Remember during the efforts for the freedom of Reginald Neli Latson when I said that I was for the first time, doing something I thought I would never do; and then, I posted something you wrote and shared it on social media? When you asked what drove me to make such a statement I wrote back that our writing is entirely different as I write about the marginalized populations within the autism conversation?
I need to also say I avoid reading some of what you write because I wish to not respond emotionally to it and be hurt by your words. I occasionally forget my vows to avoid your content and read something you write. I then regret doing so. Not because it isn’t well written, but because I view the world so entirely differently from you that when you make a statement from that large platform you have, and that statement has the potential to harm people like my son by influencing the way people view him and his peers, I get angry.
Here is an example, from a blog post for Psychology Today titled “April is Autism Awareness / Acceptance Month.” You write, “We may have gifts too, but disability remains the basis for diagnosis. Some autistic people are rendered non-speaking by their condition, and I can’t imagine who would celebrate that. Others live with significant medical complications like epilepsy. I’ve yet to meet anyone who celebrates that either.”
|Crohn's patient Bethamy Townsend Celebrating her honeymoon|
and rocking a Bikini with colostomy bags credit HuffPost UK
When you write about nonspeaking autistic people, people like my son, your writing perpetuates the same ableism that people who are not autistic (and have no concept of what the experience of autism is for nonspeaking individuals) does. Have you asked a nonspeaking autistic person if they wish to celebrate? Not being able to use one’s vocal chords to produce speech does not mean not being able to think or communicate. Over and over again, human beings demonstrate neurological competence in the face of medical diagnoses that negate competence. We have examples like Jean-Dominique Bauby, who produced an entire book after waking from a coma and while being paralyzed such that only one eye functioned. Your statement discounts the research of British neuroscientist Adrian Owen, who, to quote an article on brain activity:
“ …described a patient who showed all the clinical signs of a vegetative state but whose brain activity suggested a considerable degree of consciousness. Horrifyingly, the report implied the existence of patients in a state worse than the usual locked-in syndrome: conscious but without any means of expressing it to the outside world, not even through the batting of an eyelid. While demolishing established clinical rules, this research also carried a message of hope: brain imaging was now sensitive enough to detect the presence of a conscious mind and even to reconnect it with the outside world.“
This news is cause to celebrate. What it means is that some measure of neurological competence can now be detected by brain imaging. That means a greater population of nonspeaking people have the potential to be understood whether they speak or not. Evidence like this urges us to presume competence exists in nonspeaking people and respect them accordingly.
|Martin Pistorius and wife, Joanna credit NPR|
This statement you wrote ignores what autistics like Carly Fleischmann, Emma Zurcher-Long, Henry Frost, Amy Sequenzia, and nonspeaking disabled adults like Martin Pistorius stand for, and what they
say when asked about being a nonspeaking person prior to finding a means to communicate. All say that they are presumed incompetent, maltreated, and were entirely dismissed prior to being able to let the world know that their brains understood what was being said about them and what was being done to them. We have seen a brain command an exoskeleton encasing a paralyzed body to kick a soccer ball. We have heard people who learned to type and use AAC to communicate tell us that being in what medical professionals define as a vegetative state, or being a nonspeaking person, does not mean you don’t think, feel, and understand, and yet you still see no cause for people like my son to celebrate?
My son’s very survival is a miracle. He doesn’t have to prove his competence by demonstration of savant talent. Pity is not wanted or required. You don’t know him. I do. He NEVER gives up. He overcomes his fears daily and takes great personal risks to reach out and communicate with us. Nearly everyone in society doesn't feel his life is worth celebrating. That includes some autistic adults who use verbal speech. But our family feels the way our son lives his life, and his repeated demonstrations of personhood in a world that denies him competence, make him a heroic person. He is a stronger person than anyone I’ve met. I’m over 50 and have travelled extensively, so when I say anyone I mean anyone in a very large pool of human beings. I know I am not alone in being a witness to the greatness of a human spirit as it overcomes so many obstacles and shouts with all means available to be heard. I am so sorry you do not feel that is worth celebrating.
It is neither my intention nor my wish to deconstruct your entire piece. I only hope to demonstrate one of the reasons there is this canyon divide between how you and I view autistic people like my son. He doesn’t just exist. He lives in bright, live, movements and gestures that communicate his joys, sorrows, struggles and victories.
Each April we remember all we were told he could not and would not do that he has already done. We celebrate his right to personhood not qualified by a savant skill to justify it. I will continue to do so. Because he, like so many others I’ve met who are out there demonstrating their competence everyday, are worth it.
I don’t call the month of April Autism Awareness or Acceptance Month anymore. I call April the month of Mustafa and his neurotribe. I call it the month of possibility. The month of pride in obstacles overcome, and the month of the idea that autistic can be an identity without qualifiers or conditions, deserving of respect and worth celebrating.
Of course the public needs to be educated about what autism is, but that is because what we call autism continues to change and at each evolution the definition of what diverges and what that means changes with it. Of course we need help. I don’t think anyone including my son would deny that he needs accommodation and supports to access our community. He knows I am aging, I tire, and families need help too. But that doesn't mean that who he or his peers are should be denigrated or thought of as unworthy of celebration because it diverges from those autistic people who are less distinguishable from typical peers.
I will try, going forward, to read more of your words. Honestly this is the only way in which I can understand what you wish to communicate fully. In exchange, I ask that you try reading the words of nonspeaking neurodivergent people who communicate by other means. Reach out to them and use your platform and your words to help rather than expressing you see no cause to celebrate the idea that they are nonspeaking.
I think this would help us both understand one another better. Happy Autism month, John.