A blog by Lydia X. Z. Brown. Lydia X. Z. Brown (Autistic Hoya) is a gender/queer and transracially/transnationally adopted east asian autistic activist, writer, and speaker whose work has largely focused on violence against multiply-marginalized disabled people, especially institutionalization, incarceration, and policing.
Content/TW: Abuse. Physical and emotional. Restraint. Deliberate causing trauma.
I am livid.
Shaking with rage.
There's this essay going around, in the Washington Post, hailed as brave and courageous.
A non autistic mother of an autistic young person wrote, triumphantly, about the time ten years ago she physically forced her kid into a crowded arena to see a show featuring one of their favorite characters, not despite their terror of big crowded indoor places but because of it so she could forcibly expose them to it. She physically restrained her kid, who was having a meltdown and maybe a panic attack, in public to forcibly drag them into the arena and even, laughably and horrifically, invoked the A D fucking A to claim she was somehow being "a reasonable accommodation" (this is eleven kinds of twisted) by carrying them in against their will.
She recounts other parents as aghast at her behavior and dismisses them as ignorant by loudly proclaiming that her kid has autism (because that's a get out of jail free card for abuse), when another parent is literally telling her it's obvious her kid doesn't want to go and she should drop it. (The other parents were upset not because they don't understand autism but because, shock, they were minimally decent people who recognized abuse when they witnessed it.)
She literally described the moment her kid got inside the arena as being "indistinguishable from his peers."
That is the exact phrase word for word that Ole Ivaar Lovaas used to describe the goal of behaviorism. To make us indistinguishable from our peers (by stamping out the autistic) (by shocking our feet in water) (by punishing us for displaying autistic traits and rewarding us for supressing our natural selves). He founded what we know now as ABA, the supposedly evidence-based treatment for autism that every single autistic adult I know who survived it describes as abuse so traumatic they ALL have PTSD or CPTSD from it.
And she literally calls her kid and every other autistic young person "a burden." Yes. She out and says it, directly. What we know most of you all already believe but think it's politically incorrect to voice. (It's not. It's normal.)
I won't dignify that article by linking to it here.
This parent is publishing a book. The title is Autism Uncensored, as if to imply that what she's got is the real deal instead of euphemistic autism prettified by buzzwords like neurodiversity which really must just apply to the supposedly "high functioning" and "mildly affected" (there is no such thing). I am so scared and angry for her kid (who she proudly brags that she has further tortured by forcibly dragging them to many more scary overwhelming huge indoor spaces), and terrified for what it will do to the many autistic young people whose parents will read it and consider doing the same.
Every time you think we have gotten somewhere, we must be reminded, quite violently, we have not. This kind of bile is still worthy of publication more than ten years after I Am Autism and Autism Every Day, and it never really went anywhere in the meantime.
All these horrifyingly ableist parents seem to be wealthy, white, and resourced enough to get these books published and profit enormously off of abusing and exploiting their kids, and other than Temple Grandin and John Elder Robison (who have made clear they are not invested in our community), where is that support for cultural work by actually autistic people? Books and memoirs and fiction and chapbooks we've created about autism as autistic people? That's right. Nowhere. Nothing.
Back to business as usual.
I dread March 1 next year because I know the list will only grow longer. People like this are only worsening the conditions that will get us there.
Content/TW: Discussions of involuntary sterilization, abusive parenting, mentions of Nazis, eugenics, intense anti-autistic ableism in general.
Why we must #BoycottToSiri
I originally wrote what appears below as a series of tweets, but they read better as a single letter. This is meant for Judith Newman, though I have no idea whether she will ever bother to read this blog post, and frankly, I would be terrified of whatever response she might have. But this must be said, by as many of us as can summon the courage to speak or write or sign it, and so here I am, urging anyone who wishes to do something to support actually autistic people not to buy this book written by a non-autistic parent of an autistic teen, in which (among many other horrifying things) she enthusiastically advocates for sterilizing her son and other autistic people to prevent us from reproducing and fulfilling our inevitable destiny to be naturally shitty parents (her ideas, not mine).
She said that she is "counting the days" until her son turns eighteen so she can gain medical power of attorney and have him sterilized. She described in graphic detail the contents and types of porn that he watches. She said that she can only imagine him ever having sex with the Benny Hill soundtrack playing along with her mental image of it, and that that means it would have to be going horribly wrong. She said that he will die alone because no girl (assuming he must be heterosexual and only interested in girls/women) could ever want him. She said he is immature (HE IS THIRTEEN, CHRIST) and so would never be able to be a good parent. She said he could never be a loving partner (assuming he wants romance now or will in the future) because he is incapable of separating other people's needs from his own, let alone putting others before himself.
This even apart from her misogynistic description and misgendering of Métis autistic activist Amythest Schaber without their consent, and her vehement objections to use of singular they as a gender-neutral pronoun in the introduction to this book (totally unrelated? hello?) while mentioning that she would like to punch her friend (who authored a book affirming and supporting her trans child) in the face for advocating for its use.
Yes, it is that bad.
[photo: graphic with image of an open notebook-style journal, full cup of coffee, and pencil on a wooden table or desk as the background. small text on the notebook says in all capital letters, "Letter to Judith Newman" and "Why We Must #BoycottToSiri." large text on the notebook says in a script, handwriting-like font, "all of this is fucked." large text at the bottom of the graphic says, "There is not enough caffeine in the world for me to deal with this shit."]
An open letter to Judith Newman:
Autistic people are human beings. We can and must make our own medical choices, especially about procedures as invasive and permanent as sterilization.
Forcible/involuntary sterilization because you're afraid of someone like me reproducing? Direct and clear example of modern eugenics.
You can't imagine your son in a sexual situation because he is autistic? You have a serious lack of imagination. Autistic people span the entire sexual and asexual spectrums.
You publicly talked about what kind of porn your son watches. In a New York Times "bestseller." I am so, so horrified, angry, and betrayed on behalf of your son.
You are convinced your son will die alone because no girl could ever possibly be interested in him. That is blatant, horrifying ableism.
You are counting down the days until you can involuntarily sterilize your son, which you want to do because he is autistic. I hope he escapes your house.
This time next year, I'll be a licensed attorney. Many actually autistic and other disabled people are too. Believe you me, we will line up to fight you if you try this against his will.
I am TERRIFIED for your son, because he has to live with you. Your book shows your true self. What kind of parent you are. What kind of person you are. And it's scary as fuck.
Your son needs love and support. Not mockery, public humiliation, condescension, and threats of involuntary, invasive, and permanent medical procedures.
How the hell do you expect your son to learn to be a loving partner to a woman, a man, or a non-binary person, if you already assume he can't be? You are supposed to teach him!
You wrote that you don't believe your son is or ever will be capable of putting other people's feelings ahead of his own. I read that and am sick to my stomach.
I'm an actually autistic adult, and I feel such overwhelmingly intense empathy for YOUR SON that I am crying thinking of what it must be like to be him knowing/finding out you've written this bullshit about him in public.
Do you know about Micah David Cole-Fletcher? He is an autistic poet and a hero in Portland, Oregon. He got stabbed because he stood up to white supremacists abusing two women of color. Two others were murdered.
We actually autistic people are constantly scrambling with extremely limited resources and the challenges of multiple disabilities to save each other from eviction, institutionalization, and abuse, every day.
That's autistic empathy.
Every day I know of actually autistic people, most of whom will never get news media coverage, sacrificing every second of their time and every bit of their available effort, to fight against violence and harm.
When you describe your son as lacking in empathy, compassion, and the ability to put others before himself, you directly attack the core integrity of some of the most self-sacrificing humans on this planet.
What about Jennifer Msumba's courage in speaking up against the JRC for torturing disabled people? Of facing the very people who abused her and still justify it, because it might get others out and make the torture stop?
That's autistic empathy.
Look, every autistic person will not have a romantic or sexual relationship in their lifetimes. But that's not either a core trait of being autistic, nor is it a reflection of lesser personhood.
The point that I am trying to make, that I sincerely doubt you will ever be willing to listen to (but yet hope against hope you will), is that your son is a full human being.
Not despite autism.
He is autistic and human and these are not contradictory.
One day, if he hasn't yet, your son will read what you wrote about him, publicly, and my heart breaks for him for when that day comes.
This is betrayal.
This is betrayal.
This is betrayal.
You wrote that your son should not reproduce because he could never be a father. This is wrong.
Autistic people around the globe are already proud, loving parents of children -- autistic and non-autistic. Being autistic does not mean we cannot love or care.
An autistic person dropped everything and drove three hours nonstop to get to me when I was in the middle of a mental health crisis.
(And surely you must know how much we hate interruptions to routine/sudden changes.)
That's autistic love and care.
I know an autistic person dedicated to finding and supporting the most isolated human beings locked in inhumane conditions in prisons with no budget and no donors, traveling from prison to prison in the face of violence.
That's autistic love and care.
My partner (also autistic) and I drove 18+ hours through 8 states to support two other human beings in getting to a safe place to live and escaping homelessness.
We don't want praise or money. Just to do what's right.
That's autistic love and care.
I know an autistic person with multiple disabilities and chronic illnesses who performed life-saving labor for another disabled person who was almost left for dead, even at the expense of their own physical health.
That's autistic love and care.
You say your son cannot be a father or a loving partner because he can't love or care for others. Because he can't put others before himself. If he still loves you after finding out about this horror show of a book, he will have already proved you wrong.
You say he should not father a child because he is immature. Do you realize how many grown-ass, NON-DISABLED men are out there with children who are immature/unempathetic as fuck? (Hint: Some of them are called Senator and Representative. One's called President.)
As an autistic human being, I am enraged and devastated at Harper Books' decision to publish this garbage. Because it's not only your son this has/will hurt. It's many, many more autistic people whose parents will read it.
I teach a college course on disability police and social movements. In one unit, we discuss in brutal, graphic detail the long and continuing history of involuntary sterilizations of disabled people, PoC, and disabled PoC specifically. It's called eugenics.
The idea that disabled people are incapable of parenting, shouldn't reproduce more disabled people, and shouldn't be having sex ... That's called eugenics. It's the very same idea that led to the Nazi's T-4 program. They called us "useless eaters."
You know who else thought we shouldn't be reproducing? The mass murderer in Sagamihara, Japan, who last year stabbed 19 disabled people to death and injured 26 more. He said he wanted to rid the world of us.
You think you're nothing like him but you're wrong.
Here's what you share:
* A belief that disabled people cannot be full human beings
* A belief that disabled people shouldn't be reproducing
The difference is that he stabbed people. You wrote a book with these ideas. But I'm afraid others might be inspired.
Now I know that on the off-chance you ever read these messages, your first reaction will be to tell me how mean I am. (Because you get to be upset if I'm harsh, but I'm just mean because I obviously lack empathy and social skills. /sarcasm, of course)
Your second response will be to tell me that I'm nothing like your child. You will tell me that I'm articulate, intelligent, obviously functional, and successful. You will say that I have a very mild form of autism.
These are ableist distractions.
No, I don't know your son personally. No, I have not lived in the same house as him. But I have lived in a harsh, violent world my entire life with a brain very much like his. (And I'm older than your son. By about ten years.)
The truth is, no matter what specific struggles or skills I have, I'm autistic like your son, and you ... you are not. I am like your child.
I cannot comprehend why or how someone who is supposed to love me the most could hurt/hate me so much.
You may believe you love your son. But we, autistic people, hear what you have actually said, which is that you hate him. You love a version of him that does not exist.
You have put something incredibly, horrifyingly dangerous into the world. You can't take it back, not completely. But you can and must make amends for your flagrant abuse of your privilege, power, and resources.
For the sake of your son.
For the sake of others like him.
For the sake of those to come after him.
We deserve to live free of fear of violence, especially from the people who are most supposed to love and protect us.
And make no mistake -- forcible, involuntary sterilization, and legal authority over another person's medical decision-making, these are forms of violence.
You are plotting to take away your son's right to control his own body.
You are plotting to become the biggest, worst, and most inescapable abuser in your son's life.
You still have a chance to stop and backtrack. To be a supportive, actually loving parent.
But your window of time is shrinking, fast.
You need to start with apologizing to your son and coming clean about what you've done if he doesn't know already.
And then you need to do your damndest to combat the dangerous messages you've put out there in the world.
You need to make sure that your son knows that he and he alone controls his own body.
He and he alone gets to decide what, whether, when, and how other people can do anything to him -- sexually, medically, reproductively.
That means apologizing for violating any tiny sense of privacy he might have ever had.
That means apologizing for thinking of him as less than a full person.
That means apologizing for publicly humiliating and mocking him.
That means connecting him, ASAP, to autistic adults who can mentor and support him coming into adulthood as an autistic teen.
That means making sure he gets real, meaningful sex education about reproductive choices, reproductive healthcare, and what consent is.
That means promising to him and to yourself that you will not be counting the days until you can legally steal from your son his right to control his own body.
(Yes I am stuck on that. Because it's disgusting and morally appalling.)
If you want to show to your son how to put others' feelings ahead of their own, retract the book. Demand the publisher ice it. Forgo the royalties, the speaking engagements, the press.
Put your son ahead of yourself. Put his dignity and his humanity first.
If you still want to write another book later, let it be an honest book. Let it be a book where your son is humanized instead of dehumanized and mocked. Let it be a book where you are a flawed human instead of a hero/saint/angel/martyr.
Until you are ready to accept full responsibility for what you have done to autistic people present and future as well as your own son, and take appropriate action to rectify it, we have nothing further to discuss.
And lastly, if you're reading this, learned something, and have privilege and money? Consider donating to support me and my work (much of which I do not broadcast publicly but directly benefits/supports marginalized people). PayPal Lydia at autistichoya dot com.
(Note -- in writing the original tweets, I was torn between naming people without their consent, versus describing them without naming them to avoid potentially unwanted naming/outing/visibility -- which itself can often be dangerous, exploitative, and abusive. I erred toward not naming people since I did not have time or spoons to ask each person I was thinking of for their consent. Where people are named, it is because they have already spoken/written/been described very publicly and as an autistic person.)
About a year and a half ago, I posted this list of characteristics that seem to be much more common in autistic people (especially the more of them a person has) than in non-autistic people. But both while writing that list, and over many years of thinking, being with other autistic people, and learning about many of our experiences, I keep noticing this one pattern among our experiences -- we tend toward extremes of the same phenomenon, both between different autistic people (and thus, observable sub-groups of autistic people) and within the same person (often dependent on context).
Other people have noticed the same pattern in some contexts, like the rough split between sensory-avoidance and sensory-seeking, and noting that an individual autistic person can be both very sensory-seeking in some contexts but very sensory-avoidant in others. Or in noting autistic people's relationship to math -- apparently roughly half (this is not a scientific number) of us struggle intensely with and hate or at least dislike math, while the other rough half of us have a deep affinity and love for math. Or in noting autistic people's use of verbal speech or writing -- many autistic people rely heavily on text-based forms of communication, especially with widespread availability of instant messaging apps, but there are many other autistic people who have such difficulty processing language that they have extreme struggles with text-based forms of communication.
But I've also noticed this phenomenon crop up in about a million (still not a scientific number) other contexts, such as the following:
(1) Autistic people tend to be either extremely gender non-conforming and oblivious (or deliberately indifferent) to gender norms and expectations, OR, extremely gender-conforming, and hyper-attuned to gender norms and expectations (regardless of whether this related to compliance-training in a very patriarchal society).
(2) Autistic people tend to be either asexual (or somewhere on the asexuality spectrum, including gray-asexual or demisexual), and indifferent or totally repulsed by sex, OR, hyper-sexual, and very desiring of and interested in sexual intimacy.
(3) Autistic people tend to either hold very intense and long-lasting grudges (even for many, many years) and resentment, OR, to let go of wrongs and slights very easily, and have an intensely forgiving and merciful nature.
(4) Autistic people tend to be either extremely aware of and affected by their surrounding climate (temperature, humidity/dryness, etc., either indoors or outdoors), OR, extremely oblivious and indifferent to these factors.
(5) Autistic people tend to either like their drinks/food to be at very cold/hot temperatures, OR, to like their drinks/food to be closer to room temperature and only mildly cool or mildly warm.
(6) Autistic people tend to either develop very strong feelings/opinions about autism and disability-related politics (regardless of what those opinions are), OR, are very indifferent to and uninterested in autism/disability politics.
(7) Among autistic people who do autism/disability activism, we tend to be either very interested in and excited by critical theory type work, OR, we tend to be totally uninterested, put off by, or even irritated by that type of work.
(8) Autistic people tend to be either extremely regimented and strict about timeliness and schedules, and have very high anxiety when timeliness/schedules don't work out, OR, have extreme difficulties in understanding time, and following schedules/keeping appointments/being on time to things.
(9) Autistic people tend to either do really well in school or at conventional/traditional academics (either in K-12, or in college, if they get to go), OR, struggle immensely with school and conventional/traditional academics (either in K-12, or in college, if they get to go), and even fail out.\
(10) Autistic people tend to be either deeply emotionally and intellectually invested in fiction (books, shows, movies, whole fandoms, etc.), OR, have extreme difficulty even cognitively processing or understanding fiction, let alone relating to it.
(11) Autistic people tend to be either really into extremely spicy foods, OR, have an intense aversion to basically anything spicy at all.
(12) Autistic people tend to be either stunningly adept at navigation/directions, OR, terrifying incapable of doing them.
On that one, I'm definitely in the second category ... In this photo, I'm pretending not to be totally panicked about being lost and confused while on the Tube in London. (The t-shirt, which isn't fully visible, has an upside down cat with bugged out eyes, and says, "I can't adult today," which in retrospect, was very apropos.) (photo by Eleanor Lisney from Sisters of Frida, and yes at some point, we got separated on the Tube, and at another point, we managed to get separated on *the Eurostar train going between different entire fucking countries*)
In each of these sets of patterns, the extremes can also exist in the same person. Someone might like certain categories of drinks/food to be at extremely noticeable hot/cold temperatures, but other categories to be at tepid/lukewarm temperatures. Someone might have high anxiety about other people making it on time to things and starting events on time, but also struggle greatly with any expectations of being on time themselves, simply because time is impossible for them. Someone might do very well with one type of school environment, and earn excellent grades and academic achievements, but struggle hard with another type of school environment (commonly they do very well with K-12 and then struggle with higher education, or the reverse).
Note that these are just a few examples, and I'm sure there are hundreds more that any of us could think of, that we've observed in our own lives compared to those of other autistic people we know, work with, love, teach, learn from, or live around.
What I find important about this type of pattern -- that autistics tend to fall into extremes of various characteristics, preferences, or access needs, both between different autistic people and within the same autistic person -- is what it means for accessibility. I don't really have answers or solutions, so much as ideas about starting points here.
For the difference between autistic activists who are really invested in critical theory approaches, and those who have struggles with comprehending critical theory (whether they like it, dislike it, or are indifferent in the abstract), maybe the important thing isn't to try to come to a community-wide consensus about how we will talk about theories relating to autism and disability. Firstly, there is not and has never been such a thing as a single autistic community (and personally, I've been really cynical for several years now that any autistic community truly exists). Secondly, we're a loud and opinionated bunch, and we tend to cling tightly to our opinions (this is very often a good thing, to be clear), so, all of us agreeing on something is highly unlikely to occur. Thirdly, even if we did try to come to some kind of consensus, I'm pretty sure it would be more likely to just fuck over everyone a little instead of making it workable in a meaningful way for everyone, since we'd be asking everyone to compromise their access needs all the time.
A better solution would be a process (not a one-time, end-all-be-all solution) that accounts for many different ways of doing and talking about activism, without treating one of them as better or more important than the others. We can value and support the people who are interested in, learn from, and are personally empowered by critical theory, so long as we also value and support the people who aren't interested in it, can't learn from it, and don't find themselves empowered much at all by it.
Most importantly, real access has to mean not valuing one group over the other (or one tactic over the other, or one access need over the other). When those of us who go to conferences and write academic papers using critical theory get more (or almost all, or the only) attention, funding, opportunities for speaking or leading projects or whatever, and so on, that sends a message that only those of us who can do (never mind like or not) critical theory are really important or worth being in the movement. When all documents, resources, websites, and blog posts use critical theory language, that means that a huge swath of people are automatically excluded. (To be clear, I don't mean that you have to have a formal education, or be upper-class, or have fewer disabilities, to be able to access critical theory. I just mean you have to personally have a brain that understands it, and many of us don't. Personally, I kind of understand it, but only sometimes, and a lot of critical theory concepts are very slippery for me -- but I know I can use at least some of it, and I can and do.)
I know we're (and I'm) not perfect, but I am committed to doing my best to respect everyone's access needs. I just know we can't do it by pretending even implicitly, that we have fairly monolithic needs, or by stopping once we merely acknowledge that we are all different. And I'm open to more observations of other patterns of opposing extremes, and suggestions for handling them -- I hope we can all keep learning from each other.
Content/TW: Sexual harassment, sexually/generally abusive relationships (including in linked posts)
[photo: stock image of an East Asian child wearing blue shorts and a yellow shirt, sitting with knees up and arms crossed to cover face, and head down, beside a backpack and in front of a brick wall, from an article about racist bullying.]
Undesireability and sexual mockery (from autism meetups to high schools)
I want to share some of my own experiences with what Kim and Kassiane have written about. This type of sharing is something I generally don't do much of, and frequently avoid, because of my deep discomfort with the self-narrating zoo exhibit expectation that Jim Sinclair first named and described in the autistic community, though that type of exploitation and abuse is by no means specific to autistic people.
In one autistic youth meetup many, many years ago, a parent of an autistic young man felt the need to inform my mom (who then passed on the information to me) that her son had never talked to a girl before. Even if the other person's mom meant this statement purely as an observation of fact (as far as she was aware of the goings-on in her son's life), and had no ulterior motive or agenda with putting this information into the conversation, I felt immediately uncomfortable.
When someone's parent tells your parent, who then tells you, that they have never spoken to someone assumed to be/presenting as the "opposite" gender, there feels an unspoken expectation. Not just what some would call "heteronormative" (really, just assuming that everyone is either a girl or a boy, and if you are one, you must be attracted to/interested in the other, by default) expectations that he may now suddenly be romantically and/or sexually interested in me, but also that I must be automatically interested in return based solely on our (assumed) genders and the fact that we are both autistic. The other autistic person's mom never said the rest of this, at least to me, but as Kassiane repeatedly points out ... being autistic by itself is not the basis for a romantic/sexual relationship when you know nothing else yet (or very, very little) about the other person.
There are other layers in there, like the assumption that of course autistic people should and would date only other autistic people, which includes its own ableism and disablism, by both implicitly assuming that allistic (non-autistic) people are somehow "above" autistic people and that we would be a step down for them to deign to date, and conversely, that autistic people are unable to date/have sex/have a relationship with allistic people because they would automatically be "out of our league." (Yes, this is also patriarchal language that assumes all relationships are a pursuit with the other person your prize, because that is part of the same gross assumptions here.)
Total tangent time: "Ableism" is more common in the United States. "Disablism" is more common in the rest of the English-speaking world especially the United Kingdom. A lot of people are very attached to their preferred term, and will usually argue that it is the other one that centers nondisabled people. I used to believe that, and preferred ableism. Currently, I think both terms are useful and actually have different meanings. Ableism means the value system that promotes some people's bodyminds as valuable, worthy, and desirable while by definition dismissing other people's bodyminds as not valuable, not worthy, and not desirable. Disablism means the oppression specifically foisted on disabled, mad, neurodivergent, Deaf, sick, and other divergent and atypically bodyminded people. But I don't think this distinction is super important in everyday conversation, especially since those two phenomena are clearly and obviously related and connected to each other. OK now back to the rest of this post.
Kassiane describes something that is familiar to way too many of us who are autistic and also women, femme, or have at some point or continue to be forcibly (and incorrectly) assumed to be/assigned as female or feminine. How that one offhand comment from another autistic person's mom gave way to years and years of trying to go to autistic meetups and only finding constant sexual harassment even and especially after requests to stop and signals, implicit and very explicit, of not being interested and not being available.
At an autistic adult meetup, I once walked in a room and immediately several men locked eyes on me and began moving toward me, each one of them trying to get my attention and start up a conversation immediately, and at least two of them explicitly telling me they were interested in me romantically/sexually by saying they wanted a girlfriend. I don't remember the rest of the questions or what they said; I just remember saying that I was already in a relationship and that we were exclusive. At least one of these people kept asking me about dating him.
Another time, a white autistic man I've never met in person and had never spoken to before in any context at all sent me messages through Facebook telling me that his fantasy was to date an autistic Asian female, and that since I was an autistic Asian female, I would be perfect for him. I shouldn't need to explain why this was creepy, inappropriate, racist, and gross for at least a dozen different reasons.
I don't go to autistic social meetups anymore, almost ever.
When I was in fifth grade, many years before I ever went to any autistic meetups, a group of girls crowded around my desk and told me that they dared me to walk over to another girl and tell her that I thought she was hot. They were giggling as they told me this, and I immediately got the sense that there was something funny going on -- funny to them, of course -- but I thought about it, and I couldn't figure out what it was. I thought that "hot" meant "beautiful" or "pretty," and I did think that that specific girl was pretty. So I couldn't figure out what would be wrong with telling her that I thought she was hot and since they were pushing me to just go and do it, I did. I walked over to this other girl and I told her, "I think you're hot." The girls who dared me to do it burst out laughing. I was immediately embarrassed and I still couldn't figure out why.
Later, I don't even think that much later, I figured out that "hot" didn't mean just pretty/beautiful. It specifically meant "sexually attractive." They managed to mock me by getting me to do something they had figured out implicitly I didn't understand because my young, autistic, asexual self would never have figured out without being explicitly told, and then laughing at me. It was supposed to be hilarious (to them) and humiliating (to me) because one girl telling another girl she was hot would make me a lesbian, and therefore give them another reason to mock me.
In seventh or eighth grade (I think, maybe a little earlier), someone photoshopped my face onto someone else's face in a photo of another person in our class dancing with someone at a dance. The classmate who wasn't photoshopped was also a disabled student (multiple learning disabilities) who was constantly bullied and harassed by other students. He was the one that my "friends" were talking about in eighth grade when they said that I was a retard because I hung out with other retards. The joke, and why it was supposed to be so humiliating, was probably because both this other person and I were assumed (a) undateable by everyone else, (b) funny, self-sustaining subjects of mockery by existing, and (c) only "fit" for each other, so each of us seen as dancing with the other being seen as an insult and embarrassing to the other of us. (He was my friend. We did dance at another dance much later.)
Around fifth through eighth grade, because all these years are really starting to blend together the more I think about it, which may also just be a sign of getting older, there were rumors that I humped the flagpole all the time at recess. Our recess lot was a small paved gravel/tar lot (same type of paved ground that is used for parking lots and streets for cars). In the back of it away from the entry/exit fence gate, was a flagpole in a raised concrete mound. I liked to walk over there and pick my nose because I figured that other people wouldn't really be able to see me picking my nose if I stood at the right angle behind the flagpole. (Yes I'm now admitting something that is arguably actually embarrassing, unlike dancing with a friend and having a crush on a girl.) I figured out pretty quickly that saying I was humping the flagpole was an insult and supposed to be mean and another reason for people to think I was gross and then socially outcast me even more. But I didn't know what humping meant. And as one of many autistic kids who didn't have a whole lot of friends in my peer group, and at that time, was pretty sure that talking to another peer would be instantly dooming myself even more, I walked up to a teacher and I asked her what humping was. (Her response was to stiffen and awkwardly tell me, I think that's something you should ask your parents.)
(I didn't even remember the humping rumors until I was in the middle of writing this post, when the memories leaped from some hidden part of my brain to remind me that they had happened. It seems I've blocked out at least some of this stuff.)
But I haven't gotten to the worst thing, the thing I'll never forget.
But this has also happened to me about sexuality, twice that I specifically remember.
The first time was when I took my driver's education class. Hosted by a well-known driving school, my class had about 20 or 30 students total in it. I didn't know anyone else there. Some of them probably knew each other, since we were all from surrounding towns/cities and it's New England. I don't really know for sure, because I'm faceblind and can't quickly or intuitively figure out how neurotypicals interact without being coached through it.
At some point, we went over to a pizza place nearby for lunch. While we were there, a group of maybe around ten or slightly fewer of the other students were sitting around a couple of tables, obviously talking and snickering. One of them asked me, "Do you have a boyfriend?" I said yes, because at the time I was romantically involved in a weird long-distance relationship. Then they asked me a series of other questions.
"Have you made out?"
"Have you french-kissed?"
"Have you had sex?"
"Have you done a blow job?"
"Have you done anal?"
I don't remember all of the specific questions or all of the wording.
I just remember feeling confused, embarrassed, and singled out, and I knew even while it was happening that they were doing it to mock me. They were doing it because it was funny for them, and supposed to be embarrassing for me. And even though I knew they were somehow making fun of me in doing this, I couldn't stop answering the questions because even to this day, I struggle with saying no and setting boundaries, but of course it was way worse back then. I couldn't figure out how to not answer their questions in some or another way, so I kept responding and each time I answered one question they asked me another one.
The second time it happened, a few months or maybe a year later, there was a horrible déjà vu. I was in my high school, a small private Christian school, in a small room where sometimes a few students would hang out and study. There were only a handful of other people there in the room. But the same questions started.
"Do you have a boyfriend?"
"Do you have sex?"
Almost an exact repeat. I don't remember all of the specific questions or their wording, but I do remember at the time, that the questions were almost or exactly the same as the first time. And just like the first time, I had a gut instinct that I was being made an object of mockery, and that everyone else was in on the joke, and that even though I knew I was being made fun of, I still couldn't shut it down. To the best of my knowledge, the people who did it the second time didn't even know any of the people who did it the first time.
None of them may have known that I'm autistic, or maybe all of them did. High school is when I started being a lot more open about it. (It's also when I first got involved in autistic activism and self-advocacy work.) But they had all figured out, whether or not they knew the specific word for what kind of neurodivergent I am, that I was gullible, easily manipulated, and hilarious (for them). They had figured out I wouldn't say no. They had figured out I wouldn't evade or shut it down. They had figured out I wouldn't turn the tables and set the questions on them, let alone give them a verbal smackdown. They had figured out I was socially awkward, socially oblivious, and socially ignorant enough to walk into their trap and lay there. All of those traits are related to being autistic in a neurotypical-dominant world.
This is a very specific and particular kind of sexual harassment. I know that now even if at the time all I knew was that I was being mocked without knowing exactly how/why. And while I may not remember the exact questions, wording, or sequence, I'll never forget how I felt so ashamed and exposed in both of those situations, because I felt like I was supposed to both prove that I was sexually knowledgeable/experienced to be socially accepted, and, like any information that I had had any sexual activity at all would also mean I was filthy and gross. (I'm sure plenty of that also had to do with purity culture, since I was raised in an Evangelical Christian church, and once even went to a church retreat with a special day set aside for purity and keeping ourselves pure until our [with Christians, heterosexual, monogamous, child-bearing] marriages. And we were taught that sex wasn't dirty ... but only if it met those requirements.)
In my lifetime, I never really got the message that I was expected to be nonsexual and desexualized because I am autistic. (I know many other autistic people do get those messages -- especially if they are nonspeaking and/or have multiple other apparent disabilities.) Instead, I got a series of messages that I was in fact a sexual being, but anything to do with my sexuality was gross and an object of mockery, or, to be used only for really fucked up fetishes for which I could become a fantasy object (but that was much later). I'm willing to bet money that I am not the only autistic person of any gender or sexuality or asexuality to have had this kind of sexual harassment happen to them. It seems particularly targeted to people who are neurodivergent in pretty specific ways, and like it particularly emerged in adolescence -- in high school -- though I'm sure it could and has happened to autistic adults of younger and older ages too.
Just in case I wasn't clear, this kind of behavior and sexual interrogation is ableist sexual harassment and ableist bullying, and can probably amount to ableist sexual abuse depending on the circumstances. I can probably think of even more ways in which my a/sexuality was targeted by some or another person or group to be dragged into the open and mocked, but honestly, I'd prefer not to go trawling through memories that it seems like I've blocked out at least some of. My point is that many of us have had extremely varied experiences with all types of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, both the type of abuse that desexualizes disabled people, and the type of abuse that hyper-sexualizes and/or mocks or pities, and some of it can be incredibly disability-specific.
His name is Niko Boskovic, and he uses a letterboard to communicate, by pointing at each letter to spell his words. The program is the Odd Fellows and Rebekahs U.N. Educational Pilgrimage for Youth, which brings youth from across the United States to the U.N. each year. (And they should be ashamed of themselves, and fix this, immediately.)
They are refusing to allow Niko to participate because he needs support to communicate. They are calling his mom, who has volunteered to pay out of pocket to travel to provide him communication support, a "chaperone" who is not allowed on the trip. That means that (a) they refuse to recognize her role as a human accommodation (like a reader, a notetaker, a transcriptionist, a personal attendant, or an interpreter serves as a human accommodation); and (b) they believe Niko is incompetent and less than his peers since a "chaperone" would only be there as someone to supervise him. Chaperones at middle school dances supervise the students in futile efforts to prevent "dirty dancing." Chaperones on school buses supervise the students in totally ineffectual efforts to prevent bullying, food throwing, and jumping off the bus (okay, maybe a bit more effectively at that last one). Chaperones of small children supervise the students to make sure they aren't accidentally wandering away from their field trips only to end up lost, hit by cars, or kidnapped. et cetera. That language makes it clear that they believe Niko is less competent and not on equal ground with his peers such that he is trying to bring a "chaperone" to participate.
Niko would be planning to bring his mother as a support person, meaning, to provide him with the tools he needs to communicate, participate, and take full advantage of the opportunity. This is horrifying and wrong, and not entirely dissimilar to when organizations like colleges and courts (as they do all the fucking time, for the record) deny d/Deaf and hard of hearing people the right to sign language interpretation (especially tactile for deafblind people) or CART captioning. (Yes, Niko not being able to participate in some educational program sponsored by a fraternal society is not in any universe the same thing as someone being denied interpretation at a hearing that could result in them being locked up indefinitely in jails/prisons that may literally kill them.) But it is, at its core, denying his right to communicate and to reasonable accommodation, and in so doing, demeaning his form of communication and presuming his inherent incompetence.
You know what this reminds me of? My study abroad experience when I was in college and older than Niko currently is.
Firstly, the staff member in the college's study abroad office insisted, in the most patronizing tone ever, that I should disclose to my professors immediately once abroad, not because of a specific cultural difference related to disability, but because I "just ... seem different" and that "it's obvious that you're different in any classroom." (Saying the word "different" in a tone of voice that sounded a lot like, "not normal and therefore maybe scary, unpredictable, or otherwise uncomfortable for other people to be around.")
Then, the external program's staff demanded to schedule a meeting with me on very short notice (right before Thanksgiving break), so they could question whether or not I would be "safe." They were worried I would not be "safe" because of details about my disabilities that I did not consent to be disclosed to them and that were not included in my file with the disability services office (meaning they only got those details by creepily looking me up online, again, without my consent).
Note also that at the time I was planning to study abroad, I had a cumulative GPA below the required 3.0 to receive approval from the university to do study abroad. I was also a declared major in a department that required its undergrad majors to study abroad in order to graduate. So I had one part of the university telling me I was not allowed to study abroad based solely on my grades (which were undoubtedly impacted by all sorts of ableism and insufficiently or not-at-all accommodated disability), and another part of the university telling me I had to study abroad or else I couldn't graduate.
And when I finally went and got separate special approval to go do it, I got hit with a double whammy super extra special dose of ableism, in the form of questioning whether or not it would be feasible or safe for me to participate in a program, and reminding me that unless I can pass for neurotypical to other people's standards (which apparently, despite all the hate mail I get deriding me for being "high functioning/mild/not really disabled" and thus unable to talk about disability, I don't), I "just seem different" (and meaning it with all the possible negative attitudes attached to the term).
Niko Boskovic deserves better. He went through the process to compete, and even knowing he is autistic and uses a letterboard, the Oregon chapter supported him and endorsed his nomination. The only reason the national program has denied his nomination and rejected him as a delegate is because of his disability. And that's ableist as fuck.
I also want to note that while I haven't been blogging a whole lot in the past few years, the other thing that's been nagging in my craw lately has been the recent news coverage of several autistic students in Florida -- one Filipinx, one Black, and one white -- subjected to appalling punishment and even arrest and police force as a means of control and compliance training, in response to their existing while autistic. Their names, respectively, are Seraph Isaac Jones (check that link for a fundraiser to help Seraph and family cover a neuropsych evaluation that could help him in fighting the awful fucking school), Ashton Gelfand, and John Benjamin Haygood.
The same state where Reginald Cornelius Latson (better known as Neli), a Black autistic adult, has also been confined, indefinitely, in the very same institution as Arnaldo ... after suffering solitary confinement and other abuse for years in Virginia prisons stemming from his arrest after police were called because he existed in public while Black and autistic waiting for a library to open. (That's after the governor's "conditional pardon" by the way.)
What strikes me about all of this ableist violence in/near schools and similar environments, is how ordinary it is.
In the past several years, I've met and talked to hundreds, if not potentially thousands, of autistic and other disabled people. Almost every single one of us has survived at least one (and usually) multiple traumas, often beginning with family of origin or the school system, or both. Just from my friends and people I interact with regularly, I bear witness constantly to the devastating impact of ableist schools, ableist doctors, ableist police, ableist social workers, ableist bureaucrats, ableist families, ableist neighbors, ableist bosses ... on the literal physical and mental health of disabled people, especially those whose experiences lie at the intersections of disability, race, gender, class, and sexuality.
I'm glad these stories are receiving attention in news media, but to those of us without the same privilege and power, it's not news. We've always already been living this violence, and it needs to stop.
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