It has long been a commonplace accusation against the neurodiversity movement that those of us among the autistic community who are neurodiversity supporters comprise the “very high-functioning,” and that while it’s fine for us to say that what we really need is acceptance and accommodation—we simply don’t understand the challenges of the truly disabled.

This accusation is in stark contradiction to the fact that, from its inception, not only did the neurodiversity movement’s values include the most significantly disabled, but that those individuals themselves were among our earliest pioneers. And that going back even further, the self-advocacy movement didn’t originate with the autistic community at all, but rather largely was led by institutionalized people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities.

We’ve also been having this discussion about neurodiversity, along these same basic parameters, for a long time now—with both sides firing back many of the same basic points:

  • Neurodiversity denialists: Neurodiversity advocates are fundamentally different from, and cannot speak for, the “severely affected,” e.g., our autistic children who can’t communicate, self-injure, are aggressive, have epilepsy, have GI troubles, etc.
  • Neurodiversity proponents: You cannot actually know the particulars of another person’s disability by how well they can communicate on the internet. Many of us actually experience the same challenges neurodiversity antagonists cite as only afflicting the “truly disabled.” We’re not trying to speak for everybody, we’re standing up for everyone’s right to speak for themselves.

We’re going on circles, and recently, I think I might have gotten a clue as to why.

Lately, on Twitter and elsewhere, I’ve witnessed this basic argument take on a new phrasing:  That we have “nothing to offer” autistic people with more significant support needs.

Three white autistic people. Two adults: Sara Luterman and John Marble, and one teen, Leo Rosa, hanging out in front of a coffee shop.
Three white autistic people. Two adults: Sara Luterman and John Marble, and one teen, Leo Rosa, hanging out in front of a Hayes Valley coffee shop.

I was confused at first, thinking of many of the initiatives and developments undertaken by members of the neurodiversity and broader disability rights movements which absolutely apply to all of us, from the successful fight for the $10.10 minimum wage on federal contracts to include those employing disabled people in sheltered workshops, to advances in recognition of the rights of all disabled people to live in our communities with support and not in institutions, increased recognition of the right of all disabled students to meaningful inclusion, literacy instruction, and access to AAC.

I also think about how the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN)—which is entirely staffed by autistic people—has released toolkits written in plain, accessible language on subjects like political participation, voting, advocacy, safety in the community, abuse, and self-advocacy in sexual and romantic relationships. Their work this past year has been instrumental to preserving the Affordable Care Act, and the provisions of Medicaid that allow many autistic and disabled people to receive services and live at home, rather than being forced into institutions, and also in the fight against discrimination in organ transplant decisions on the basis of disability.

I think about how, when parents and families persistently report that they need better respite services, one of the major aspects of the neurodiversity movement’s long-running protest of Autism Speaks is that for all the revenue it takes in from community-based fundraising, it returns extremely little in the form of tangible support to families and autistic people ourselves.

I think about how Neurodiversity advocates plead with autism researchers for more and better research into co-occurring conditions and assisted communication.

These are all issues that absolutely and intimately affect the lives of autistic people who are significantly disabled, as well as those who are multiply disabled. Presuming that neurodiversity critics aren’t simply ignorant of these efforts (though that’s certainly possible), why do so many remain insistent that neurodiversity doesn’t have anything to offer their disabled loved ones?

I do my level best not to make presumptions about other people’s beliefs or mental states, but as I try to unravel what could possibly be meant by this, what I am beginning to suspect people mean when they say that neurodiversity has nothing to offer the severely disabled, or people like their child, is that we cannot make their loved one non-disabled.

To a large extent, they’re right. We can’t do that.

Or, we certainly can’t do it alone. The social model of disability, basically, says that disabled people are disabled not by our physical or sensory impairments, but by the failure of society to accommodate people with those conditions in the same ways as it does people without them. When businesses don’t have ramps, wheelchair users are disabled by lack of accommodation and not just inevitably by their physical condition. It is a massively important concept that underlies a lot of the recognition of disabled people as equally deserving of public access as non-disabled people.

And to be honest, I’ve always found it a little bit incomplete and unsatisfying.

There are aspects of being autistic, for me, that I doubt it’s possible for society to accommodate perfectly. That, even if society did a substantially better job at accommodating autistic people, being autistic would still markedly affect how I live, and will always leave me expending more effort than the non-autistic people around me just to get by. These experiences aren’t superficial, and they are never going away.

I say this not to undermine the importance of the social model to the thinking of the disability rights movement, but to say that I think I understand at least some of what neurodiversity skeptics are trying to convey, when they counter that accommodation doesn’t just solve everything.

I will always be disabled. I don’t see that not being the case within my lifetime. There are, without a doubt, important roles for government, education, technology, and medicine to play in mitigating disability, but I will always be disabled in ways that even perfect acceptance and accommodation probably cannot erase.

So, neurodiversity critics need to understand that we who support neurodiversity aren’t confused about the fact of your child or loved one being really, truly disabled. We know there are non-speaking autistic people, epileptic autistic people, self-injuring autistic people. We know this because many of us are non-speaking, epileptic, and self-injuring autistic people.

Those of us who can communicate on the Internet believe that what we are saying about our own needs applies to the rights and needs of other disabled people, including the children and loved ones of neurodiversity detractors. So when we talk about the rights, acceptance, and accommodation that autistic people deserve, we are not the ones who think those things are only for people like us. 

Those of you who say that your children or siblings would never be able to advocate in certain ways: Maybe. But, thing is, we don’t believe that those ways are the only kinds of advocacy that matter or count.

“When an autistic teen without a standard means of expressive communication suddenly sits down and refuses to do something he’s done day after day, this is self-advocacy … When an autistic person who has been told both overtly and otherwise that she has no future and no personhood reacts by attempting in any way possible to attack the place in which she’s been imprisoned and the people who keep her there, this is self-advocacy … When people generally said to be incapable of communication find ways of making clear what they do and don’t want through means other than words, this is self-advocacy,” –Mel Baggs in “The Meaning of Self-Advocacy,” from the anthology Loud Hands:  Autistic People Speaking

When we say “Everyone can self-advocate,” we don’t mean “All of us can speak in conventional and highly formalized ways in settings that favor a very narrow construction of political advocacy” (although if those settings were more prepared to offer accommodation for significant communication differences, it would certainly help). And we don’t believe that conventional communication should be the prerequisite for your loved one having their communication honored.

Neurodiversity critics say, “our children will never write or speak like you ‘high functioning’ autistics do.” Maybe not. But then again, at least one person who I actually know has, within the space of a few years, gone from being considered incapable of meaningful communication, to authoring her own blog and co-directing a documentary film, after she was provided with the resources necessary for her to do so. So we neurodiversity supporters are not the ones who believe that verbal eloquence is the only form of expression with meaning or value. Your child might never testify in front of Congress, but we aren’t the ones who believe that that makes the rest of their communication unimportant.

You say your children will never go to Harvard or William and Mary. Maybe not, but an elite private college education isn’t the only viable path to a rewarding life (and besides, the first ever non-speaking autistic student just graduated from Oberlin College).

We neurodiversity supporters believe that what someone can do matters. We believe that the way someone can communicate matters.

We also reject the equation that accepting autism and disability means giving up. Research consistently shows that autism acceptance leads to better mental health for parents as well as autistic people themselves. Evidence is mounting that acceptance and accommodation provide a more reliable path to increased capability and independence than fighting autism or disability does. Acceptance isn’t a cure, but it does facilitate recognition and support of abilities that often go unrecognized and under-valued. We are better off when not only our disabilities, but our real abilities, are recognized.

It follows that autism—yes, even involving a significant degree of disability—should not be a reason why we are kept from accessing communication, education, employment, competent medical care, the right to make our own decisions and live on our own terms, friendship, romantic relationships and sexuality, freedom from abuse, or the basic premise of our lives being acceptable.

There is already a history of people trying to eliminate neurodevelopmentally disabled people. It’s not a good history. We can’t make anyone non-disabled—that isn’t what neurodiversity adovcates are offering—but we also don’t believe that being non-disabled is the only right way to be a person.

If you are a neurodiversity skeptic, maybe it looks like, from your end, that we who champion neurodiversity have the luxury of declaring “We’re okay the way we are; we’re valuable to humanity and people like us should exist” to the extent that we don’t seem disabled in the same ways that your loved ones are disabled. Their disabilities are such that we can’t take them away, nor can we make them into people more like us, whatever you imagine our abilities to be.

If I’m even a little bit right, if you recognize yourself at all in this conjecture, then what I want to ask of you is this:

Try to separate autism, or disability, in your mind, from the sense of impossibility of having lives that are rich and complete. From assumptions that people disabled in certain ways only get to have a certain kind of life. Whatever autism looks like for the person you love, disrupt the logic that says that only if they were not disabled in those ways, could they have something of value to contribute, or be entitled to lives of autonomy and acceptance.

You are right; we cannot make your autistic loved one non-disabled. But we can help make a future that has room for people like your child in it, complete with the rights, the access, and the supports they need to live their fullest life. We think that that is doable. We think that that is right.

Yes, autistic lives are different. Yes, they are often hard. No, they will not look like the lives of non-disabled people.

We just don’t think that that makes disabled lives wrong.