How self-advocacy is misused to stop the progress of autistic people

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After I was diagnosed at 40 as autistic, I wondered what the next steps for saving my life would be. I asked my psych evaluator and allistic-led sources in my area what I should do, and the answer invariably was “keep self-advocating.” I looked into what “self-advocating” meant and  here’s what I found:

“Self-advocacy refers to the civil rights movement for people with developmental disabilities, also called cognitive or intellectual disabilities, and other disabilities. It is also an important term in the disability rights movement, referring to people with disabilities taking control of their own lives, including being in charge of their own care in the medical system. The self-advocacy movement is (in basic terms) about people with disabilities speaking up for themselves. It means that although a person with a disability may call upon the support of others, the individual is entitled to be in control of their own resources and how they are directed. It is about having the right to make life decisions without undue influence or control by others.” – poorly cited Wikipedia entry

“n. the practice of having mentally disabled people speak for themselves and control their own affairs, rather than having non-disabled people automatically assume responsibility for them” – Collins Dictionary online

Well that sounds delightful and empowering!!!

Those of us trying to form a larger movement by and for autistics are still incorrectly called “self-advocates.”

But that’s not what the professionals telling me to “self-advocate” meant. It didn’t mean that I was to have more control over what drugs I was prescribed, how I was addressed by professionals, that I was to be led to appropriate resources and helped to access them, or that I would be able to “call upon the support of others.”

They used the term “self-advocacy” to mean the opposite of that. I would speak with a mental health provider and ask for help with accessing programs, starting programs that would help my community at large, support to fight the over-pathologization of my condition by local medical professionals who wouldn’t listen to me self-advocate, a therapist who was autism-informed (for adult women no less), or even training for how to self-advocate, and the answer was always, “We can’t help you with that. Those things don’t exist here. Keep self-advocating.”

It took me a few years to find the right people and programs.

I thought reaching out to professionals was, first of all, what they wanted us to do because we are not considered experts on our own inner experience. I also thought looking for ways to help yourself by accessing available resources was self-advocating.

They were in effect telling me to “bootstrap” my way out of systemic oppression with no help from the autism-industrial complex. Doctors DO NOT generally listen to the opinions and treatment plans, no matter how well-informed, of non-conforming, invisibly disabled women. This is clear by the number of posts in autism groups which relate how abysmally difficult this is because of bald-faced intersectional discrimination. I needed someone, anyone, to go to the doctor with me to a. be a witness to my ill-treatment, and b. back my ass up in there! As a cognitively disabled woman, I do not possess the necessary credibility. But I was being told, “Go up against this powerful man and impenetrable institution alone.”

Find us the money, train us to empower ourselves, help us get the backing we need to create support systems according to what we say we need. 

Autism centers in America DO NOT generally have many resources for autistic adults including classes for self-advocacy training. Even though autistics are giving one another tips and tricks online, we still run up against the wall of our own poverty and discrimination. The problem isn’t that we aren’t self-advocating or trying to; it’s that people refuse to give up the power they have over us. We have no leverage.

It’s interesting to note that other culturally marginalized groups are not asked to self-advocate, because they are seen as being oppressed rather than intrinsically broken. As the black community has pointed out, they simply don’t have enough resources to self-advocate under the level of repression they experience. Neither do we, no matter how good we are at being the squeaky wheel and insisting upon ourselves. No matter how much we research our condition and the medications we are given. No matter how self-aware we are.

Implying that advocates are only looking to help themselves personally plays into the dangerous false narrative that autistics are self-absorbed and have no empathy or broader social awareness.

We need people outside our community to care enough to reach down and help lift us up, and share their superior coffers and connections and reputations, because we are often literally unable to speak for ourselves and not heard when we do. For instance, black people need direct action from white people to reach their civil rights goals, without whites taking over the narrative and stealing the funds.

Autistic people need exactly the same thing from allistic people. Stop putting all the onus for change back on the most powerless. Find us the money, train us to empower ourselves, help us get the backing we need to create support systems according to what we say we need. 

The truth is this: self-advocacy is primarily a term used to put down the efforts of #actuallyautistics advocating for all of us. Those of us trying to form a larger movement by and for autistics are still incorrectly called “self-advocates.” In fact, most of us can advocate for others better than we advocate for ourselves. This framing gives disability organizations permission to not properly compensate autistic activists for the unpaid labor we do to give our community a centralized voice and civil rights. Our huge hearts, passion, and sense of existential urgency is leveraged against us and we burn out with little to no support.

Implying that advocates are only looking to help themselves personally plays into the dangerous false narrative that autistics are self-absorbed and have no empathy or broader social awareness. The saddest truth in all this is that the autism industry does not want us reaching our own internal consensus on the issues, joining together, and advocating for systemic change. It would really mess up their bottom line if we became self-determining, a true community. We would have a united front for ending ABA, gaining financial power, building cultural credibility, and eventually not needing them once we have autistic professionals, researchers, and representation in place.

Enjoy this fun video!