Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Showcase: Rachel's Impact, Intent, and Dialogue in the Autism Community

We're continuing to run posts by bloggers on advocacy and dialogues. This time, it's Rachel's eloquent piece. Please remember, we welcome your pieces here, so if you'd like to be showcased, please email me your piece or a link to it to

Impact, Intent, and Dialogue in the Autism Community
Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

This post discusses an issue arising from the Parent/Self-Advocate Dialogues that began last week on The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism.

For those who haven’t been following the Dialogues, a rather contentious argument arose about a Twitter exchange between Rob, one of the participants, and Emily, one of the editors, in which it appeared to many people that Emily had ill intent. As it turned out, she did not – quite the contrary – and the ensuing conflict was based on a misintepretation. Given that Twitter does not allow for much in the way of nuance or explanation, a misinterpretation wasn’t all that surprising. Twitter probably wasn’t the best medium in which to attempt a conversation about a serious issue in the first place.

K over at Radical Neurodivergence Speaking has a great post up about the whole incident, with a very good discussion of why the larger social/emotional/historical context in which it happened made misinterpretation almost inevitable. If you aren’t familiar with the situation and want to have some idea of what the rest of this post is about, take a look at K’s piece.

I originally began my post as a comment on what K had written. But as I wrestled with my feelings about the situation, I began to see larger issues that I want to explore here.

In the context of a world in which autistic people are so often rendered invisible, I understand why people interpreted Emily’s words as they did. We’re used to people not listening to us, and when it appeared to be happening again, people drew conclusions based on life experience. I completely understand it, and for anyone who doesn’t, I hope that K’s post makes the reasons clear. From the outset, I did not interpret Emily’s words the way that others did, but I understand why other people arrived at a different conclusion.

That’s not what troubles me.

What troubles me is that, despite Emily being a respected member of the community with an impressive track record on advocacy issues, the rush to judgment about her intentions was so swift. I watched it happen in the comments section to the Dialogues, and I kept wondering when someone was going to say, “You know, given that it’s Emily we’re talking about, we must be missing something. Perhaps we should ask for clarification.” Instead, I saw commenters looking at the Twitter exchange and then drawing very pejorative conclusions about Emily’s intent – that she was attempting to derail dialogue, to silence autistics, to encourage dismissal, and so on – without asking what her intent actually was, and without considering the fact that the conclusions being drawn and her track record were so much at odds.

In the context of dialogue, the failure to ask about intent worries me, because dialogue involves a willingness to ask questions in order to discern intent. Without that, a crucial part of the picture is missing, and dialogue becomes unproductive.

In fact, a failure to ask about intent ultimately discourages dialogue. Because of the pejorative things said about Emily’s intentions, it’s taken me days to post my feelings about the situation. For the first time since I’ve started blogging, I’ve felt inclined to stay silent about my feelings regarding an issue I care about. And if someone like me could feel that way, I can only imagine what people new to the community must have felt while they were watching the whole situation unfold.

As I’ve struggled with speaking to the issue, I’ve been asking myself questions along these somewhat worrisome lines: What will happen if people misread my words as an attack? What will happen if they think I’m dismissing the pain involved for everyone? What if they think I am assigning ill intent to them?

Will they ask me to clarify my intent? Will they try to understand where I’m coming from? Or will they assume ill intent where none exists?

It’s taken me four days to say: I hope they’ll read carefully. I hope they’ll consider who they know me to be. I hope they’ll ask if something is unclear. But I really can’t worry about that.

I know that this whole debacle came out of the pain that so many of us carry, and out of the injustices we’ve suffered. I do. When people read words that appear to be dismissive – even if they are in no way intended to be dismissive – the impact is going to be profound. That reality has to be part of these conversations. And what also needs to be part of these conversations is an understanding that it’s often very ill-advised to draw a conclusion about intent based on impact, especially in a dialogue. When that conclusion is wrong, it can cause a lot of hurt. As a community, we have a responsibility not just to explain why these misinterpretations happen, but also to acknowledge the impact on the person who was misinterpreted.

Emily had people saying some pretty awful things about her thoughts and intentions last week. She’d have to be made of teflon not to feel hurt while it was happening. So while it’s crucial that we talk about the impact of power and privilege and context and silencing and dismissal on us, it’s also crucial that we acknowledge what happens to individuals at the epicenter of these blow-ups, and about the ways in which these kinds of things can fracture a community and discourage dialogue.

So I’m doing now what I should have done in the Dialogues thread last week: I’m speaking up. I hope that people will understand that I’m doing so because I care about the future of dialogue in our community, and because I care about our community being a safe space. If this sort of thing can happen to Emily, it can happen to any one of us.
© 2011 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

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