On June 23, I attended the Nisonger Autism Institute, a day-long, invitation-only conference that focused on transition across the lifespan. I’ve been wanting to write on my experience there for some time now, but needed a month in order to cohere my thoughts (and to lower my, um, blood pressure).
I should start off by saying that I’m glad, very glad, that they invited me to attend. Moreover, if they host another institute next year, I hope I’m re-invited. In fact, I hope they they invite a heck of a lot more self-advocates. While there, I was told that the attendance tally was somewhere around 110 people and that only three attendees were autistic. This seems to be par for the course with the autism-centric conferences I’ve attended, unfortunately. It’s not a happy sort of feeling.
Not only were the autistic people missing — so too were the parents. The only parents there, generally speaking, doubled as service providers or professional advocates (e.g., teacher’s aides, psychologists, ASA officers). The sad irony? All of the presenters, to the point of redundancy, stressed how important it is to include family members and self-advocates in “the conversation” — yet there were hardly any family members or self-advocates in this particular conversation.
The highlights of the conference, for me, were Pat Cloppert’s presentation on middle school, as well as the presentation on adulthood by Tom Fish, Benzion Chinn, and Patrick Meehan (the latter two being autistic self-advocates).
What I really, really have been itching to write about, though, was the keynote speaker — Sally Rogers of UC Davis. I knew things would be rocky when, at the start of her talk, she made a shout out to Geri Dawson, Autism Speaks’ Chief Science Officer. (One of our protest signs during last year’s AutSpks walk was: Congratulations, Columbus! You’ve just paid Geri Dawson’s salary. Heh.)
In essence, Rogers stressed the now common refrain about the importance of early intervention. And the neuro-normative biases of this presentation smacked me in the face, minute after minute. Rogers described “deviant” behaviors and “language delays deviance,” and then talked about eliminating “atypicalities” through therapy. More than once, she described autism as having “isolating effects” (you know, rather than mention anything about how a neuro-normative society isolates autistic people because they’re “deviant”), and she also posited that she wants to see “less disability and more function.”
Some of the assumptions undergirding her talk, assumptions that make my skin crawl:
- It is better to be non-autistic than autistic.
- All autistic behaviors (including, but not limited to, stimming, repetition, prosody, ways of communicating or expressing) need to be eliminated.
- Autistic people’s challenges primarily arise from being autistic — this, as opposed to autists dwelling within a one-size-fits-all world. (I’m not saying that autism doesn’t cause challenges. I am saying, however, that representing autism/autistic people as a big bad problem to be eradicated is 1) flagrantly ableist and entrenched in a medical model of disability, and 2) deflects attention away from that ableism. I’m sure I’m saying other things, too. I just haven’t decided what else yet.)
- One can train away autism.
- We need to take as gospel all of the common, dehumanizing ideologies associated with functioning labels, or what it means to be a “functioning” (and thereby more human and desirable) person.
Toward the end of her talk, Rogers showcased several video clips: autistic babies vs. NT babies. And something really disturbing (I think) happened: when she prefaced a video with here’s a typically developing baby, the audience cooed, laughed, reacted happily. When she prefaced a video with here’s an autistic baby, the room grew silent, solemn, non-responsive.
I don’t laugh at babies. Unlike the pope, I don’t kiss babies that are thrown my way. I admit it — babies and I don’t jibe. In that moment, though, I wished I were a baby-liking sort of person — that at least I would have been reacting, laughing, or goo-gooing over the many cute autistic babies.
I don’t think that cute and autistic are mutually exclusive entities. And it’s disturbing to me that service professionals do not find (or behave as though they do not find) those whom they serve to be adorable, cute, beautiful, intelligent, or funny. Unless those whom they serve were to become “more typical,” that is.
At only one point did the audience react positively toward an autistic baby: when Rogers claimed that this baby, because of intensive therapy, was “virtually asymptomatic” and “as cute as can be.” Then the audience laughed.