to be seen is perhaps the strongest craving in a human being. To simply be seen or heard by another person is the most basic level of communication; and I don’t mean seen literally with the eyes, or heard with the ears, but to be beheld by a fellow human by any means available. To know that you have managed to convey something of your unique self to another person both roots you to the world and frees you. Martin Pistorious did this with only the smallest movement of his eyes at first – and a person who was willing to see him. Aaron Greenwood (again from Typed Words) wrote of his “life’s longing to be part of this world.”

Everyone wants this: a place in the world. And everyone can have it, if we truly listen. 

Image is a photo of the Earth in space, as a background to the text in capital white letters: “Everyone can have this: a place in the wold. And everyone can have it, if we truly listen. eisforerin.com”