Nothing About Us Without Us
This familiar slogan from the disability rights movement is being raised increasingly by autistic rights activists. Autistic people have a history of self-organization in groups like Autism Network International (ANI), Autistic Self Advocacy Network(ASAN), and more recently the London Autism Rights Movement. While the Internet has made it easier for individuals to connect both locally and on a wider scale autistic people also come together in the physical world. Autreat has seen a regular gathering of autistic people and their allies since it was launched by ANI in 1996 and, for those unable to make the trip to America, a group of autistic people based in the UK launched Autscape in 2005. Alongside these annual events there are numerous local groupings with activities ranging from social gatherings to serious campaigning.
When you combine physical presence with a wired community the results can be impressive. Two years ago the NYU Child Study Centre launched the now infamous “Ransom Notes” poster campaign. It promoted the idea that autism along with other neurological disorders was kidnapping our children. Bloggers responded with outrage. ASAN stepped in to coordinate the protests. 22 disability organizations from around the world joined the protest and NYU dropped the campaign.
Earlier this year Action for Children ran a TV advertising campaign that presented autism as a monster that trapped children. The blogosphere was again quick to respond. A parent launched a Face Book campaign which soon attracted a thousand followers, one of whom enlisted the support of Tony Attwood, and organized complaints to the Advertising Standards Council. Action for Children stood by their campaign, which nevertheless ended a week ahead of schedule.
Mention of Tony Attwood reminds me that he is at present on the receiving end of a campaign by ASAN who have launched an online petition to express their opposition to his continuing association with Families of Adults Affected by Asperger’s Syndrome (FAAAS) which has moderated its name (it used to be known as Families of Adults Afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome) if not its stance that wives and children are the victims of men who use their Asperger Syndrome as an excuse for unreasonable behaviour towards their families.
In this case I am not so certain that public protest is the way forward. It is one thing to use the politics of protest to confront high profile images and messages that damage the public perception of the autistic community. It is quite another to demand that someone change their mind based on public opinion. That requires debate and discussion. I agree with ASAN that Tony Attwood ought to disassociate himself from FAAAS and their use of his name on their website. How we go about it is a question of tactics not principles
This brings me to my final point. How can autistic self advocates position themselves to influence decisions before they are taken instead of having to protest about the consequences of those decisions taken without them? And, bearing in mind the well documented difficulties that autistic people have navigating the nuanced world of social communication, what can we do to help them? Maybe it is they who can help us. Autistic plain speaking could cut through the doublespeak that bedevils the political process.
In the USA the Inter-Agency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) that advises federal agencies like the National Institutes for Health (NIH) on priorities for autism research invited members of ASAN onto the committee and took account of their representations. ASAN have also had meetings with the relevant advisors in President Obama’s policy teams.
Things are happening in the UK as well. Parliamentary support for the Autism Bill led to the government setting up an external reference group chaired by National Autistic Society (NAS) chief executive, Mark Lever. The vice chair was autistic adult, Anya Ustaszewski. The input of the autistic adults on the group has helped to shape the public consultation launched by the government that will lead to statutory guidance for local authorities on meeting the needs of adults on the spectrum.
The NAS has come a long way in transforming itself from a parent led group to one that takes autistic adults seriously. A number have been elected to the NAS Council and one serves as a member of the board of trustees. But there is still a lot to do. Even quite able autistic adults can be excluded because they cannot cope with big meetings or face to face negotiations in committees. For others, their difficulties with communication make it hard for them to get their message across. And those with additional learning difficulties are even more disadvantaged.
The good thing is that autistic people are demanding to be heard. Governments, along with other public bodies and autism charities have declared a willingness to listen. No doubt there will be future improvements to the wired world that will help the process. But people have to be willing to create those opportunities. We could start by taking seriously the slogan with which I began this article.