Take Offense, Create Change

Rob Gross

I read a post recently in which the author imagines creating a “grand new conference consisting of members of the disability community of all stripes” including disabled people, their parents, professionals, writers and journalists.” He continues, “This mythical conference of ours would have only one rule. No one would be allowed to be offended” (emphasis added). The author states that by following this rule, “no one [would be] silenced…dismissed… [or] called out for the way they make their argument.”

In response to this post, many parents of disabled children commented on how refreshing this would be. However, numerous Autistic adults took strong exception to this, as did some parents. Why? What could possibly be wrong with allowing people to speak their minds without restriction?

Two weeks ago, one parent did just that. On her Orange County Register blog, Jo Ashline, the mother of an Autistic child, said that she wanted to tell autism to “suck it.” This provoked a firestorm of criticism from Autistic adults and others in the autism community.

Later, in a courageous display of self-reflection, Ms. Ashline went on to answer the “no offense” question herself. Her Evolution of an Apology post is essential reading for those interested in joining together to advance the needs of disabled individuals. Here’s a brief summary:

I wrote something that others found offensive and I came back and said… “Who gives a damn? But it is the comments of anger and hurt that have been keeping me up at night.
I’ve been taught my entire life that hurting others, even if you didn’t mean to, is wrong.

[But] instead of coming out and saying “I’m so sorry I hurt you,” I’ve written long-winded posts trying to excuse myself from the fact that I said something hurtful to a large group of people. Fellow human beings. Dammit that’s just not how I choose to live my life.

I’m so sorry.

Thank you, Jo. Thank you for working so hard to hear, listen and change. Thank you so very much for listening to others who were offended.

Unfortunately, many people commenting on and off Jo’s site continued to see no reason for the apology. As one commenter stated, Jo “didn’t say anything wrong and neither did any of us parents who hate autism.” I certainly can understand; I used to feel similarly. But I have come to understand things differently.

As I’ve come to see, telling autism to “suck it” expresses a well-intentioned but seriously flawed desire. The healthy desire is for our children (or clients or friends) to live happy and fulfilling lives. The irreconcilable flaw is that autism cannot be “extracted” from a theoretical person to enable some “other” person to emerge. There is no other person. The only, and best, person is already there: an Autistic person.

Autism is a disability, not a disease to be “cured.” I don’t think anyone would mind hearing “I want to tell small pox to suck it,” because small pox is a virus that invades the body, makes one ill — or dead — and goes on to infect others. No one would have a problem with “hating” small pox, or “walking for the cure” for small pox. Or telling small pox to “suck it.”

The Autistic adults who responded with such offense to Jo’s original post did so because they experience themselves as Autistic in the same way they may experience themselves as white, African-, Latino- or Asian-American. Autism is a constituent of who they are, not an outside invader that has taken them over and someday may release them from its spell.

We are still at the very beginning of the Autism civil rights movement. Consider the “no one would be allowed to be offended” concept for a gathering of gay people, their parents, writers etc. at the beginning of the gay rights movement. The way gay people were considered then was quite similar to the way Autistic people are discussed today: there was a search for a method that would cure gay people of their “disease.” It was only when the gay civil rights movement took flight, and gay people themselves rose up and contested their treatment, that gay rights began to become established world-wide.

Of course, being gay is not a disability. But there are groups within the disability community that have historically fought for their rights. One such group is the Deaf community. There is a strong culture and a long history of civil rights struggle by Deaf people. As one result, it would be the rare parent of a Deaf child who would say that being Deaf “sucks.”

The same kind of civil rights awareness is occurring today in the Autism community. Autistic people are refusing to be consigned to second-class status. They are speaking out for all Autistic people, irrespective of level of ability, to gain better services and support, to implement laws against discrimination and warehousing, and to raise the quality of life for everyone on the spectrum.

It is an impediment to this struggle — a struggle in which parents have a great stake as well — to ask Autistic people not to “get offended.” Offense is the first step in creating change. If a minority member is not offended by being discriminated against — if it’s ok to sit in the back of the bus, or be arrested for intimate relations in one’s own home — then there is no change and nothing improves.

As parents of Autistic children, we need offense to be taken. We need to be offended ourselves whenever an Autistic person, child or adult, is left out of the conversation. We need to join with Autistic advocates, who face serious struggles themselves.

Consider this cautionary example. In the 1940’s, Black children, given the choice, preferred to play with white dolls instead of Black ones. Black dolls were “undesirable.” Clearly, negative attitudes toward African-Americans had been internalized by Black children. I thought this had changed today, seventy years later. But it has not, not really and not enough. The effects of internalized oppression are extremely destructive, and linger far longer than we might wish to acknowledge.

Autistic people must no longer be told they are undesirable, diseased or in need of a cure. It is the moral obligation of every person in the autism communities to help the Autistic civil rights movement succeed.