I have been in multiple meetings where well-meaning but contextually ignorant bureaucrats, having little contact with the world of autism advocacy, have pulled in multiple autism advocacy organizations to ask what we need. They are stunned when each of us not only has a different answer, but spends the meeting censoring and speaking over each other on issues we do not agree upon. When one organization representing an autism industry or union says that we need more public funding for Applied Behavioural Analysis, autistic self-advocates speak up and say that we need ABA to be defunded altogether. When autistic self-advocates say that we need more power to fire care attendants who make us feel pathologized and dehumanized, another organization will say that there needs to be more job stability for care attendants. The bureaucrats sitting in the meeting make calls for unity between competing interests, without understanding how important these issues are to every party in the room.
There is important history about how each ideology in the world of autism came to be. Some ideologies rose from the medical world; from doctors and psychologists, while some rose from the autistic people themselves. Some ideologies were spurred by parents, while some came from the minds of billionaire philanthropists who wanted to change the autism world. These ideologies conflict and compete, representing different populations and different ideas about what the future of autistic people would be best.
This tool, modelled after an ideological compass, is a simple visual for how diverse the ideas about autistic well-being really are. Two scales make four quadrants: a scale of ideologies that span from acceptance of autism and neurodiversity to ideologies of autism as an epidemic disease/disorder (denoted by the Gold Infinity for autism acceptance and the Blue Puzzle Piece for autism awareness), and a scale from the goal being the assimilation of autistic people into society to the goal being the restructuring of society to meet the needs of autistic people.
In the red corner, top-left, are ideologies that celebrate autism yet believe that the best course of action for autistic people is to assimilate them into society. This is the realm of occupational therapists, speech therapists, and other skills-based interventions. In this quadrant, autistic people are encouraged to accept their autism, but to assimilate themselves in public spaces.
In the blue corner, top-right, are ideologies that push for behavioural interventions, as well as for autism treatment, prevention, and research for a cure. These ideologies are intolerant of autism as a diverse human experience, and ultimately wish for an extermination of autism from our world. This quadrant is summarized by a quote from co-founder of Autism Speaks, Suzanne Wright, “this disorder has taken our children away, it’s time to get them back”. Proponents of these ideologies believe that once autism has been treated or cured, a neurotypical person will take the place of the autistic person.
In the green corner, bottom-left, are ideologies that challenge society to be more accepting of autism, and pose that autistic people should be able to achieve the same quality of life as anybody else in society with the same amount of effort. The aims of bottom-left ideologies are achieved through dismantling structures of ableism and making society more equitable for autistic people. These ideologies are the most strongly rooted in neurodiversity, challenging the supremacy of verbal communication and agitating for alternative communication styles to be more widely taught and accepted. In this quadrant, autistic people need few or no interventions; the world must change to meet our needs.
In the purple corner, bottom-right, are ideologies that state that autistic people have specialized skillsets that society should take advantage of, and society should change to maximize the impact and productivity of autistic people. This set of ideologies is not autism acceptance, even if it poses autism as a social benefit. It is because in these ideologies there is still no place in society for autistic people who do not have a specialized set of skills. People who lack a marketable skillset are still considered to be burdens on the systems that support them, in line with the principles of autism awareness and social pathology.