– Bob Marley and the Wailers, Buffalo Soldier
Autistic people have a rich and colorful history. Autism has only been a diagnosis for about seven decades, but so much has happened in those years. We have been the target of Nazi eugenicists, we have been revered as saints and demonized as changelings — impostors left by the elves or the gypsies while the real child was spirited away in the night. We have been “treated” to unspeakable therapies administered by people who thought they were helping us as well as by people who thought there was no human “in there” to help. We have been plot points and two-dimensional characters in scores of movies and television shows (and had a few really great movies made about us as well). Our mothers have been blamed for causing our existence by not loving us properly. Genetics have been blamed. Vaccines have been blamed. Vitamin D, air pollution, noise pollution, so many purported causes that I wouldn’t be surprised one day to see a headline announcing that breathing causes autism.
We have had our heroes and celebrities: some — like Temple Grandin, John Elder Robison, Daryl Hannah, Dan Ackroyd — well-known to the mainstream. Others — Judy Singer, Laura Tisoncek, Michelle Dawson, Jim Sinclair — mostly only known to our community. We had a contestant on America’s Next Top Model (Heather Kuzmich), a contestant on American Idol (James Durbin), a contestant on The Amazing Race (Zev Glassenberg), and a contestant for Miss America (Miss Montana, Alexis Wineman). We have our symbols, like the rainbow spectrum infinity symbol, and others have created symbols for us that displease many of us, like the puzzle piece, often depicted as a gaping hole in a child’s head, meant to symbolize that we are lacking some basic element of humanity. We have our books — Loud Hands, Aspergirls, Pretending to be Normal — and they have theirs — The Ethics of Autism, The Empty Fortress, Defying Autism.
We have our tragedies: The Judge Rotenberg Center, Alex Spourdalakis, Melissa Stoddard, Daniel Corby, Jori Lirette . . . oh, so many more names, so many more lives cut short. Too many to name here.
And we have our victories: The closing of Willowbrook, the passage of the ADA, the appointment of Ari Ne’eman to the National Council on Disability . . .
In light of all this history, history I’ve only barely begun to touch upon here, it is fitting that the month of November is now Autistic History Month. This new celebration was announced to mixed responses. Some were elated (“WHEN is this world going to give credit where credit is due? Autism is inherently so human. It is time people recognize it every where.”) and some were baffled (“Autistic “History”? That doesn’t make sense. Autism hasn’t been a recognized diagnosis long enough to have any real ‘history.’ We definitely need more Autism Awareness, but I’m not sure using a term that will make people think we’re some sort of ethnic group is going to accomplish that. I would also avoid terms like “Autistic Pride.” You want to humanize people with autism, not set them apart as a fringe group.”).
A 17-year-old autistic man asked: “I have a question: What exactly is there about Autistic History? I try to think about it but can’t think about anything off the top of my head.”
And this is exactly why we need Autistic History Month: our own people do not know their history.
Can you imagine an African-American teenager who didn’t know who Martin Luther King was? Or what Jim Crow laws were? Or anything about the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation? What about a Jewish teenager who knew nothing about Dachau, Anne Frank, or the founding of modern Israel? Would you be sad to hear about Deaf teenagers who didn’t know who Helen Keller was? Had never heard of Galludet University? A Blind teenager who had never heard the story of Louis Braille?
But there are so many Autistic teenagers who have no idea who Bruno Bettelheim was or how much pain his theories brought to countless families for decades. They don’t know who Judy Singer is or what word she has contributed to our language, to the culture of Autistic people and all other non-neurotypical people. They have no idea what makes some of us call Robert Kennedy one of our allies. They question the very idea that there could be such a thing as Autistic history; certainly they question the idea that there is enough history to be worth declaring an entire month of celebration. Some, as you see from the quote above, even question the value of an Autistic History Month.
But this is an important part of Autistics Speaking. This is our history. We are a people. No, we are not connected by ethnic or religious bonds like some groups who have a history month. But we are connected. We are a neurotribe. We have a way of being that is very similar among us, even those of us who have never met another Autistic person in their life. We have a culture. We have a history and it is time to speak up about it!
I am speaking about our history today for Autistics Speaking Day and I will continue to speak all month, sharing the vibrant tapestry of our history. I will not be silenced by those who try to shame me into silence because they feel it is inappropriate to talk about our history. I cannot even fathom the notion that it should be inappropriate to talk about Autistic history!! I will speak! And I will keep speaking until I have helped to create a world in which Autistic people know our history. Will you add your voice? We need to remember and share our history; it is an important part of who we are.
“If you know your history,
Then you would know where you coming from,
Then you wouldn’t have to ask me,
Who the ‘eck do I think I am.”
I am AUTISTIC, and I am proud of the history of my people.