Socializing through silence

I wish you wouldn’t interpret my silence as silence.

My silence is, in fact, a compliment. It means that I am being my natural self. It means that I am comfortable around you, that I trust you enough to engage my way of knowing, my way of speaking and interacting.

When I dilute my silences with words — your words, the out-of-the-mouth and off-the-cuff kind — I often do so out of fear. Fear that my rhetorical commonplaces — the commonplaces that lie on my hands, sprint in my eyes, or sit nestled in empty sounds — will bring you shame. Fear that my ways of communicating will be branded as pathology, as aberrant, as not being communication at all. Fear that I will lose my job. Fear that I will lose your friendship, guidance, or interest in me. Fear that I’ll be institutionalized. Fear that I will be infantilized. Fear that I’ll be seen as less than human.

This isn’t to say that my use of your language is always a product of fear. There are times when I genuinely want to use it, understand it, and learn about and from it. I understand that speaking is how you prefer to communicate. I understand that speaking is how you best learn and interact. I understand that you take great joy in speaking and listening to others speak. And I do, I really do want to share in that joy.

But the burden can’t always rest on me. I have a language too, one that I take joy in, one that I want to share. And when you deny me that — when you identify my silence as a personality flaw, a detriment, a symptom, a form of selfishness, a matter in need of behavioral therapy or “scripting” lessons — when you do these things, you hurt me. You hurt me deeply. You deny me that which I need in order to find my way through this confusing, oppressive, neurotypical world.

My silence isn’t your silence. My silence is rich and meaningful. My silence is reflection, meditation, and processing. My silence is trust and comfort. My silence is a sensory carnival. My silence is brimming with the things and people around me — and only in that silence can I really know them, appreciate them, “speak” to them, and learn from them.

Speaking is an unnatural process for me. When socializing through speech, I will almost always be awkward, and I am OK with that awkwardness. In fact, I am learning to embrace that awkwardness, learning to reclaim and redefine that awkwardness. I am sorry you’re not OK with that, sorry that you feel I need to practice, or take anti-psychotics, or frequent the university hospital’s psych ward. I’m sorry that you won’t appreciate me for who I am and how I operate in the world. I’m sorry that I can no longer consider you an ally, confidante, or friend.

A photo of me holding a sign that reads LISTEN TO ME, I HAVE AUTISM.
I’m not a checkbox in some symptom cluster. I’m a freaking human being.

But we just want to help people like you.

In many respects, I think the subject heading says it all.

I hear this a lot lately, primarily from undergraduate students who find autistic advocacy reprehensible and/or incomprehensible. In fact, at our protest this fall, someone actually came up to us and said, “If you can self-advocate, then you’re not autistic.” Way to disempower much?

Here is the wonderfully circular logic that has come to constitute much of my advocacy life lately:

Me: What you’re doing is hurtful.
Them: But we just want to help people like you.
Me: You’re not helping. Please stop.
Them: But we just want to help people like you.
Me: But you’re not helping.
Them: BUT WE JUST WANT TO HELP PEOPLE LIKE YOU!!

I’ve spent the past few months trying to devise smart-ass responses to this statement.

  • But I just want to torture people like you.
  • Oh! Yes! Of course! I’m sorry! I forgot that this was all about you!
  • *cuing echolalia* BUT WE JUST WANT TO HELP PEOPLE LIKE YOU!!

And herein lies the frustration: Advocacy isn’t advocacy if it’s merely a synonym for self-interest. If the people you’re claiming to serve are objecting to your help, are telling you that you’re being hurtful… shouldn’t that give you pause?

I have no reason to be grateful for your hurtfulness. I shouldn’t have to grovel because you’re wearing a t-shirt with a puzzle piece on it, or because you’re raising funds to prevent people like me from existing. I shouldn’t have to look you in the eye, tear up, and utter an inflected “thanks” because it makes you feel good about yourself.

My lack of gratefulness isn’t an autism┬ásymptom. My lack of gratefulness doesn’t mean that I’m not disabled. My lack of gratefulness isn’t impoliteness, smugness, self-centeredness, theory of mindlessness, or some other bad-sounding, mega-autism, amorphous blob thing. I shouldn’t have to wake up feeling grateful every morning, as though gratefulness is some sort of requisite pre-condition for being developmentally disabled.

Would you feel grateful for people who want to “eradicate” people like you?

Would you feel grateful for people who refer to you and your loved ones as an “epidemic,” as a “global public health crisis,” as a “disease” more prevalent than “pediatric AIDS, cancer, and diabetes combined”? Would you feel grateful for people who make a career out of representing you and others like you as creatures of pity, contagion, and fear?

Would you feel grateful for people who ask you, in front of large crowds, how old you were when you were toilet-trained? How you manage to have sex? How you wake up every morning knowing that you are you?

Would you feel grateful for people who call your parents “heroes” because they didn’t put you up for adoption?

Would you feel grateful for people who start up college groups that patronize you? Groups that claim to be your “voice,” yet never even consult you? Groups that devise activities meant “for” you or your “benefit,” yet in their very design exclude you and people like you? Make-up parties, gala balls, sorority cookouts, sensory unfriendly films, massive and crowded walks — boisterous, clamorous, noisy events, events advertised to help you, all the while raising funds to get rid of you?

Would you feel grateful for people who claim you don’t exist, merely because you’re over 21? Because you’re a woman? Because you claim to have a sexual orientation?

Would you feel grateful for people who disprove of, and ardently protest, your decision to have children? Would you feel grateful for people who work to revise custody laws so that people like you can’t single-parent or adopt?

Would you feel grateful for people who call you mysterious, puzzling, special, and heroic — because you’re you? (And, of course, being you isn’t something they’d wish on anyone.)

Would you feel grateful for people who regularly describe your body language, ways of gesturing, and ways of interacting as disturbing, inappropriate, deviant, clinical, and abnormal? Would you feel grateful for people who tell you that the way you think, act, know, and sense are all wrong?

Would you feel grateful for people who segregate you from your classmates, people who claim that who you are as a person will have detrimental effects on your peers’ intellectual development?

Would you feel grateful for people who tell you that you’re an “exception” and therefore nothing you say even matters? Would you feel grateful for people who question your diagnosis simply because you disagree with them?

Would you — should you — feel grateful for people who constantly tell you how ungrateful you are?

Would you feel grateful for these people? Seriously? Truly? Because, if that’s the case, perhaps I can teach you how to flex your ungrateful mind muscles.

**

In other news: I’m back, after a small hiatus. Academic life has been a bit hectic (understatement) these past few months.

Columbus protest against Autism Speaks

On Sunday, October 10, I joined forces with a dozen individuals and protested the Autism Speaks Walk for Autism at Ohio State. We faced 18,000 walkers, several of whom screamed at us, berated us, tried to exact physical harm upon us. One walker had to be physically restrained by a friend and a walk official; and at another point, a car full of walkers swerved at our faculty advisor in a mock attempt to hit her, and they drove off laughing.

Me, a white woman with blonde hair, holding a blue sign that reads People not puzzles. There is also a light blue puzzle piece crossed out in red on the poster.
Me holding a sign: “People not puzzles!”

I managed to maintain my composure throughout the protest, regardless of the insults thrown our way, regardless of the noise and clamor and overt hostility of the event. But then I came home and started sifting through an hour’s worth of video footage — and I broke down. Sobbing, shaking, rocking. It was so intense, all so intense.

I don’t want the next generation of autistic people to face this crap. I want it to be different for them. I want them to take pride in who they are as autistic people, and I want those who love them to take pride in who they are as autistic people. I want autistic ways of thinking, being, and knowing to be valued and validated. I want autistic people to have a say in the decisions that concern them.

And most importantly, I want there to be autistic people.

Video recaps of the protest:

Our protest attracted media attention from 10TV, ABC 6, and independent journalists. Even today — Wednesday, four days later — random strangers notice the Autistic Pride button on my backpack and exclaim, “Hey! I saw you on the news! You talked about where the money goes for that autism walk.” These things help — knowing that our four-hour ordeal has had some tangible effect, has furthered our cause.

We were featured on the ABC 6 news, and I provided a brief soundbite:

We also created our own video of the protest. Nick J. was our cameraman extraordinaire, and I did the editing. The video is still painful for me to watch — especially toward the end, while we’re chanting Autism Speaks needs to listen, and, in an alarming touch of irony, the walkers drown us out by collectively screaming O-H-I-O!

As I replay the clip, I have to cover my ears, tuck my chin down into my chest, breathe heavy. It is hard to watch, but it is a poignant example of Autism Speaks’ attempts to silence us, to refuse to listen to us, to never let autistics speak.

This post wouldn’t be complete without a thank you. Thank you. An incredible number of people, local and distant, helped us through this protest. And despite the protest’s emotional toll, perhaps even because of the protest’s emotional toll, I’m glad we did it. And I know that we need to continue doing it. Change is long and hard. But it’s happening.

Protesters face the crowd of walkers
Protesters face the crowd of walkers