Like most words that see common use in the autism or Autistic communities, "ally" has its own share of baggage. People who call themselves "allies" have bullied, belittled, or derailed Autistic people, while other people who call themselves "allies" are guilty of overt ableism, marginalizing Autistic people, or taking over conversations where Autistic voices should be at the center.
So who gets to be an ally?
You are not an ally if you dismiss an Autistic person's experiences because of your perceptions of that person's abilities and challenges.
You are not an ally if you insist that your voice and your experiences are more important, accurate, or necessary than those of an Autistic.
You are not an ally if you refuse to acknowledge the validity of an Autistic person's opinions or ideas.
You are not an ally if you routinely attack or dismiss an Autistic person's opinions or ideas.
You are not an ally if you use repeatedly use language that an Autistic person has told you is offensive or triggering, or if you insist on using that language anyway.
You are not an ally if you patronize or talk down to an Autistic person.
You are not an ally if you insist that we or your kids are broken, diseased, or defective.
You are not an ally if you insist that an Autistic adult is "not like your child" and therefore can't speak to any of your child's experiences or perceptions.
You are not an ally if you insist that an Autistic is simply too angry or too emotional or unable to empathize.
You are not an ally if you routinely take the self-expressions of Autistic people as personal attacks on you, and make yourself the victim of hurt feelings in any conversation.
You are not an ally if you turn the focus of the conversation back to you and your feelings, especially if that was never the purpose of the conversation.
You don't get to be an ally by calling yourself one.
And you don't get to be an ally because you think you're one.
We and we alone get to determine who our allies are.
Many of our allies were anything but when they entered the world of autism. Others intuitively understood the way it is, and knew what it meant for our community to be marginalized. Some of them are parents and others are friends. Some are professionals, and some had no direct connection with autism until they met one of us -- online or in person.
Most of our true allies aren't there looking for recognition or fame for themselves. That's another marker of a good ally. We give it to them anyway in blog posts and on social media and in private discussions about who are allies are, because it's so very rare to find good allies. (In fact, in November 2011, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network awarded its first Outstanding Ally Award to Nancy Thaler, Executive Director of the National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disability Services.)
Most of our allies don't go around insisting that they are allies and shoving that word down everyone's throats. They know that they're our allies, and we know that they're our allies, and there's no need to wear a neon flashing sign that says "HELLO! I'M AN ALLY AND MY NAME IS ___." People who feel the need to advertise their self-proclaimed "ally" status probably aren't our allies. (They might be in the future, but if you feel the need to reassure yourself like that on a constant basis, you probably aren't.)
And our allies are there for us not only in the pleasant, seemingly calm times, but also when we are being attacked, de-legitimized, and silenced. Allies assert our right to be part of and leading in a conversation about us. Allies speak loudly against de-legitimization and derailing, and stand with us when the media, the public, or just about anyone else insists on devaluing our lives and experiences.
We can see who are true allies are in bad situations. The true allies stay with us. The superficial ones seize the opportunity to show their true colors.
An ally is a person who understands that the leading voices in the conversation about autism must be Autistics, who accepts that the best authorities on the Autistic experience are Autistic people, who recognizes that the balance of power has historically marginalized and excluded Autistic people, who listens before speaking, and who supports the empowerment of Autistic people in words and actions, but mostly in actions.
And an ally is a person who will be neither intimidated nor swayed by the plethora of misinformation, misconceptions, de-legitimizations, and derailing levied constantly against us.
An ally is a person outside the Autistic community -- the community of Autistic people -- who is welcomed to join with the Autistic community in celebrating our identity and working toward the creation of a world where Autistic people are accepted and respected and included in all spheres of public and private life, across the lifespan, and regardless of severity of disability or presence of co-occurring conditions.
Anyone who isn't Autistic can be an ally.
You don't have to have an Autistic family member or significant other. (But you will have Autistic friends eventually if you don't yet.)
Some of the best allies can be people with other disabilities or from other historically marginalized groups. (They can sometimes also be the worst "allies.")
Bottom line, no one gets to call themselves an ally.
The Autistic community gets to decide who are our allies, because that's what an ally is -- someone who aligns with someone else, not someone who is in control of the conversation or relationship from the start.