Autistic Future
December 31st, 2019

Autistic Life in the 2010s

In the first years of the 2010s, hope­less­ness about the Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty’s future was still fair­ly main­stream. Autism was Rain Man or an epi­dem­ic, a scourge, in the pop­u­lar con­scious­ness Now, an open­ly Autis­tic girl is Time’s Per­son of the Year. That event is a great sum­ma­tion of a decade of great change, most­ly for the bet­ter, a time of remark­able progress. Efforts to address the prob­lem of wide­spread, Autis­tic unem­ploy­ment are grow­ing. The num­ber of open­ly Autis­tic pro­fes­sion­als and politi­cians con­tin­ues to rise. Although research pri­or­i­ties are still more skewed toward genet­ics, cau­sa­tion, and mak­ing Autis­tic peo­ple social­ly accept­able to neu­rotyp­i­cals than most Autis­tics would like, open dis­cus­sion of a cure for autism is less social­ly accept­able than it used to be. Pri­or­i­ties are begin­ning to change. The Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty should look back on the 2010s with pride. Despite the dan­gers of our times, we should approach the future with cau­tious opti­mism. That said, our very progress con­tains chal­lenges and per­ils. The con­di­tion our com­mu­ni­ty will be in at the end of the 2020s, and its sur­vival for decades to come, depends on how well we nav­i­gate them.

Autis­tic peo­ple’s cir­cum­stances improved dur­ing the 2010s, and we can take par­tic­u­lar pride in that because no one hand­ed it to us. We won it for our­selves. We formed strong com­mu­ni­ties. We demand­ed a seat at the table when pol­i­cy deci­sions were being made about peo­ple like us. We stood up to the cor­po­rate spon­sors of eugen­ics. We pro­duced high-qual­i­ty jour­nal­ism. We have start­ed tra­di­tions of our own. This isn’t to say that the peo­ple who are loud­est on the inter­net got every­thing done. While social media unde­ni­ably played a sub­stan­tial role in our activism and the growth of our com­mu­ni­ty, the most sig­nif­i­cant vic­to­ries often hap­pened behind closed doors, between employ­er and employ­ee, in con­fer­ence rooms, on con­fer­ence calls, on Capi­tol Hill, around din­ner tables, in the main­stream media, and between friends. Tra­di­tion­al, seri­ous pol­i­cy work, qual­i­fi­ca­tions, and exper­tise mat­tered. So did rela­tion­ships and the qui­et kind of lob­by­ing that hap­pens with­in them. In many ways, in many places, we snatched dig­ni­ty and respect for ourselves.

Our progress is laud­able, but we still have a long way to go. Pover­ty is still nor­mal in our com­mu­ni­ty. It is still too hard for Autis­tic peo­ple, espe­cial­ly those who do not pass well as neu­rotyp­i­cal to be accept­ed and tak­en seri­ous­ly. Accep­tance isn’t just hav­ing friends, though the impor­tance of belong­ing and hav­ing social con­nec­tions should nev­er be under­stat­ed. It takes a cer­tain amount of being accept­ed to be tak­en seri­ous­ly in a job inter­view or at the doc­tor’s office. A cer­tain min­i­mal degree of accep­tance is nec­es­sary to avoid pover­ty and live a long, healthy life. That said, more and more of us, espe­cial­ly those of us who can pass well, espe­cial­ly those of us who are not oppressed for oth­er inter­sec­tion­al iden­ti­ties, are doing well. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, that comes with risks and dan­gers of its own.

The first waves of open­ly Autis­tic peo­ple to attain good jobs, mid­dle class lifestyles, and respect­ed roles in their com­mu­ni­ties will inevitably run into prob­lems in their new envi­rons. Some­times, it will be overt big­otry and obvi­ous dis­crim­i­na­tion. More com­mon­ly, these issues will take the form of microag­gres­sions and thought­less inac­ces­si­bil­i­ty. Many of us will hit these obsta­cles and lev­el them, mak­ing the path eas­i­er for those who come after, with vary­ing degrees of dam­age to our­selves. Most of us will find ways to thrive. The ques­tion, then, is how the grow­ing cadre of suc­cess­ful Autis­tics will treat the rest of our com­mu­ni­ty. Will the peo­ple who are com­fort­able and social­ly accept­able enough remem­ber and main­tain a sense of sol­i­dar­i­ty with Autis­tic peo­ple who are still strug­gling? Will friend­ships still cross this grow­ing divide? Will we rec­og­nize that peo­ple who do not expe­ri­ence sys­temic oppres­sion relat­ed to oth­er iden­ti­ties are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly ben­e­fit­ing from the progress we’ve made and deal with prob­lems like racism in our com­mu­ni­ty? Will those of us who are doing fine remain oper­a­tives of the Neu­rov­di­ver­si­ty Move­men­t’s promise that no one is too dis­abled to have rights?

I hope so. This is a mat­ter of whether our com­mu­ni­ty sur­vives and a mat­ter of whether our com­mu­ni­ty deserves to. If those of us who are con­ven­tion­al­ly suc­cess­ful for­get our strug­gling sib­lings, Autis­tic iden­ti­ty among the con­ven­tion­al­ly suc­cess­ful risks becom­ing the kind of feel-good club for the “high func­tion­ing” that the most dis­hon­est and unfair crit­ics of our move­ment claim it already is. If that hap­pens, our com­mu­ni­ty will prob­a­bly not be com­pelling enough to draw new peo­ple in, and it will fade away. If we fall into that trap, our com­mu­ni­ty will deserve its grad­ual demise. If we nav­i­gate the risks of our own suc­cess effec­tive­ly, we will have done more for the wel­fare of Autis­tic peo­ple by the end of the 2020s. The Neu­ro­di­ver­si­ty Move­ment will sur­vive as a force for good in the world. If we make the wrong choic­es, if we aban­don the peo­ple our com­mu­ni­ty most needs to cen­ter, pro­tect, and sup­port, we will be on our way out.