Institutional, cultural, and interpersonal violence against autistic people is an ongoing phenomenon in our world with a long history.
Many of the social institutions that a typical person uses like public schools, hospitals, grocery stores, workplaces, and public transportation, are inadequate to meet our unique needs. Autistic people require specialized services and more resources to meet their educational, medical, and personal needs, and to achieve a level of success in their goals comparable to neurotypical peers. In our social democracy, the state is responsible for ensuring that everybody in our society receives the education, health care, and community services that they need in order to thrive, and the specialized services that autistic and neurodivergent people require are the state’s responsibility. Because of this, the money that goes towards providing these services comes from tax dollars, and specialized services are a public expense that everybody chips in together for.
In the 20th century, a social policy called eugenics became very popular as a tax-saving measure. Taxpayers did not like that government money was going towards specialized services for disabled and neurodivergent people, and they wanted to stop being responsible for the health of people who could not pay for their own health services. In Alberta and British Columbia, in a majority of the United States, and in the fascist nations of the Axis Powers, eugenics laws were passed that legalized the sterilization of disabled and neurodivergent people so that they would stop having families, and in a generation there would be no neurodivergent people requiring support. In Canada, from the passing of eugenics laws in the 1930s until their repeal in the 1970s, over 2800 Albertans and over 200 British Columbians were sterilized under these laws.
Neurodivergent and disabled people were also confined to institutions and hospitals without consent. In these institutions they were tortured, abused physically and sexually, experimented on, and in many cases murdered. Many North American families with neurodivergent children did their best to hide their child’s divergent behaviours, and punished their children for expressing behaviours like echolalia and stimming, as a survival mechanism. If the state suspected neurodivergence, then social services would take the disabled person away and place them in an institution where they may never be seen again.
In these institutions, behavioural therapies to eliminate neurodivergence were tested and practiced. Modern monsters such as Bruno Bettelheim and Dr. Ivar Lovaas, the latter being the founder of Applied Behavioural Analysis, took the captivity of neurodivergent people as a sick opportunity to experiment on their behaviour. Denying their subjects food and sleep for expressing autistic behaviour, and employing torture tools and electric shocks, Lovaas sought a way to get autistic people to no longer express autistic behaviour. By cognitively associating autistic behaviour with torture, and neurotypical behaviour with reward, Lovaas conditioned autistic prisoners to hide their autistic behaviours for fear of punishment. This behavioural analysis, no longer employing torture tools but maintaining the spirit of punishing autistic behaviour and rewarding neurotypical behaviour, remains a widely-prescribed response to an autism diagnosis in Canada, the United States, and many other western nations. We are still in a cultural mindset that the best way to support an autistic person is to punish their behaviour.
Even though our Canadian institutions for disabled people were closed in the 1970s, their legacy lives on in how they have shaped cultural understanding of neurodivergence and disability. Historic and ongoing segregation from society has lead neurotypical people to mistrust, suspect, prejudice, and discriminate against neurodivergent people because they are the “other”; not a member of their community. Typical people have not had to know how to socialize with and connect with neurodivergent people because they had been segregated for generations. Crimes, discrimination, and hate against neurodivergent people are more permissible in society than crimes against typical people, and crimes against disabled people are continually mishandled or not investigated by law enforcement. With a marginalized voice and few people joining their cause for equal treatment in society, neurodivergent people continue to be disproportionately victims of repeated crime and abuse.
Because the lives and destinies of neurodivergent people have been for so long the property of the state, between social services and institutions for the disabled, there is a cultural understanding that disabled people cannot speak for themselves and need somebody else to speak for them. This policy of actively silencing disabled self-advocates has lead to a very harmful view that disabled and neurodivergent people do not know what is best for them, and cannot know what is best for them. There is a cultural view that they require a neurotypical advocate, whether that is a caregiver or a professional, to speak on their behalf. This silencing of our voices is violence.
When an autistic person attempts to speak on their own behalf, our cultural understanding is that this autistic is an outlier; it’s “not as bad” for them. This is where the term “high-functioning autism” comes from. As a culture we say that those who can speak for themselves, who can work, who can go to school in a typical classroom, and have so far made it in life with little support does not have the authority to speak on behalf of those autistics who they say requires an advocate, the so-called “low-functioning autistics”. But apparently a neurotypical professional does have that authority to advocate for autistics that an autistic self-advocate does not. It is a process of silencing, and a process of violence. There is no “high-functioning autism” and “low-functioning autism”. They are unscientific, supremacist cultural terms. There is only a community of autistic people, each with our own needs, each communicating in a different way, each in need of love, inclusion, and self-determination.
One human life is worth more than all of the treasures of the Earth. Ending anti-autistic violence means challenging the idea that a human life can be boiled down to the money they earn from the job and the taxpayer-funded services they require from their community, money in and money out. We are not in debt to society because we required specialized services to reach our goals and live healthy lives. We humans created society as a way to ensure that everybody received the support that each of us needed. Society serves humanity, not the other way around. Human lives are not valuable because they add more monetary value to their community than they utilized. Human lives are valuable because that is the bottom line of all morality.
Footnote: originally, I wanted the graphic for today to be the famous Aktion T4 propaganda poster from Nazi Germany, stating that disabled people cost the state 85,000 reichmarks over the course of their lifetime, which was used as justification to exterminate disabled people in camps to save money and lower taxes. When we use Nazi German propaganda to illustrate violence against marginalized minority groups, I do not feel that the message is strong enough. Eugenics didn’t end when we won the Second World War. Eugenics didn’t end when we stopped sterilizing disabled people and closed down the institutions. Eugenics is still happening today. We are still using the same language to refer to autism, neurodivergence, and disability that Nazi Germany was using in the 1930s. Anti-autistic violence is ongoing and has not stopped.