#ActuallyAutistic Isn’t Actually About Autistics

Last week, I wrote an article that appeared in the online magazine spiked arguing that Australian pop singer Sia is free to cast whomever she wants in Music, her film about an autistic protagonist. This controversy erupted almost two weeks ago when Sia released a trailer for the movie. The #ActuallyAutistic crew on Twitter had a lot of complaints:

The outrage surrounding Music is thoroughly exasperating for several reasons. For starters, no one has even seen the movie. It won’t be out until the beginning of next year. So many of these complaints and accusations are based on speculation and assumptions. And if this is the reaction to a 60-second clip, I shudder to think how people will respond to the entire thing. Buckle your seatbelts, everyone…

Then there’s the issue of cancel culture, which I am opposed to in all forms, regardless of whether autism is involved. Free speech is crucial. You don’t get to silence artists because you don’t like the art they’re making. And I particularly hate the fact that so many people are willing to excuse online shaming and harassment because it’s being done in the name of activism.

I could go on–there’s a lot to unpack here–but what I want to focus on in this post is the use of the #ActuallyAutistic hashtag, which has been trending alongside #SiaDoesntSpeakForUs and #SiaLater. Eight or nine months ago, I loved calling myself #ActuallyAutistic on Tumblr. According to neurodiversity advocates, the hashtag arose when #autism was dominated by parents and siblings of autistic people, rather than autistics themselves. This feeds into a core tenet of the neurodiversity movement (and identity politics): autistic/oppressed people understand autism/oppression better than anyone else. (The neurodiversity movement sees autistics as an oppressed group.) During my days as an activist, all this sounded good to me. In calling myself #ActuallyAutistic, I could emphasize my belief that autism was an identity and establish ethos online.

Soon after that, I stopped using Tumblr, and #ActuallyAutistic disappeared from my internet vernacular–not because I didn’t like it anymore, but because I was off social media completely. (In retrospect, this was a fantastic decision.) Until I published the spiked article, I was more or less agnostic on the #ActuallyAutistic front. Then they ran my piece, and when I browsed Twitter to gauge people’s reactions, I started seeing tweets like this:

(This is why I don’t use Twitter…)

Here’s another one:

There are plenty of other tweets in this vein that I probably shouldn’t spend any more time dredging up. My frustration here isn’t just with these specific comments. It’s with the use of the royal we, the fact that a particular group of people with a particular ideology feel empowered to speak on behalf of every autistic person. Or on behalf of the “autistic community,” a term implying that all autistics share the same beliefs and opinions. In reality, there is no autistic community, just like there’s no female community or ambidextrous community or thinking-cilantro-tastes-like-soap community. The relentless focus on identity and identity politics has led neurodiversity advocates to overlook the fact that autistic individuals are individuals. We get to have our own thoughts, feelings, and opinions, just like everyone else. From where I stand, it seems like autistics have gone from being limited by society to being limited by one another [footnote: This isn’t to say that society doesn’t limit disabled people. We have a long way to go in terms of acceptance and inclusion.] How is this progress?

I am just as autistic now as I was nine months ago when my opinions aligned with neurodiversity ideology more closely. But it seems that I no longer fit the criteria for the #ActuallyAutistic hashtag because I’ve changed my mind. I’m certainly not the first person to be made aware of this unpleasant irony. The neurodiversity crowd has a delightful tendency to bully, harass, shame, and exclude anyone who disagrees with its doctrine (more on that here, here, here, and here). Thankfully, I haven’t had any abuse aimed at me–probably in large part because I don’t use social media–though I’m sure that as I keep expressing my perspective on the subject, I’ll get some hate sooner or later.

The second thing that exasperates me about this whole #ActuallyAutistic concept is the entitlement. Many people seem to be under the impression that only autistic actors can play autistic characters and that talent and skill aren’t nearly as important as matching disability to disability. This misses the point of theater, which traditionally involves actors pretending to be people they’re not (e.g., every movie and play ever), and it threatens artistic freedom. It also does a disservice to autistic actors, who should have the opportunity to gain the skills and experience necessary to succeed on their own terms. I would never want to be given a job or a book deal or any other opportunity just because I’m autistic. This isn’t respect; it’s condescension.

Of course, #ActuallyAutistic Twitter disagrees. It makes me a bit sad (and angry) to see tweets like this:

And this:

Because, again, autistics deserve the chance to succeed by virtue of what we do, not who we are. By all means, let’s improve accessibility and remove barriers to success. Let’s help more autistic people finish college and get jobs and make friends and manage disability-related challenges in order to have better lives. Let’s tackle stigma and discrimination and improve the general public’s understanding of autism. But let’s focus on opportunities, not outcomes. Censoring conversation around autism and forcing autistic people into the role of “autism experts” doesn’t help anyone. It just creates new flavors of divisiveness and intolerance.



Categories: Blog, Cultural Commentary

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