“A Desire to Infantilize and Dehumanize Autistic People”

The following is my speech written and delivered for the Neurodivergent NDP’s webinar consulting Autistic Self-Advocate groups across Canada about the National Autism Strategy, attended by federal NDP candidates and allies of our community. This webinar highlighted the Canadian Association of Health Science’s abuse of BIPOC Autistic people during limited consultations on the National Autism Strategy, our fears that the NAS will expand existing eugenics legislation in Canada, and make it more unsafe to be open about being an Autistic person in Canada.

Good afternoon, representatives from the New Democratic Party, fellow advocates, parents, professionals, and allies.  My name is Christopher Whelan, an autistic social worker calling in from the traditional territory of the Beothuk, Dorset Inuit and Metis of the New Found Land.  I thank you all for coming to listen to and consult members of the autistic community on the social issues affecting our community, and make good social policy to create a nation where all of us thrive without having to change who we are or what the Creator has made us.

I will begin by addressing these issues affecting our community, and for the sake of statistical relevance to a world without the COVID-19 pandemic, which I assure you has had a tremendous disparate health effect on all disabled people and aggravated each of the following social realities, I will be using more conservative measures from recent pre-pandemic years.  Please notice how each of these social issues flows into and exacerbates the next.

The Alberta Human Rights Commission has reported that in 2019, 20% of all human rights complaints filed with the Commission were cases of discrimination based on the victim’s mental disability.  It was the second highest population for having their human rights violated, next to people with physical disabilities, just counting cases that resulted in a complaint to the Commission.

Statistics Canada has reported that in 2019, unemployment rates for people with developmental disabilities averaged at 21% for the year.  The unemployment rate was also 21% for people with learning disabilities, and 19.6% for people with other mental disabilities.  The average annual unemployment rate for the general Canadian population was 5.7%.

The Center for Justice and Social Compassion estimates that over 45% of homeless people in Canada have a disability or a mental illness.

The CBC has reported that of the 23 people killed during interactions with the Edmonton Police Service between 2000 and 2017, 21 had a mental disability, a substance use disorder, or both.

A study by Lugnegard, Hallerback, & Gillberg, published in Research in Developmental Disabilities, reported in 2011 that of a geographically diverse sample of 26 diagnosed autistic men and 28 diagnosed autistic women, 70% of respondents fit the criteria of a further diagnosis of major depression, and 50% fit the criteria for an anxiety disorder.

Our final statistic comes from a Lancet Psychiatry article published in 2014.  A U.K.-based study of 367 diagnosed autistic adults reported that 66% of participants dealt with recurring suicidal ideation, and 31% were survivors of suicide attempts.  In Canada, this is supplemented with a study of developmentally disabled people in Western Canada, published in Community Mental Health Journal in 2018, stating that our people in this region of the country are 3.5 times more likely than the average population to have suicidal ideation.  You can look at the side bar of this meeting, at the number of autistic people who have come here to consult and be consulted, and understand that it is reasonable to believe that two out of every three of us are wrestling with recurring thoughts of ending our lives.

What is the cause of our rampant poverty, mental illness, and suicidal ideation?  Our first uninformed guess could be that Autism is the cause of mental illness and suicide.  But there is no study and no passage in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to suggest that there is a medical link between Autism and these realities.  Instead, it is a social reality, and the way that Autistic people are treated in Canadian society based on statistics.  You can trace our steps backward, to that very first statistic I reported.  The rate of discrimination against people with developmental disabilities including Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The National Autism Strategy is a policy strategy built by a non-Autistic majority to govern the future of Autistic Canadians, within this majority’s own vision for what our future should be, based on their own ideas without adequate consent, consultation, or input from the people who will be affected by this strategy, us.  The lack of consultation is rooted in a desire to infantilize and dehumanize Autistic people, by insisting that we cannot know what is best for our lives because of our disabilities.

The idea that Autistic people need non-Autistic guidance to know what is best for us is normalized at a very young age.  It begins when a classroom teacher tells us that we need quiet hands, zipped lips, indoor voice, eyes forward and making eye contact, and that these are necessary behaviours to deserve love and acceptance in our classrooms and our communities.  These are contraventions of our physical need to stimulate our bodies when we feel overwhelmed by the sensory overload of our schools and our modern world, or the lack of the sensory stimulation we require, which in both cases causes violence to the neural processing of the Autistic mind.  We are taught that other peoples’ comfort and sense of being respected by silence and attentiveness is more important than our need to feel safe in our own bodies.  How can an Autistic child grow self-esteem when other children are taught their bodily autonomy, and Autistic children are taught that we must be punished, detained, restrained, suspended, and held in seclusion rooms if we cannot control the impulses we need in order to feel safe?  How can an Autistic youth feel positive about their self-worth, and like they will be respected members of society, when we are punished in school for being Autistic?  We can find a possible future in Applied Behavioural Analysis, the therapy which is a key component of the National Autism Strategy.

Evidence-based Applied Behavioural Analysis, using the dog training techniques of reward and reprimand, can discipline our body, personality, individuality, into something that behaves the way the non-Autistic professional wants us to behave, say what a non-Autistic professional wants us to say, think what a non-Autistic professional wants us to think.  It can scrub away the nasty, natural Autistic person, and make us behave perfectly like our teachers want us to behave.  But what happens after graduation, when we are stuck for the rest of our life afraid to act out of the way that the Behavioural Analyst taught us to behave decades ago?  When we cannot line up our feelings and our actions, out of fear that our natural actions will offend the non-Autistics around us?  Emotional dysfunction and post-trauma.  The precursors to mental illness, addiction, relationship abuse, self-harm, and suicidal ideation.

Please offer us something more than a therapy that makes us dysfunctional, traumatised, and robotic.  Please, look and see how the systems built for your people which exclude us, your schools and your workplaces and your civic social conventions, are preventing us from building any kind of self-esteem and how they’re making us want to kill ourselves.

As an alternative to offer, here is what Autistics have been doing to create a better future for our people, without the millions of public dollars fed into autism therapy industries across North America in the past twenty years.  I will read from Loud Hands: Autistic People Speaking, from the chapter written by Jim Sinclair, co-founder of the world’s first documented Autistic peer support group, Autism Network International:

“After a life spent among aliens, I had met someone who came from the same planet as me.  We understood each other…it was an amazing and powerful experience to be able to communicate with someone in my own language.  I had sometimes been able to establish meaningful communication with people before, but it always involved my having to learn the other person’s language and to constant laborious translating.  Here, with people who shared my language, meaning flowed freely and easily.”

Sinclair continues to even discuss how peer support helped them to personally care for their basic needs:

“We didn’t get a lot of cooking done, but what did get done was usually a result of our reminding each other that it was time to eat or that the soup someone had put in the microwave was ready.  All of us had significant difficulties managing the tasks of everyday life.  But between the three of us, someone was generally able to remember and to remind about the really necessary things.”

Autism Network International was formed in 1993 as a multimedia peer support network using online chat rooms, message boards, penpal lists, and meet-ups at conventions.  Mutual aid networks on three-digit budgets, by and for people with developmental disabilities in the form of “spoonie collectives”, disability justice coalitions, self-advocacy groups, and my own facilitated peer support network born from group social work theory, Neurodiversity YMM, have flourished in the autistic world as a way to build community, self-esteem, and enfranchisement.  We do not teach people that their behaviour is wrong, sinful, or worthy of punishment.  We teach disabled people that they are equally valuable and equally worthy of love and respect just the way they are no matter how dysfunctional they are in non-Autistic society.  Just the way my family taught me.  There are no requirements for what an Autistic person can bring to our community except a reciprocal and unconditional love for fellow Autistics, in contrast to the conditional acceptance and conditional love instilled in us through behavioural analysis therapies.

This is the challenge I pose to the National Autism Strategy.  Can you make a policy which teaches our society to love and accept us unconditionally, rather than breaks us apart and reshapes us into something more easy for you to love?  Can you make a strategy which sees the regressive twentieth-century culture of cure, treatment, and intervention meant to turn us into “normal” people, burns it in a trash bin, and builds a new strategy that observes the unique social value of all Autistic people, regardless of the market value of our skills?  Can we build together a future for Autistic people that does not see us silenced, but uplifted?  With no more Autistic poverty, and no more Autistic suicide?  That is the National Autism Strategy I want to help you build.

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