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.