14 April, 2010

letter to my friend who identifies as Autistic

I guess maybe I'm weird but even though I don't like the word autistic, I really like the word Autistic. The first time I saw you use it I thought it was the cutest thing ever. Also, when you wrote my social story, you said something about how it would be nice to have "another Autistic friend who lived nearby," and when you said that it felt really nice.

I mean, maybe I just like it the way you like the words you associate with someone you like, but I don't think that's true, I think I like it for real.

I think my thoughts are:

1. I definitely don't like Aspie--well, obviously, because I don't identify that way, but also because it's mega cutesy anyway.

2. I actually like autie but it feels more casual and it's not something I would use most of the time. Sort of like calling myself gaygerms or calling people trial. [That is, something I do with good friends or when writing instructions for myself.]

3. I like ASD best because I can't be accused of being inaccurate, and because I don't have to declare a major (since I'm a double major, anyway) and also because I like the way it looks.

4. The reasons I don't like autistic are threefold:

A. While I do think autism is one disability like CP, blah blah blah, it kind of bugs me when mildly affected people identify as "autistic" without actually having experience with more severely affected people. I think there is a danger in taking the word "autistic" and applying it to yourself and the ASD people you know, if you are all mildly affected, because then in your mind autistic can come to only mean a particular kind of ASD people. I might not be explaining myself well, but do you see what I mean?

B. Obviously my life is much easier than and very different from the lives of people who are severely affected--although I've come through trial and error to think that things that are harmful to them are insulting to me, and I owe it to them to take it personally. But I would rather not have to explain to some boring strawman-using person that I understand autism is a spectrum and I'm not trying to say all ASD people are like me. I think that ASD gets this point across quicker.

C. In situations like my Child Developmental Disorders class, "autistic" feels like hate speech. I almost feel that autistic-identified people who are very offended by person-first language are, like...addressing a very small minority of normal people who are actually a lot more decent than most normal people. I feel like this supposed big group of normal people who are trying to oppress us with person-first language actually doesn't exist. I feel like a lot of normal people who say "people with autism" tend to be more compassionate towards ASD people, and obviously don't really know about the culture, but are past the really mainstream view of autism, which is:

"Autistic kids" are little monsters who don't care about anyone, are violent, etc. They rock, hit their heads, don't make connections, don't have feelings. They are very hard to live with. "High-functioning autistics" can talk and do brilliant things (with science and computers mostly) but they just talk about their interests all the time and they also don't care about anyone and they might rape you. Autism isn't a disability, it is actually a personality trait/kind of person--it means coldness and indifference.

I know that not everyone ASD is really plugged into this sort of idea but because of various experiences I've ended up being really hyperconscious of it and as a result, the word "autistic" (especially used as a noun) and ideas about "autism is who I am" make me really uncomfortable.

I think I told you this but when I was nineteen I had a friend who had just realized that she was a lesbian at age twenty. Unlike me, she had never thought of herself as being anything other than straight and had never personally dealt with homophobia. She hadn't come out to her parents or most of people around her. I'm not trying to say this to cut her down but just to set up the rest of what happened:

She had this habit of calling me a dyke, constantly, as a joke. When I was younger, I was called a dyke by people who did not see it as a positive term. It's a word that makes me feel awful. When I tried to tell my friend I didn't like it, she would say, "but I hear lesbians calling themselves that." That's how it sometimes makes me feel when ASD people run around saying autistic and calling each other autistic.

(While we're on this analogy, the word "queer" is used at Oberlin with no qualms at all--most non-straight people describe themselves this way, or at least are willing to accept it as a possible descriptor. A gay kid who is from a small midwestern town, and identifies himself on Facebook as "homosexual," mentioned that he found this really confusing and upsetting because he had only heard "queer" as an insult before.)

If I was talking to a normal person, and they said "my cousin has autism," I'd feel MUCH more comfortable with them than if they said "my cousin's autistic." I think the anti-person-first-language thing is sort of a really deep issue IN the ASD community, but in mainstream society, I feel like it's reversed.

5. However, Autistic sounds nice, because it sounds like you and I like you, but also because you can tell from the capital letter that it is about identity, so it gives agency to the person being described. While "autistic kids hit their heads on walls" doesn't give the people being described agency. Also Autistic just sounds kind of cute and old-fashioned, because even though Deaf is still Deaf and probably always will be, people are not Black or Gay or Lesbian anymore. I like old things (like you), so that's one reason I like it. If I stopped calling myself ASD, I would call myself Autistic.

Maybe the difference between my dad and us can be that my dad might be autistic but we're Autistic. Is that it?

(Disclaimer: as I said in my "Why I Dislike Person-Free Language" post, I respect plenty of people who identify as autistic and I'm not trying to insult anyone or say that anyone is being a jerk by using the word autistic--just exploring my feelings about it.)

PS--I forgot to put person-first language on the list, which is funny because it's what I use outside of the Internet. In real life I would probably say "I have autism" or "I have autism spectrum disorder"--or if I'm feeling wimpy, the ego-dystonic and not perfectly accurate "I have Asperger's." When I talk about other people with disabilities, especially ASD, I definitely use person-first language. In my CDD class it's very very important to me to say "kids with autism," "kids with intellectual disabilities," etc.

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