Welcome to April. I’ve been lurking around the Autism Blog-o-verse long enough to know that April is when people tend to really polarize, so much more so than the rest of the year. It’s when the opinions and emotions intensify to a breaking point. When people read and judge, often without context. When we are most likely to get caught up in a wave of support for group or hate for another. When divides between different groups within the community shift to become deep schisms. April is an interesting month. Love it or hate it, it’s here, and with it, all of the Awareness, Acceptance, Advocacy, and Autism that it entails. It’s only the 3rd, and already, good, honest, kind people are hurting. Welcome to Autistic April.
Now this is the Internet. And for some reason, on the internet, some people turn into the same people they are when they are driving super aggressively. Anonymously, they feel they can say or do whatever they want, no matter who it hurts. But most people aren’t like that. Most people have good intentions. If a parent is on the internet, it is most likely that they love and care about their child and are trying to help them however they can. And if an Autistic individual is on the web, they are likely there to self-advocate and have a discussion. (Of course, this is not true for every individual, but for a vast majority it is, and thus, the assumption should be that they are reasonable people.) They may not have said or done whatever they said in a way you personally agree with, or that you find horribly offensive or seriously misguided. But chances are, when they said it, they didn’t think to themselves “I’m going to write this essay and publish it because I think it will piss off a lot of people in the Autism Community. I’m hoping to have a major argument and get nasty comments and cause a mess.” Rather, it’s far more likely their thought process was something along the lines of: “this is something that I think might resonate with some people. I want to help.” Unfortunately, most of the time, when there’s an offending essay, article, or anything else, we pounce. I think its human nature, but I’m not sure that’s the right reaction. In some situations, I’m sure it is, but I have a simple rule that I live by, and it seems to work out pretty well.
Assume Good Intentions. And give the benefit of the doubt.
Now while saying something that offends someone is really not very nice, we have all been guilty of an “open mouth, insert foot” moment (or two or many). Sometimes we say something that is offensive. I’m not perfect, and really, I’m pretty sure no one is. We’ve all said and done things that have offended others, usually completely accidently, coming from a place of ignorance, not a place of hate. Unfortunately, once the offense is out there, it can’t be un-done. Offense is offense. I simply contend that there are multiple ways to respond. If you say or do something that offended someone, would you rather have them scream in your face about how much of an awful person you are, while dissecting everything you’ve said to prove that you are terrible, or would you rather they told you, calmly, what was offensive to them and why? Which person are you more likely to apologize to? Which person makes you more likely to want to make amends and broaden the way you think? Even if you disagree completely with the person’s viewpoint, agreeing to disagree, while maintaining a respectful dialogue is progress. Exchanging verbal blows simply alienates, which is exactly the last thing we want.
And after all, it is April. Like many people out there in the Autism Community, my hope is that this April, there will be increased dialogue. I keep reading things like “awareness is easy” and most people are already “aware” of Autism. They’ve heard the word before. They have an idea of what it is. For most people outside the Autism Community, it’s a stereotypical, completely untrue image. But we want more than Awareness. We want Acceptance. And without dialogue there is no acceptance. So during this incredibly triggering month, allow yourself to be triggered. But before you respond, take a deep breath, assume good intentions, and if you choose to engage, do so in a positive, constructive way. Because it’s how you would want to be treated in the same situation, and because kindness, honesty, and discussion are what lead to understanding. And understanding is what ultimately leads to acceptance.
Happy Autistic April!
Some post-scripts and notes:
There are certainly some nasty awful people online, and honestly with those people, I find that if they don’t respond to kindness, then I simply disengage. Those most likely aren’t the minds we will be able to change, anyway. HOWEVER I simply contend that most people online are NOT awful people. Especially many parents out there… they want the best for their kids. They want their children to grow up well. They LOVE their children, want what’s best for their children, want to give them the best opportunities in life that they can have. They are inherently GOOD PEOPLE. This doesn’t mean I agree with all that many parents do (remember, my parents abused me, physically and mentally, for my Autistic traits, in their misguided attempts to “fix” me, an extreme of a situation that many young people live daily). It doesn’t mean that I don’t cringe inside when I hear a parent say “I hate Autism and everything about it. I want to cure my child and rid him/her of it completely.” Hearing those things hurts. Knowing that many people believe someone like me shouldn’t exist hurts. But responding with direct anger only leads to escalation, and more pain and misunderstanding, on both sides. We say bullying is so awful. But sometimes we dish it right back.
There are a LOT of opinions, topics, and other things out there in the world of Autism. What works for some people doesn’t work for others. People have lived a multitude of lives and experiences surrounding Autism, and that diversity is what makes this community so great. But it’s also what makes the community so volatile, and when we hit April it intensifies. I know there’s a lot of frustration with “awareness done wrong”, and I share a lot of that frustration too. It’s very frustrating when well-intentioned people organize “awareness events” without ever consulting the group of people they are trying to bring awareness of. It’s infuriating and often incredibly hurtful when people ignore Autistic voices, and talk about us as a public health crisis or an epidemic that needs to be eradicated. But if we want awareness and further, acceptance, done right, we have a responsibility to lead by example. If we want respect, we must give it. If we want to be heard, we must listen, too. There is absolutely a time and a place for conflict, but it shouldn’t be our first reaction. Reach out with compassion. It’s likely that the person you’re reaching out to will respond similarly. Give the benefit of the doubt, and assume good intentions. Acceptance takes time. It takes work. It takes enduring an awful lot of awfulness. But compassion generates dialogue. And dialogue brings consideration, understanding, and maybe even acceptance. But any one of those steps is better than the alienation, distrust, hate, and anger that come from conflicts where we make the wrong assumption. I’m not advocating letting others walk all over us. I’m not suggesting that we just let the offensive material stand and go unchecked. It shouldn’t. I’m not saying “don’t get angry”. Anger is an important emotion. I’m simply saying that anger isn’t always the best response. Sometimes it is. Anger is easy. But sadly, what is easy is not always best.
And to officially end the end of the post-script to the post (say that 5 times fast):
“We have to choose between what is right, and what is easy.”– J.K. Rowling (I believe it was Dumbledore who says this in the book)