De-legitimization is the process by which voices are silenced through removing their legitimacy. This can be a good thing, for example, when one understands that a Senator who was raised in a wealthy family and is still wealthy today has no legitimacy to express the concerns of the poor, or when one understands that a totalitarian government that represses all opposition and dissidence has no legitimacy for its people, who did not choose and do not want it. Those might be considered positive or constructive examples of de-legitimization.
The de-legitimization of Autistic voices only serves to confirm that we still have a long journey to take. Until Autistics can be given equal footing at the table, in the conversations about autism and about us, without repeated inquiries into our fitness to be speaking or to be representing other Autistics, we will not be equal members of society.
But for any marginalized community, and for me in particular as an Autistic, de-legitimization can become a frightening and threatening process that occurs nearly constantly. For Autistics, de-legitimization is the name for what happens when people, usually but not always non-Autistics, attempt to remove any legitimacy from the words or opinions of the Autistic person, so that that voice is rendered silent and unheard, so that that voice is not lent credence or granted validity.
There are two major ways that this happens.
The first fallacy is the "not Autistic enough" or "not really Autistic" fallacy. This is the fallacy that assumes that because a person appears to be "high-functioning," has a relatively invisible level of disability, or is assumed to be less disabled that that person is not Autistic or disabled enough to understand more severe disability in Autistic people. Sometimes the ability to write a blog post is conflated with having adaptive functioning skills and life skills such as taking care of one's own hygiene, cooking meals for oneself, transporting oneself, and determining one's own schedule, when in many cases, this is simply not true. Sometimes the ability to write a blog post is even equated with the regular and consistent ability to use oral speech as a means of communication, when this is not always the case.
It is not possible to be more or less Autistic than someone else, but it is possible to be more or less disabled than another Autistic person. And it is true that every Autistic person has a different set of strengths, abilities, challenges, and needs, and that in the context of the society in which we live, some Autistic people are more disabled than other Autistic people. But part of what defines being Autistic is being disabled, and thus it is not possible to be Autistic and to not be disabled. It is impossible to be Autistic and not share in the experiences of the world that bind together those of us who are Autistic. At its core, autism is characterized by key differences in information and sensory processing that typically manifest as communication challenges, social atypicalities, and disability.
Autistic adults, regardless of specific abilities and needs, can relate to other Autistic adults and children on a level that is not quite possible for non-Autistics. That is not to say that an Autistic stranger will understand an Autistic child better than the child's non-Autistic parent -- and certainly not that any random Autistic stranger will love that child in any way that can mirror the parent's love -- but it is to say that because all Autistics share certain common characteristics on the neurological level, it is tragic and unfortunate when anyone dismisses the voice of an Autistic adult on the basis of not being Autistic enough to relate to or understand another Autistic's challenges or needs.
Sometimes the argument is made that if an individual can communicate or express ideas at all, he or she cannot possibly actually be Autistic because of this expressing of ideas, but this is not at all true. Behavior is communication, as Julia Bascom observes so powerfully, and advocacy begins with "no," as Kassiane Sibley knows from personal experience. Extreme challenges with expressive communication do not always mean significant challenges with receptive communication. Inability to speak does not mean inability to sign or point or type -- a few words at a time or entire blog posts. And the use of oral speech does not necessarily mean the effective or pragmatic use of oral speech either.
But this idea of some Autistics as not really Autistic enough or not Autistic at all is not the only fallacy repeatedly used to de-legitimize the voices of Autistic advocates. The other fallacy, in comparison, is almost worse, and possibly even more damaging. This second mistake is the fallacy of dismissing an Autistic's thoughts or ideas because the person is Autistic -- it is the fallacy of "too Autistic to understand." The argument is that an Autistic person is incapable of perspective-taking, understanding circumstances different from his or her own, or empathizing, and that therefore the Autistic person cannot truly appreciate or understand the complexities of a situation, policy, issue, or life. Based on this argument, any Autistic person has no reason to speak, literally or metaphorically, at all -- whether about his or her own life and needs or about issues and ideas that affect all Autistic people and their families.
This argument reeks even more of ableism than the previous one. Most of its assumptions are patently untrue. While Autistics might have significant trouble reading facial expressions or body language, or interpreting tone of voice or other prosodic elements of oral speech, we by no means are incapable of perspective-taking. An inordinate number of Autistics, in fact, continue to play imaginary play games well into adulthood, such as various types of roleplaying games. Other Autistics are writers of novels and short stories and fanfiction. All of these activities require the ability to take different perspectives from one's own, and at a minimum, the roleplaying and fanfiction worlds are often very much niches for Autistics and Autistic Cousins (ACs).
And the myth of lacking empathy is one of the most tragic and ableist myths still rampant in our time. There have been a few studies dissecting this myth that demonstrate that not only do Autistics experience empathy as much as their non-Autistic peers, but in certain circumstances, Autistics on average experience higher levels of empathy.(1) It is well known that Autistics have difficulty interpreting nonverbal communication standard to the subtext of social interactions between non-Autistics; thus, it ought to be no surprise that Autistics may not interpret nonverbal cues that someone is upset or afraid or frustrated or sad or anxious, and then respond in a way that suggests the Autistic is oblivious to the other person's feelings. It's not that the Autistic is oblivious to other people's feelings so much as the Autistic is unable to interpret or analyze the body language or implicit hints to those feelings.(2) Autistic people can make very loyal friends.
The argument that Autistic people are incapable of truly understanding a situation or an issue lacks merit. Of course, it may be that there are individual Autistics who may not understand a particular situation or issue or its complexities, just as there may be individual non-Autistics who may also not understand that same situation or issue or its complexities, but that lack of understanding likely has very little to do with the fact that the individual is Autistic. The idea of self-advocacy, in fact, originated with the intellectual and cognitive disability community rather than with the Autistic community -- these people might represent, to some, the epitome of a person incapable of higher-order thinking and reasoning on the basis of having an intellectual or cognitive disability. But self-advocates with intellectual and cognitive disabilities have repeatedly challenged these assumptions and stereotypes about their capacity to participate in determining not only their own lives but also public policy.
If a young Black or African American woman were told she wasn't "black enough" to represent other young Blacks or African Americans, there would be national uproar. If she happened to be so light-skinned she could almost pass for white, and was told that therefore she had no right to call herself Black or African American, much less speak for other Blacks or African Americans, there would be considerable upset. Or if she happened to have lived in the poorest part of St. Louis all her life, dropped out of high school to work to support her family, and never finished her diploma, only to be told that because of her socio-economic and educational status, she wouldn't be able to understand the issues facing and directly affecting her as a young Black or African American woman from a poor part of the country, there would be outrage. Of course she has not personally experienced every possible life experience of every Black or African American in America. Of course her personal triumphs and struggles are individualized and specific to her life. But she has every right to speak as a representative of other people like her.
While those arguments against such a young woman would undoubtedly be the target of much criticism in the public sphere, they exemplify precisely the type of de-legitimization that the ever common fallacies of "not Autistic enough" and "too Autistic to understand" seek to emulate and apply to Autistics with devastating consequences. And it needs to end.
(1) Kimberley Rogers, Isabel Dziobek, Jason Hassenstab, Oliver T. Wolf and Antonio Convit. "Who Cares? Revisiting Empathy in Asperger Syndrome." Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 37(4): 709-715. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-006-0197-8
(2) "Autistic people may, therefore, neither at all be mind-blind nor lack empathy for others, but be hyper-aware of selected fragments of the mind, which may be so intense that they avoid eye contact, withdraw from social interactions and stop communicating. In such a scenario, the world may become painfully intense for autistics and we, therefore, propose autism as an Intense World Syndrome."
Henry Markram, Tania Rinaldi, and Kamila Markram. "The Intense World Syndrome – an Alternative Hypothesis for Autism." Front Neurosci. 2007 November; 1(1): 77–96. Published online 2007 October 15. Prepublished online 2007 September 1. doi: 10.3389/neuro.01.1.1.006.2007