Against eugenics, and for a future that includes autistic and disabled people

Blogging Against Disablism Day 2017

In 1993, autistic advocate Jim Sinclair wrote “Don’t Mourn For Us.” It read “This is what we know, when you tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be… Don’t mourn for us. We are alive. We are real.” It appeared in the Autism Network International newsletter as an outline of a conference presentation they had given to parents of autistic children.

There are still many people and organizations who believe that autistics should be mourned for in life, rather than death; that there needs to be a way to find the ‘normal’ child who has been lost to autism, or prevent more autistic people from existing – cure culture. Cure culture creates dangerous dynamics, in which there is a strong focus on “fixing” autistic people, along with “battling” and “eradicating” autism. This culture also creates fear of autistic people and traits. One of the sources for the common cure culture we still see today lies in eugenics, a movement that gained popularity in the early 20th century.

It has been twenty-four years since “Don’t Mourn for Us.” We have made much progress. These include advances in representation, such as Julia the autistic Muppet and the company Apple putting out autism acceptance ads. Disability rights appeared on the political stage in a major way in 2016. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, founded in 2006, has already become a significant player in national public policy. There have been pieces of legislation – like the 2010 Affordable Care Act – that benefit many autistic people, along with court rulings favoring disability rights and inclusive education. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued an HCBS settings rule in 2014  that aims to give people with disabilities support in real community settings. Lindt Chocolate stopped donating money from their chocolate bunnies to Autism Speaks. And there are more victories, large and small, I could name.

But some of the largest autism charities in the nation, such as Autism Speaks, are still ones that reject advocacy by autistics, and some people still believe in discredited theories of causation and quack cures. But more disturbing is the eugenics ideology being seen in US politics, and around the public conversation on disability – an example being immigration restriction. The ideas behind eugenics say that behind the moral failings of people – and of society – there is a hereditary cause. Some people, supporters of eugenics argue, are “born to be a burden on the rest.” Conversely, supporters of eugenics also believe there are genetically and morally superior individuals.

As Sarah Jones writes for New Republic: “But eugenics, though discredited, has never been abandoned. In fact, the most powerful people in America appear to enthusiastically embrace the idea that humans can be divided into inherently superior and inferior specimens and treated accordingly… Of course, none of the people in Trump’s inner circle would describe themselves as eugenicists. They would call themselves capitalists, patriots, and Christians.” Examples include Trump’s statements on genetic superiority, Steve Bannon’s desire to “limit the vote to property owners,” and Jeff Sessions’ support for the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act – an immigration restriction law heavily influenced by eugenicists.

And Jones is right. Eugenics ideology is rampant, but I have not yet seen any political figures actually proclaiming themselves a eugenicist. Eugenics has a bad, discredited name to it now, and it’s more persuasive to masquerade under the guise of “Make America Great Again” then outright call oneself a eugenicist. It’s more convincing to cloak eugenicist views in words and actions that make people feel proud, to appeal to people using discriminatory views without ever saying one is endorsing eugenics.

As ASAN’s executive director Julia Bascom wrote for Slate about the Trump administration, disability, and the autistic community,

He sees my community as damaged goods. Recent reports indicate that, in addition to meeting privately with anti-vaccination groups, the Trump administration may convene a task force to relitigate the clear and settled science on this issue, potentially headed by noted anti-vaxxer Robert Kennedy Jr. Like so many of his policies, this isn’t just an issue of a lack of respect for people with disabilities—we cannot forget that this dishonest and unscientific nonsense has a body count.

This administration espouses eugenicist views. This administration buys into dangerous causation theories. This administration sees us as a public burden. Eugenicist views run through so much of the history of cure culture and causation.

Eugenics is a threat to the autistic and disability communities, and it is a threat to so many others.  This threat is palpable as the White House and Congress try to strip 24 million Americans, many of whom are disabled, of life-saving health insurance. It is clear in a leaked draft of an executive order targeting disabled immigrants and their families. We don’t know if Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice will enforce the 1999 Olmstead ruling, which helps keep states moving toward community integration – along with the Medicare and Medicaid funding that is at risk. It is evident when the White House lights it up blue for Autism Speaks’ brand of awareness rooted in harmful rhetoric and support for causation research.

But, as ASAN’s statement on the White House lighting it up blue reads, “ASAN will not let our community be forced back to the too-recent time when the public consensus was that autistic people should not exist.” I’m with them. The autistic community, and the disability community, must fight as we are able to against eugenicist and discriminatory policies and attempted actions. We cannot go back to being seen as nothing but a collection of causation theories, damaged and broken and in need of “fixing.” And we must fight against any policies that promote prevention research, policies that tell us we should not be part of humanity’s future. Because we are part of the future.

After Bell sterilized Carrie Buck, he was told “a hundred years from now… your descendants may well be proud.”

And other reasons Adam Cohen is wrong about eugenics and gene editing

On February 14, 2017, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and National Academy of Medicine (NAM) released a report entitled “Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance.” The report proclaimed that, with caution, limited clinical tests of genome editing should go forward. But human genome editing is controversial. Many international reports and laws support bans or limitations on genome editing.

The report departs from these internationally accepted ethics and laws, wrote the Center for Genetics and Society. (CGS). CGS is a science and bioethics group advocating “responsible uses and effective social governance” of human genetics. CGS put out official comments and a blog post on the report.  CGS also mentions the possibility of eugenics.

On March 17, 2017, Adam Cohen – author of Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck – began an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times with the words:

We entered a new phase as a species when Chinese scientists altered a human embryo to remove a potentially fatal blood disorder — not only from the baby, but all of its descendants…Last month, the scientific establishment weighed in. A National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine joint committee endorsed embryo editing aimed at genes that cause serious diseases when there is “no reasonable alternative.” …But the committee was also right to support limited embryo editing. This time around, eugenics could be a force for good.

He concludes the op-ed with:

Again, that need not be a bad thing. Twentieth century eugenics has rightly been called a “war on the weak” — its goal was to stop people with conditions like Huntington’s disease from reproducing. Twenty-first century eugenics can enable people with the Huntington’s gene to have children without it. The new eugenics can be a war for the weak.

Cohen’s op-ed, as disability rights journalist David Perry notes, “seems to miss the lessons of the history he synthesizes in his book… Any eugenic gene editing process that is constructed in our culture will reflect the ableist reality in which they are created.”

Further, Cohen misses several other points.

Eugenics was not just state-sanctioned sterilization. Eugenics was not just about preventing “the unfit” from having children. It was, and is, also about immigration, “racial purity,” and eliminating the “mentally defective” population through any means – whether by institutionalizing people judged as such, sterilizing them, preventing their marriage, or in the case of the Nazis, also murdering them.  Eugenicists were not worried about the people with any kinds of hereditary conditions, real or perceived, and far more keen on eliminating the “threat” to the sanctity of American society and economics.

Cohen asks the question if eugenics can be used for good. A colleague told Dr. John H. Bell after Bell sterilized Carrie Buck, “a hundred years from now you will still have a place in this history of which your descendants may well be proud.” Eugenicists believed they had the superior knowledge to know what was best for society, doing public good, based on pseudoscience and their own intensely biased beliefs. They believed future generations would be proud of their work – future generations that contained no “mental defectives,” generations that had been altered by them.

Cohen said “yes” in answer to his question, that the new eugenics can be for people with genetic conditions – that eugenics can be used for good. But he acknowledges that future generations would be permanently altered.

There is no such thing as good eugenics, and Cohen misses that point by a wide mark.

Teach Autistic Youth They Have a Community (Part One)

Other Autistics have written on the importance of disclosing an autism diagnosis to children. I fully agree. I also think knowing a diagnosis is a powerful tool in many ways, but it is not the only obligation of parents. I knew immediately about my ADHD diagnosis at age 7 or 8, then later my autism diagnosis at 14. I didn’t know I was disabled until college.

Many adults in my life told me I had ADHD. They just said it made me hyper, and gave me attention issues… then kept saying the same positive things about me: Smart. Unique. Creative. Reads a lot. When I got my autism diagnosis, they started saying: Smart. Reads a lot. Very high-functioning. Uniquely aware [of the diagnosis]. When they spoke of things I struggled with – like attention issues, staying organized, being polite, and making the right words happen – it was not to acknowledge disability, only deficit. It was not to work with me or discuss ways other people could adapt. I needed to adapt to the world, except for some accommodations.

They tried to quantify my life into skills and deficits. They told me I was more aware than others – like those in the special education classrooms – despite those kids being the most accepting of me when I hung out in their classrooms. I learned my deficits outweighed other qualities. I learned that there was no one else at all like me. I learned that I was alone. Not knowing what the diagnosis meant affected the ability to find friends, worsened depressive episodes and anxiety, and increased social isolation.

In my younger years, I had been able to get by through extensive book reading, writing fiction, and other solo activities. As I aged, my differences became more apparent. I wondered why I couldn’t be like everyone else or have friends. I had about one close friend in my high school years – an online one who meant a great deal to me. We couldn’t meet up in person, which I wanted desperately.  I wouldn’t know anything else but isolation until college – and making two autistic friends, along with a couple of others who accepted me.

The diagnosis given to me answered the question why for why I worked the way I did. No one helped me understand how it made my brain and body work. No one explained that it is a disability with ups and downs and effects from society. No one aided me in accessing community and culture. The diagnosis did not simply hand me all the tools I needed for life, in of itself. Community, once I found it, did.

Much of the autistic community may exist online, but it is vital. It will give youth access to writings by other autistic people. It gives them access to people who have written or know about coping tools, self-advocacy, and policy issues. It gives autistic youth an autistic culture. Parents (and other adults interacting with autistic youth), please explain autism to autistic youth. Please tell them more than a diagnosis. Please help them find other autistic people. If you don’t know the answers to their questions about autism, ask autistic people. It will change their world at least as much as telling them the diagnosis.



Part Two (Upcoming): Tips and Ways to Teach about Community

an exploration of autistic mad pride: part one

Introduction:

exploring the possibilities of neurodiversity, mental health, and autistic mad pride intersections

Recently, I found an article on Medium talking about schizophrenia fitting into neurodiversity, which got me thinking about how mental health more broadly fits into neurodiversity.

There are a lot of people I know with mental health disabilities/[a person’s preferred terminology] who dislike the idea of categorizing mental health things as neurodivergence, who feel that claiming mental health stuff as neurodivergence by definition means claiming it as an intrinsic part of the self that can’t be separated from oneself- and thus can’t be recovered from.

Currently I’ve been trying to think about and sort out the various models of mental health. For instance, the recovery model as it was conceptualized and formed after the period of large-scale, long-term institutionalization talked in part about recovering from the effects of society.

Then a lot of what “recovery” means, as I’ve seen it discussed, not just recovering from society’s effects, but primarily recovering from the effects of the mental health disability. I do know people with mental health disabilities who support this idea of recovery insofar that it means that they experience a significant reduction of symptoms along with developing coping strategies for symptoms.

However, as a disclaimer, I am not in fact trying to tell people that they cannot want to recover – experience a significant reduction in symptoms etc. – from their mental health disabilities.

But I think the recovery narrative, if pushed onto us by others, is, if not harmful, not exactly beneficial, because then it is not a choice. And a lot of times that’s the only narrative people are given.

And then a lot of autistics have co-occurring mental health disabilities, as I’ve discussed in this AACC presentation (PDF) and in this blog post series (the transcript for the AACC presentation is here as a PDF). And the autistic rights movement is rooted in neurodiversity and neurodivergence as identity. 

Then the questions I have are, that I will address in blog posts to come:

  • Part Two: Should mental health disabilities be fit under the category of neurodivergence as identity? (I can’t answer this for everyone, but I can answer it for myself and the way I see it).  
  • Part Three: Why haven’t the mad pride, mental health rights, and autistic rights movements intersected nearly as much (to my knowledge)?

 

We need to name some modern practices as eugenics – and don’t

How this failure to name eugenics – and then condemn it as such – has resulted in a growing acceptance of renewed efforts to “better humankind”

An article on Germany’s renewed efforts to document Nazi-era medical experimentation and murders of disabled people came out recently without ever mentioning the word eugenics. Published on January 5, 2017, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science Mag titled the piece “Germany to probe Nazi-era medical science.” The phrase “medical science” is too kind for murders rooted in a eugenics movement – and eugenics is not “medical science.”

I am pleased that Germany is doing a probe and that this is getting coverage in a science magazine with such detail, as eugenicists claimed scientific and medical evidence as their rationale. I am less so that they didn’t name eugenics. The article’s word choice got me thinking about eugenics in the past and modern eugenics. If you don’t name eugenics as such, it’s that much harder to recognize today.

Many people I know agree eugenics was a movement that happened in history, and name it in articles and other writing. But I have not seen as many people discussing eugenics practices happening in recent years and today. As a society – with some exceptions – we don’t call many actions eugenics or discuss the perils of eugenics practices occurring in them.

  • We don’t call it eugenics when prenatal testing in order to avoid having disabled children – particularly those with Down Syndrome – happens.
  • We don’t call it eugenics when disabled people receive the recommendation that they should not have a child because they have a disability.
  • We fail to discuss eugenics beliefs behind the removal of children from disabled parents on the basis that they are “unfit to parent” due to disability.
  • We don’t call it eugenics when many states still have sterilization laws on the books and when Buck v. Bell has never been overturned in its entirety.
  • We don’t call it eugenics when disabled people are still sterilized “for their own protection” in many countries, such as Australia. 
  • We don’t call it eugenics when discussions of “designer babies” that are “perfect” – meaning, to many, without any form of disability – occur.
  • We fail to discuss eugenics when talking about human genomics and gene-editing programs, such as CRISPR.

Yet these are rooted in eugenics, with the belief that disability is unacceptable and bad.

Joan Hume, a woman with a disability, wrote in 1995 about the “new eugenics,” prenatal testing, and having disabled children, “The message about disability is loud and clear: the prospect of having a disabled child is not acceptable for many prospective parents…. With the emphasis on “perfect babies” the message of the new technologies is that disabilities can and must be weeded out by eliminating foetuses with certain defective traits. This is clearly a modern version of the earlier eugenics perception that disability is inherently bad.”

And eugenics is, indeed, inextricably linked with the concept that disability is bad – regardless of whether the practices target non-disabled people or not. Eugenics tells people that disability and failure to conform to mainstream society’s expectations and rules are bad. Eugenics is ultimately rooted in  intertwining sets of bigotry: racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and more forms of oppression, using disability, “abnormality,” and “defects” to explain practices such as involuntary sterilization of any marginalized person.

The popular American eugenics movement of the Progressive Era past had eugenicists positing that intelligence and moral “defects” in the “feebleminded” people were passed down like Mendel’s peas generation by generation, using the growing field of genetics, the myth of the “feebleminded menace,”  and “fitter families” contests to make it plausible and acceptable to society. They twisted scientific concepts and used new scientific discoveries and theories of science to make it sound exciting to Progressive-era society – and they also capitalized on public fear and worry about poverty, race, immigration, and disability.

In many ways, it had legitimacy among many – eugenicists testified before Congress on immigration restrictions as “experts” in the years before and during World War II, many states had sterilization laws, and the Supreme Court affirmed a Virginia eugenics sterilization law 8-1 in 1927. In several ways, it did not. Some eugenicists’ careers in eugenics ended early due to the growing negative response from the public. Some prominent scientists decried eugenics as pseudoscience. And eugenicists in that era failed to see their ideas of sterilizing every “feebleminded” person fully implemented on a massive, national scale. 

Unlike the eugenics of the past, eugenics today – from what I’ve seen – is generally cloaked in scientific legitimacy, using real science like CRISPR and gene editing and genomics. Like the eugenics of the past, a lot of people still have fear and other negative, oppressive beliefs regarding poverty, race, immigration, disability, and more. Like the eugenics of the past, is is presented as exciting new scientific discoveries.  And that makes it just as terrifying, if not more.

(ETA: a good resource to follow is Genetics and Society, “a nonprofit information and public affairs organization working to encourage responsible uses and effective societal governance of human genetic and reproductive technologies and other emerging technologies.”)

2016 was lighting candles to mourn, but it was also carrying torches high

Year in Review: 2016

 Disability Rights, State of the Blogger, and Looking Ahead to 2017


  • Progress in 2016
    • #CripTheVote and disability on stage in U.S. politics
    • Disability Intersectionality Summit
    • Other moments in disability rights
  • State of the Blogger
    • Overview of the blogger’s 2016
    • Looking at, and valuing, disability and autistic history
    • Top five viewed posts and pages
    • Posts and pages that I liked but had fewer views
  • Looking Ahead
    • 2016 as an atypical year and the blogger’s plans for 2017
  • Conclusion

Progress 

#CripTheVote and disability on stage in U.S. politics

cripthevote-2

The logo of #CripTheVote, designed by Mike Mort. Blue text reads: #CripTheVote. There is graphic-design image of a voting ballot box with a ballot being dropped in. The ballot box has four blue squares, with line art in white of the standard wheelchair user disability icon, a brain, a pair of hands signing, and a person walking with a cane.

 

In 2016, Alice Wong (Disability Visibility Project, which chronicles disability stories), Andrew Pulrang (Disability Thinking blog and Center for Disability Rights), and Gregg Beratan started #CripTheVote, which is

a nonpartisan campaign to engage both voters and politicians in a productive discussion about disability issues in the United States, with the hope that Disability takes on greater prominence within the American political landscape. We hope to encourage people with disabilities to engage with the election at all levels from President on down, and to vote. We also want to hear candidates engage with disability policy issues and disabled people as much as possible.

They hosted Twitter chats, provided resources to disabled voters, and sparked a more organized engagement with politics from the disability community. It brought disability to the stage of politics in a major way, and enabled disabled people to have a central platform to organize around and put their resources and news.

Hillary Clinton released an autism plan and announced support of the Disability Integration Act after an autistic person stood up and asked if she supported it, leading to then-candidate Bernie Sanders co-sponsoring the bill. Then at the Democratic National Convention, a disabled person – disability rights activist Anastasia Somoza – took the stage. 2016 was the year, as Dylan Matthews writes, that disability rights broke through in national politics and disabled people became seen as a constituency by politicians.

Disability Intersectionality Summit

This year, the Disability Policy Consortium accepted proposals and held a Disability Intersectionality Summit. Presentations included topics on the intersections of being undocumented, being LGBTQ+, being a person of color, having mental health disabilities, on #DisabilityTooWhite – the hashtag and movement around the the disability community’s failure to represent racially diverse voices – and more. It was held in Boston on November 5.

Other moments in disability rights include: 

Disability rights groups struck a major blow to sheltered workshops.  Maryland voted to end subminimum wage. An investigation has finally opened into Illinois’ group homes for disabled people. A major Minnesota job provider for disabled people agreed to reform its hiring practices. Michigan banned non-emergency restraint and seclusion for disabled students. Georgia’s governor spoke in favor of Employment First policies for disabled people in Georgia.

The FDA finally put out a proposed rule for banning contingent electric shock devices like those used at the Judge Rotenberg Center. A major case involving a girl and her service dog went before the Supreme Court, and could open up an easier path for disabled students and their families to make schools comply with various laws. Litigation against Georgia’s substandard, segregated “education” system called GNETS for students with disabilities by the Department of Justice moved forward.


State of the Blogger

Overview of the blogger’s 2016

It was a hard year, like it was for many. I spent a serious amount of time dealing with badbrains. I wrote about the dehumanization of psychiatric wards here. I adopted a cat, though, so that makes up for a lot of things.

In terms of other advocacy, I continued volunteering for a non-profit’s social media that I have done since 2015. I also kept working for a non-profit that I been with since December and continued to blog. I began work on a great number of blogging projects like Autistic Community on Medium, and Welcome to the Autistic Community on Tumblr. I also ran Autistic History Month this year.

I also decided to turn my life experiences and history research into writings for publications and have published with the Establishment and the Deaf Poets Society on institutionalization and psychiatric wards, eugenics history and Buck v. Bell, and my experience with housing in college.

Looking at, and valuing, disabled and autistic history

In addition I have been working on my disability history/eugenics history blog more. I revamped my eugenics history 101 post into a downloadable PDF. and updated the resources list for that blog. I worry a lot about eugenics as a popular movement being back full force – it’s still here, in some areas and ways.

I also ran the Autistic History Month blog this year; a link compilation for autistic history can be found here and the posts for 2016 here. As Sarah Pripas-Kapit and I remarked in the closing post for Autistic History Month, history is essential to working for change today:

Thank you for furthering the knowledge of autistic history, and showing that we have a history. I am the first to admit that I don’t know everything about autistic history… Knowing history is vital, especially in this time of turmoil for many. Knowing autistic, and other disability history, is vital. If we don’t know how we organized and formed communities in the past, it’ll be harder to organize and sustain community now. -Kit Mead

It can be tempting to believe that history is an upwards trajectory, with things always getting better and better. Historians call this the “Whiggish view of history.”

Yet the Whiggish view of history oftentimes is not supported by evidence… While the past ten years has been a period of progress for the autistic community, I fear that we may be heading into a period of regression. As so many others have said, the election of Donald Trump to the presidency is looking to be disastrous for people with disabilities. Like many of you, I am concerned about the months and years to come.

History tells us that civil rights are never a done deal. We have to work continually to uphold them.

But I hope that history can also provide hope. We are not the first generation of disabled people to face an ableist state and rollbacks of progress. By looking to the past, we can find a way forward during these turbulent times. -Sarah Pripas-Kapit

Top five viewed posts and pages

Posts and pages that I liked but had fewer views


Looking Ahead

2016 as an atypical year and the blogger’s plans for 2017 

Like s.e. smith says, 2016 was not normal and therefore, we should not allow ourselves to long for 2016 and make it a crowning glory of years that we look back to sometime in the middle of 2017 and go “well, things were so much better then!”

I really recommend reading the post by s.e. smith for how we cannot normalize 2016 because it wasn’t normal. We lost a lot in 2016 and our state of politics has steadily descended into even more chaos than usual. It’s not like I particularly look forward to the next several years’ potential events, but I will take a lot of pride in being alongside many other great activists, working to keep what progress we have made.

In 2017, I will continue to update my post-election resources page and continue my advocacy work, sharing and disseminating resources. I will continue to blog about the things that mattered before this election, and will blog on the things that matter more now because of the election.


Conclusion

2016 may have been holding candles up against a darkening sky in mourning, but it was also keeping candles lit and torches high against rain and darkness. We made a lot of progress in many different areas, and we also lost a lot – but we have faced dark times before, though never like this. We will work against the rapidly encroaching darkness of night to be lighthouses in the fog and darkness for many ships. Torches held high, we face 2017 and the years to come.

Autistic Unemployment: False Solutions and the Tech Industry Narrative

A Response to the WIRED Article “Autistic People Can Solve Our Cybersecurity Crisis” by Kevin Pelphrey

I have a familial connection who used to work for a medical technology company. Her then-supervisor knew I’m autistic. Then-supervisor would ask familial connection if there was a way to get me involved with the company. Familial connection would inform then-supervisor that autistics were not all the same: that I was not, in fact, a software programmer and also could not read code at superspeed and catch errors. Repeat cycle several times.

(I am good with social media, perhaps. But I can barely scrape together rudimentary HTML to put jump links on the Resources page for this blog, and it took hours of Googling and many failed attempts. I can’t write CSS. I can’t write JavaScript. I can’t design webpages or websites.)

There is nothing wrong with autistics who are good or excel at coding and software programming and technology and mechanical things. Autistics who are good at those things definitely exist. There are many things wrong with assuming all autistics are the same, that we all have the innate ability to be computer, mechanical, and software geniuses. To take it a step further: it is also wrong to assume that autistic people are valuable because of a handful of us do possess that kind of technological and mechanical ability.  

(…We’re people and have a wide array of skillsets and interests, and some of us are really good at computers, like some non-autistic people are!)

Those things are what is wrong with the WIRED article “Autistic People Can Solve Our Cybersecurity Crisis,” along with many other direct messages and subtle implications (including a not-so-pleasant quote referring to autistic children growing up as “the coming tsunami of adults with autism”).

Author Kevin Pelphrey, director of the George Washington University’s autism research institute, argues that we can fix the 70-90% unemployment rate for autistics by hiring us in the cybersecurity industry. He further argues that the this industry has a shortage of labor, so hiring us would fix that problem. His main evidence behind this argument seems to be the fact of Alan Turing’s existence.

In his argument, he utterly dismisses autistics with intellectual and/or other cognitive disabilities as having worth by writing, “At the same time, more than three-quarters of cognitively able individuals with autism have aptitudes and interests that make them well suited to cybersecurity careers. These include being very analytical and detail-oriented as well as honest and respectful of rules.”

It’s hard to know where to begin with unpacking the ableism toward autistic people, especially autistics with cognitive and/or intellectual disabilities, in that quote. It employs a number of tropes, reminiscent of the film Rain Man and common literary tropes. Lastly, he simplifies the solution to a complex issue around employment the cybersecurity industry hiring “cognitively able” autistic people.

Since only some of us are good at tech and we are not, in fact, all Alan Turing, this proposed solution will result in employment for far fewer people than Pelphrey envisions. This is a grievous disservice to autistic people, many of whom are struggling to find employment – and quite often in fields other than tech. This article tells employers that autistic people are only good at tech. It tells the general public that our only redeeming quality is being good at tech, and that we are only worth something if we stop the “monumental waste of human talent.”

The author heads a research institute on autism, but rather distressingly, cannot seem to move past a trope that all autistic people should be employed in tech. Our skillsets and interests are as varied and diverse as autistic people’s traits are. If we want employment, we should receive support to work where we want to. We should receive support to engage in our interests. Our contributions are valuable, regardless of whether they are in the workplace.

The solution to the unemployment rates lies not with increasing supported employment to only one industry. Whether it is through a government vocational program or an autistic youth’s transition planning in school for adulthood or a disability advocacy group, it lies with increasing support for us to do what we want to do.

Stop Telling Disabled People We Can Do Anything by Force of Will

Trying to Do What I Simply Could Not

On Monday, October 10, I accidentally gave myself a concussion. It was not glamorous as people would have you believe; I concussed myself on a wall of all things. I collected myself, went to work, and then work convinced me to go to urgent care after a persistent headache for three hours.

That is what I remember of Monday. It’s a really great thing that they gave me super detailed discharge instructions, because I remember almost nothing of being seen at the urgent care place. I don’t really remember Tuesday, but I’m pretty sure I slept for most of it. On Wednesday I went to therapy and to a psychiatry appointment to get my ADHD and other psych meds. I don’t remember much of what was said during either of them. I do remember not being able to sleep more than six and a half hours in two days.

Since Wednesday, I have been trying to work. I did manage to do some things on Thursday, but not as much as I would have liked (and it took me five or six hours to do one task). Apart from that brief time on Thursday, I have not written anything longer than a paragraph and besides informal communication, or done anything requiring more than two steps (in this case, opening the Google Doc! And then translating my thoughts into words). I haven’t been able to update my Psych Ward Reviews page with categories and tags, edit a draft of an article for a multimedia outlet, or figure out how to microwave anything that requires you to microwave it in two steps.

This is not for lack of trying. I have sat in front of the computer for hours, opening Google Docs and work related items. But whenever I tried to focus, everything coherent disappeared and many different things bounced around my brain. My brain simply hasn’t been able to connect the dots. Executive dysfunction, which I already have a difficult time with, has been several times more intense.

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How to keep a heating pad on your head: Wrap a scarf around your entire self, basically. Begin image description: Kit, a white nonbinary person with tortoiseshell glasses, propped on a colorful blanket. Kit’s hair is mostly covered by a scarf to hold a heating pad in place. End image description.

Stop Telling Us We Can Do Anything

So, this is in fact a disability post (the discussion of temporary disability as a thing is complicated, so I’m not going to go into that. But some people do end up disabled from post-concussion effects that can last for a really long time). But my main point is that force of will isn’t enough to “overcome” sometimes. Multiple disabled people have talked about how “you can put anything you set your mind to!” is damaging for disabled people.

As Real Social Skills notes in the blog post “You can do more when you remember that you’re disabled,” when people assume others have the same cognitive and physical abilities, “This often leads to the assumption that people who aren’t doing a task either haven’t been told what to do, or aren’t sufficiently motivated to do it.” I internalized this – I kept sitting there for hours, berating myself for not being able to do things I usually could. When I ran out of ADHD meds once, I did the same thing.

A fellow disabled person, Ruti Regan, recently introduced me to the book “Can I Play Too?” It’s a children’s book, but it really illustrates one of my points – in this case, the snake wants to play catch with an elephant and a pig. The elephant and the pig aren’t sure how to include the snake. The snake has no arms or legs to play catch the traditional way, and (ironically to me at the moment) ends up with the ball bouncing off its head painfully several times before wanting to give up. But then the trio comes up with an idea to use the snake as the “ball” to toss back and forth, and everyone gets to participate.

It’s important to remember that disabled people have different physical and cognitive ways of being, and that we shouldn’t have to “overcome” our disability to be meaningfully included – and no, we can’t “overcome” things just by “putting our minds to it.”

Autistics in Mental Health Crisis (third in a series)

Autistics in Crisis Part Three: Stop Mishandling First Interactions with People in Crisis

Even if we had the best resources for Autistics to access, mental health crises in Autistic people will still sometimes occur, and there will still be situations where a non-crisis gets reported to authorities as such. I feel fortunate. My experiences, particularly at GW, were not ideal. But I did not have forcible intervention from authorities. I feel fortunate because even though I am at lower risk of injury from crisis intervention teams (as I am white), forcible admission to a psych hospital (also known as, you know, forced institutionalization, whether short term or long term) is probably doubly traumatic.

I want to talk about a couple of things in this post:

  • How crisis intervention often goes wrong in regards to the police, and the disproportionate risk that autistics of color (with and without mental health disabilities) face here, along with autistics of other marginalized groups
  • Some steps to improve the first interactions by police and first responders with autistic people in crisis, both policy and otherwise

How First Interactions with Autistics in Crisis Go Wrong

For Arnaldo Rios-Soto, an autistic Latino young man now institutionalized in Carlton Palms because the state of Florida fails to provide enough community supports to its disabled community members, even playing with a toy truck in the street resulted in a person calling 911 to report Rios-Soto being suicidal and a threat. The police shot and injured his black therapist, Charles Kinsey, and then claimed they meant to shoot Rios-Soto. The police responded to the scene of an alleged mental health crisis involving black and brown people, and shot Charles Kinsey.

As Autistic activists of color Lydia Brown, Finn Gardiner, and Manuel Díaz wrote for Sojourners:…Whether the officer was actually aiming for Kinsey or Rios-Soto, he has become part of a national pattern. Disabled people represent between one-third and one-half of all people killed by police. Black and brown people are extremely disproportionately likely to die in police-involved shootings… If you’re black or brown and disabled, your likelihood of being targeted by police only increases.”

When I asked Timotheus Gordon, Jr., who in his own words is  “an autistic African-American blogger, writer, event photographer and self-advocate in Chicago” what he felt when he heard what the police said about aiming for Rios-Soto, Gordon told me: “…the fact that the police tried to shoot Rios-Soto instead of Kinsey confirms my fear of walking on the street as an autistic person of color… Disabled people of color can play with a red toy truck, calm down from a meltdown, or rollerblade peacefully on the block and still get harassed by people.”

Finn Gardiner, who co-authored the Sojourners piece, added: “The issue of police violence is compounded if you belong to more than one marginalised community. For example, if you’re an autistic, trans person of colour, the combined effects of racism, transphobia and ableism will make you even more at risk for harm… You may have your identity completely erased. People may only see your race and not your gender identity or your disability.”

Crisis intervention also went wrong in the case of Kayden Clarke, a trans man in Mesa, Arizona. Denied a recommendation for hormone replacement therapy by his therapist because of an Asperger’s diagnosis (placing him on the autism spectrum), he became suicidal. In early 2016, after receiving a report from a worried person, the police arrived at his apartment – and shot Clarke, killing him. The police knew Clarke had an Asperger’s diagnosis.

And in February 2012, Chicago-area police shot and killed Stephon Watts, a Black Autistic teenager as he panicked while holding a knife. I wrote in February 2016 (on my previous blog), “…the police had shown up to “subdue” him…. many, many times in the past. To have had such encounters with the police, which were undoubtedly physical in nature, would be traumatizing.  Even if Watts had not been panicking in the first place, to lash out from fear of being “subdued” again is the result of a fight or flight response… As a Black Autistic, Watts faced multiple marginalization from society, with ableism and racism as a reaction that killed him.” The police knew Watts was Autistic.

And the New York Times recently reported that the NYPD uses “restraining bags” for arrests and crisis intervention, particularly in situations involving those with mental health disabilities – as the Times noted, “the bags are used to restrain those judged to be emotionally disturbed.”

These are just a few examples of the way police handle crises. 

What Are the Solutions?

Like Brown, Gardiner and Díaz, Gordon notes which people are often the targets of such harassment and police shootings: “I also dislike [the] repetitive connection between police violence and victims being disabled people of color.” Gordon went to say what he thinks is a solution to police shootings and mishandling of crisis intervention: “I want racial justice and disability rights/justice organizations to collaborate…  The collaboration MUST include organizers and activists in the disability community and ensure that actions are accessible to all participants.” Gardiner agreed with Gordon on the need for collaboration.

In terms of policy work that advocates can work for, a broad measure for police accountability overall as opposed to just crisis handling is H.R. 2302, the Police Training and Independent Review Act, which would cover comprehensive reform – not just police training on disability and racial/ethnic bias, which many of the officers involved in shootings receive – it also requires states to appoint independent prosecutors to investigate and prosecute police-involved shootings before receiving certain federal funding.

More specifically, we also need to create mobile crisis teams that aren’t police. 911 operators can dispatch those teams instead of law enforcement. Gardiner told me that crisis teams that know how to “engage with marginalised populations” are vital.

Gardiner also recommended the creation of “comprehensive peer and community-based supports that take into account the effects of marginalisation.” He also recommended “peer support like… warm lines*, advocating for comprehensive, long-term training for law enforcement, [and] encouraging police departments to hire people who are aware of racial justice issues.”

*Warm lines are like hotlines people having a hard time can call when they are not yet in crisis and need someone to talk to. I elaborate on them in Part Two of this series. 

. . .

This is the third out of a series of posts.

About the Interviewees

Timotheus Gordon, Jr., also known as Pharaoh Inkabuss, is (in his own words), an autistic African-American blogger, writer, event photographer and self-advocate in Chicago. He is the creator of “The Black Autist”, a blog that emphasizes autism/disability acceptance among people of color, including people in the black community. Gordon is a first year Ph.D student at University of Illinois-Chicago, pursuing a degree in disability studies. Follow his Tumblr blog for updates: http://blackautist.tumblr.com/

Finn Gardiner is a Black, queer, Autistic advocate and activist in the Boston area. He currently works for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) as their Boston Community Coordinator, leads the ASAN Greater Boston chapter, and previously worked for the Institute for Community Inclusion as a Gopen Fellow. He has a B.A. in sociology from Tufts University and is currently a public policy masters student at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. Follow his blog for updates: http://expectedly.org/blog/ 

Autistics in Mental Health Crisis (second in a series)

Autistics in Crisis Part Two: Crisis Aversion or Resources We Need

But knowing all those things I talked about in part one would not have kept me out of their ERs (preventing the crises in the first place). Knowing all those things would not solve the systemic issues contributing to crises. There are a lot of reasons Autistic people have crises. Quality of care if accessed, past or current trauma, isolation, a lack of community mental health resources, and other systemic barriers – often alongside co-occurring mental health diagnoses – combine to put people in crisis mode.

Both access to and quality of mental health care are issues for Autistic people. Many of the Autistic people who do access mental health care have reported pressure to “treat” their autism, and other mistreatment by mental health professionals. Even among professionals who do not seek to “fix” autism, Autistics’ distinct and various methods of expressing emotion and language can leave unprepared professionals at a loss and Autistic patients frustrated. There are also other factors. Some have difficulty navigating the health care system and lack support. A large number of Autistics can’t afford care for any number of reasons.

One Autistic writer highlights many of the above systemic barriers in a piece on autism and suicide (suicide crises are not the only mental health crises that occur, but Autistic adults without intellectual disabilities are nine times more likely than non-autistics to die by suicide). The author also discusses unemployment along with barriers to autonomy and social connection as contributing factors to Autistics’ high suicide rates. Here are some of the solutions the author offers:

We can be attentive to people who seem isolated and intentionally include them. We can check up on people who are known to be struggling… We can make our community welcoming to newcomers who desperately need the shelter of Autistic space. We can spread the word about autism-friendly mental health services… We can advocate for policies that support independence, like employment first and walkable communities.

For me, it would have been really helpful to have a 24-hour drop-in center or peer respite center (an alternative program where people in crisis can stay, staffed by people who have experienced mental health needs) somewhere nearby. There weren’t other options for me to stay safe. One study has indicated that peer respite centers result in better outcomes (for a variety of mental health needs) than psychiatric inpatient treatment, and there is a growing evidence base for supporting peer respite centers. 

Another resource would be a mental health phone (and text-based as Autistics can have a hard time with phones) line geared for connecting a person with services or other peer support when they are not at a crisis point. They would get connected based on level of need and which care they wanted. It would have a diverse staff to help make sure people did not end up with people mistreating them if they have a certain identity. Some similar projects, though not quite with that scope, already exist. One project called Project Warmline – people who need someone to talk to can speak to someone who has mental health needs – is in Oregon and has received state funding. Some other warmlines are listed here. It is not inconceivable that these projects could expand. 

There are significant gaps in community-based mental health resources. There is also a failure to address systemic barriers for Autistic people and improve quality-of-life research and supports by the largest sources of autism-related funding. These factors create a complex push into crisis mode for many Autistics. We can push for policy changes and support one another as fellow Autistics.

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This is the second in a series of posts.