Following the release of Are You Autistic? last week, there has been some talk and praise regarding the cooperative working of autistic and neurotypical people in the documentary.
The fact that neurotypical people in the programme were allowed to ask questions, to be able to say ‘I don’t understand’ without nerves or awkwardness, and the environment facilitating austitic people being allowed to give those answers; this was hailed as incredibly important in terms of moving forward with understanding of autism.
I’m not here to argue that this isn’t important or necessary in the larger scheme of things. But I do want to urge caution and moderation on the part of neurotypical people.
Many autistic people are wary and untrusting of the neurotypical world, as well we have every right to be. The situation we find ourselves in – an ableist society that at best ignores and at worst attacks us – sits on the shoulders of neurotypical people. Autistic people did not create our current situation. And, as such, many autistic people feel rightly antagonized at the thought that we must avail ourselves kindly to neurotypical people in order to fix it.
It cannot be expected for autistic people to face all questions and ignorance with grace, dignity and the patience to sit down and explain.
If a neurotypical person comes to me with questions and ignorance, and I respond in a way that is decidedly less than polite, the conclusion will be that I am difficult, rude and ‘damaging’ the cause. What that doesn’t take into account is the fact that this is probably the umpteenth person that day that has come up to me with the same questions, the same ignorance, and the same sense of entitlement that I should be the one to educate them.
It’s exhausting. As with being queer, it turns the very fact of my existence into a topic of conversation, into a political talking point, when in actuality I’m often just trying to live a relatively quiet life.
As an autistic person, I have trained myself to not go around questioning everything that neurotypical people do (and trust me, sometimes it’s hard) because that is considered impolite. The same courtesy is often not extended back to me. And that’s where the irritation lies – for me and, I suppose, other autistic people who are open about their neurodiversity.
Now, I’m not saying autistic/neurotypical cooperation is a bad thing, or that we shouldn’t push for more of it. I actually think it’s an absolute necessity in terms of going forward to make the world more accessible and accepting for autistic people – neurotypical people are the ones with the power to make the change. And education that comes directly from autistic people, rather than neurotypical ‘experts’, is a vital part of making this shift.
But the key part of this cooperation is the consent.
When filming for Are You Autistic?, I and the other autistic people involved had specifically placed ourselves in the position to be questioned and to educate. We were prepared that some of the questions put to us could be upsetting (in ignorance, rather than malice), but even then it was sometimes difficult to maintain composure in the face of it. We had consented to experience that; we had consented to face these questions in order to do something about the ignorance.
Likewise, when I started in my new job, I asked my line manager to include my autism in the announcement email about my employment – in it, I explicitly stated that I was happy to answer any questions people had, and that my colleagues were welcome to come to me with anything they didn’t understand. I placed myself in that position, where I was prepared for questions and ready to change some minds. That was my choice. And, nearly eight months later, I’m incredibly glad, and proud, that I did that.
I did these things so, hopefully, other people wouldn’t have to. When I put myself out there on screen, or in my office, or through this blog or my social media feeds, I consent to take those questions on my own terms.
But I am allowed to say ‘no more’ when it all gets a bit too much.
Cooperation between autistic and neurotypical people is important. But we must be vigilant against the attitude that merely existing as autistic people makes us obligated to answer any and all questions asked. And we must be understanding that it is entirely valid for autistic people to be wary, mistrustful or otherwise distant from neurotypical people – for many, it is a survival instinct built from negative experiences, and that boundary must be respected.
Of course, in my ideal world, none of us would be in the position to have to smile and nod calmly through upsetting and ignorant questions. But we don’t live in that world.
So, in the absence of a perfect universe, I say this to neurotypical people: you must ensure that the person you are speaking to is prepared and consenting to answer your curiosities. And you must not complain or take it personally if an autistic person responds frustratedly or defensively.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to admit that there are things you don’t know. But find an autisic person that is happy or comfortable to educate you. And if someone says ‘please stop, this is upsetting me’, have the respect to stop asking and walk away.
True cooperation is give-and-take. And sometimes, autistic people owe it to themselves and their own wellbeing to stop giving and start taking.