24 March 2015

5 Ableist Reasons Autistic Bloggers Lag Behind

(Autistic tangent/photo description: So the title of this post contains the phrase "Ableist Reasons" and the word "Bloggers." I thought I'd find a picture of me typing on a laptop, but couldn't find one, so I settled for this photo of me at the University of Victoria in November 2014, giving a talk appropriately named "The Ableism Crisis: Violence, Marginality, and Disability Justice." So the slide says "The Ableism Crisis," which means I get to pretend it's related to this post, which I guess it is, if indirectly.) 

I've been in the autistic/autism blogging world for a few years now, and while there have certainly been folks at it for much longer than that, it's been more than long enough to notice this one trend: blogs mainly about autism written by non-autistic parents of autistic kids are much, much more likely to attract ridiculously large audiences than blogs mainly about autism written by actually autistic people.

This trend remains largely true even for autistic bloggers who've published their own books (or contributed to books), autistic bloggers who are also parents (whether of autistic or non-autistic kids), and autistic bloggers who post fairly frequently (which I've not been doing so much for the past year or so).

(There are only a handful of exceptions, including John Elder Robison, better known for the several books he's authored, and Landon Bryce's ThAutcast. And of course, it's important to mention that both John and Landon are white men.)

The purpose of this brief post isn't to rag on non-autistic parent bloggers, especially those who've been fantastic allies to the neurodiversity movement, but to discuss some of the deeper ableist reasons that autistic bloggers just can't match pace with non-autistic bloggers (parents being a main constituency, but certainly not the only category of non-autistic bloggers who write about autism). The purpose of this post is actually to talk about some of the deep-seated prejudices that result in the disparity in readership so we can start untangling and challenging them. These reasons are all related to each other, and not entirely separate, but worth talking about if allies (bloggers and readers alike) truly want to center the voices on autism that matter most -- those of actually autistic people.

1. Autistic bloggers are automatically suspect as frauds, especially if they self-identify.

Because of horrifically ableist ideas that autistic people are incapable of having ideas, a sense of our own selves, or emotions -- let alone cognitive grasp of other people's perspectives as separate from ours or the ability to express ideas of our own -- autistic bloggers will be accused of lying about being autistic or otherwise being fakes. Because of the monopoly of the psychiatry/medical-industrial complex over access to a diagnosis (and therefore "legitimacy" as autistic), autistic bloggers who self-identify as autistic but who don't have a medical diagnosis are especially at risk for accusations of fraud. But even autistic bloggers who do have formal medical diagnoses are frequently accused of lying about being autistic. After all, autistic people can't write words or communicate to others since we are so self-centered and locked inside our brains.

2a. Autistic bloggers are presumed to be exceptional instead of representative of many autistic people.

Even if an autistic blogger is believed about their status as autistic, they will be questioned about the applicability of their experiences, ideas, or opinions to any other autistic person. At best, their blog will be treated as an occasionally interesting foray into one autistic person's musings about their life while autistic -- in other words, treated as a personal interest story, but not a source of reliable information, theories worth thinking about, or direction for either supporting autistic people or advocating for changed policies/practices.

2b. This is closely related to the assumption that "if you can write on the internet / keep a blog / respond to these comments, you are very high-functioning and Not Like My Child.

(We know of course that that's not true, since autistic bloggers have a diverse array of skills, abilities, impairments, and support needs.) And of course, if you dismiss an autistic blogger as irrelevant because of their supposed "mild" or "high-functioning" autism (things that don't actually exist), you're not going to treat their blog as a reliable or authoritative source of information or ideas about autism.

3. Autistic bloggers are thought of as writing only about their personal experiences, whereas many parent bloggers are welcomed as writing about "universal" or "shared" experiences (which also ignores other axes of privilege/oppression).

Again, this is a common manifestation of oppression -- members of an oppressed group are denied collective identity or experience through a rhetoric of "individuality," while members of the relevant dominant group have their experiences privileged as universal and default. It's important to note that the most popular (non-autistic) parent bloggers also tend to be white and from middle and upper-class backgrounds, which most certainly contributes to continued erasure of autistic people of color and no/low-income autistic people.

4. Non-autistic "experts" have presumptive authority to speak about autism and autistic people, while actually autistic people have to "prove" they are even able to speak about themselves as individuals, let alone our group as a whole.

For this one, oppression plays out with the assumption that members of the dominant group are treated as automatic experts/authorities with "objective" opinions while members of the oppressed group are considered incapable of having opinions or ideas that are "objective" and therefore valid to people beyond their group. In other words, people assume that things like having the letters PhD after your name, being a special ed teacher, working as a therapist or clinician, or researching autism at a university automatically make your opinion "objective" and authoritative -- and therefore worth listening to. At the same time, people assume that being autistic means you are automatically "too close" to the issue, and thus personally biased, to have an "objective" opinion -- and therefore that everything you say should constantly be doubted and questioned, even if it's about your own personal experiences.

5. Autistic bloggers are believed not to exist.

It's the only possible explanation for so much of the hateful, dehumanizing rhetoric about autistic people all over the internet. (Actually, it isn't, but it's what I tell myself so as to not be completely pessimistic.) Autistic people are believed not to be reading articles about autism, and certainly not to be blogging about it. If you believe that autistic people cannot express ideas, you won't assume that any autistic people are actually writing about being autistic anywhere. You won't search for those blogs, and you won't find them. On the other hand, you will think to search for scientific research on autism, blogs by (presumed non-autistic) parents of autistic children, and advocacy organizations for autism (also presumably run by non-autistic people).

And there you go. Five ableist reasons autistic bloggers lag behind in audience numbers, stability, and growth.  An ongoing source of frustration throughout the autistic blogging community, and one whose numbers are even more sharply divided -- most of the prominent blogs by actually autistic people are still by white autistics, with only a handful of exceptions. We're here, we're writing, and we'd like to think we're not doing this as idle, futile exercises with no one around to care or keep reading.