My discrimination story begins in a surprising place – an autism support group. I volunteered there for many years, caring for children during meetings. One day, a new mother came to the group, and brought her autistic son with her. I asked if I could watch him in another room, and was met with a flat out refusal. I was surprised. I’d been doing this successfully for a long time with many parents’ children and had never been met with anything but appreciation. Why now would this change? At the end of the meeting, the mother approached me, apologizing for not having trusted me with her son. Someone had been talking about another girl at the meeting who was autistic, she said – and she’d thought that someone was me.
In short, even this mother of an autistic child was judging me not by my actions, but by her stigmatized view of autistic people. The moment was made all the more painful because the girl the woman mistook me for? She was my little sister, Caley. Up until that point, I’d never really given much thought to the stigma Caley bore, thinking that people would just see her for who she was. It was a shocking moment for me when I realized that Caley had to confront that stigma every single day.
Looking back at my sister’s life with that revelation, I now realize that her entire life has been shaped by stigma. When Caley was growing up, people were quick to tell us what she couldn't do. She'd never go to a ‘normal’ school, never read, never write an essay, never pass an Honors class, never pass an AP class, never go to college, never be able to live away from home. In short, Caley would never be where she is today, having done all of those things and more. Yet with each new hurdle passed, and each naysayer discredited, a new person steps up to take their place. Are they judging her for who she is or what they imagine an autistic person to be? Given how successful she’s been, it’s clear it’s the latter.
The problem isn’t with the label of autism, but with what we imagine it to entail. There is a stigmatizing narrative in society that autistic people are not only different, but also lesser. If you were to imagine an autistic person based on this narrative and nothing more, you would imagine a person who cannot communicate, is unintelligent, emotionless, violent, incompetent, and needs to be saved from themselves. Yet those of us who know autistic people know little could be further from the truth.
But in recognizing the problem, the solution becomes clear. Stigma comes from ignorance and misinformation and the best weapon to combat that is education. So not just this month, but every month, I’m going to ask you to take up arms against stigma. If you’re new to the autism community, make an effort to learn about what autistic people are actually like. And if you’re an old pro, join Caley and me in educating people about what being autistic really means. Every single time you hear someone spread a harmful myth about autistic people, whether it be online or in person, speak up! Your actions may feel small, but know their impact is huge.
Working together we can make a better society for autistic people.