I am aware that I am in many ways culturally privileged, I look as if I belong to the dominant culture (although I don’t), my first language is the language of where I live and work (but not the idioms or acronyms) and I am reasonable healthy and financially not in a state of worry. Even so, I am very aware of how difference is not always seen as valuable nor even as equally valid.
Having recently won a national autism recognition award, I was interested in the language being used by autistics and allistics during the awards event. Where people are not equally valued during their formative years, where their differences are not understood, nor accepted, they can absorb aspects of that and speak in ways that reflect it. I am so grateful that my family and teachers saw my potential hand in hand with my ‘quirks’ and expected me to do well. I absorbed their expectations and as with most educational self-fulfilling prophecies, fulfilled the prophecy. Many autistics do not have such positive experiences, with people around them sending messages of less than and unacceptably different through subtle but continuous misunderstandings of what it means to be autistic.
I once heard on a radio station that someone was ‘so severely autistic that they cannot tell their left from their right’ which I find amusing because that is something I cannot do either and yet no-one had ever before given me any indication that this was problematic in any important ways. (Just to be clear, I have two work abounds, 1 – a GPS that talks and has big arrows showing which way, and 2 – if you hold your hands face down and your thumbs and finds at right angle the side that makes a capital L is the left). Imagine if I had been told all throughout my life that I was severely autistic because of this one thing (or any other thing that I struggled or continue to struggle with), and that the tone of voice and the emotion attached to that phrase indicated that this meant I was of lesser worth. How would that have impacted on my wellbeing?
For autistics who do not use speech to communicate, whether sometimes or always, what difference would it make to their lives if their alternative communications of whatever kind were accepted as different, but equally valid and valuable ways of communicating? After all their are people who use clicks to communicate, others who write in computer code or dance or paint or make music to communicate, so why is it that the spoken word is seen as more valid and by implication more valuable in many education systems and most workplaces (even those where people are not required to talk).
When I started a new job last year and they removed the light bulbs (awful floro strip lighting) from above my desk without any question or judgement, they sent me a message of acceptance and that my difference was equally valid and had no negative impact on my value as an employee. If all autistics could have this level of acceptance and support I am sure that they would be more comfortable in themselves, less stressed and therefore more able to live well long term. If more employers were willing to accept the differences within humanity and not require a social skill set even in workplaces that aim to minimise socialising amongst employees, autistics would find it easier to gain and keep employment.
If you are not autistic, please seek to understand and accept the individual differences of those of us who are autistic, wether or not we have diagnoses. I am saddened to see how difficult it is for children and young people both with and without a diagnoses, when their differences are not understood and they are categorised as ‘too difficult’ or ”too weird’ or too anything. These categories overlook the inherent value in ALL people (and indeed all living beings). Difference is vital for the planet, if we had only one type of anything it places the whole ecosystem at risk. Neurodiversity is an important part of human diversity as divergent thinking is required to problem solve both large and small issues, to bring creativity to a wider range of people and ensure that we do not forget that difference is equally valid and valuable.