Why is Intersectionality Important?
In pop culture and on social media, autism looks like a white boy with high support needs. His autistic behaviours are filtered through other people’s perceptions and sorted into three categories: difficult, inspirational, dangerous. In reality, autism is not limited to a particular gender, race, age, or even presentation. Every autistic person has a unique experience of the world, of autism, and of how the two intersect.
In both a medical and social context, an intersectional lens is needed to recognize the strengths and support needs of autistic people. A majority of autism research and resources have centred white boys as the “norm.” Focussing on just one profile can lead to under-diagnosis and lack of support for those who fall outside it. Often times, girls and gender-diverse people are overlooked and given many other labels and diagnoses because their autism presents differently than their male counterparts. Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) are denied access to supports due to cultural differences, socio-economic status, and racism. Autistic people with co-occurring conditions may find autism-related supports inaccessible.
For these reasons, it is important that we remember intersectionality in celebrating and honouring Autism Acceptance Month and World Autism Day.
Autism Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum
An important focus of AutismBC’s staff conference this year was intersectionality and what it means to create safe spaces. As an organization, we recognize that autism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Meaning, we cannot provide adequate support for autistic people and their families without considering all the other factors of their lives and circumstances. Identity, culture, and circumstance are all intersecting factors that inform the autistic experience. No autistic person faces exactly the same challenges or has exactly the same strengths as another.
For Autism Acceptance Month, AutismBC was fortunate enough to have five autistic self-advocates share their stories in a series of videos. You can watch the videos as they are released throughout April at www.youtube.com/AutismBC. Each of the interviewees represent other marginalized identities in addition to autism. Cole is a Two Spirit Afro-Indigenous person; Julianna was recently diagnosed with Crohn’s disease; Ulina is a mixed-race single mother; Millie is queer, non-binary, and a person who uses drugs; Keara is an Asian adoptee with anxiety and depression.
We need to help our communities push past the stereotypes that surround autism and create more understanding about the diverse ways it can present. By improving the representation and diversity in the stories we share, we aim to cultivate acceptance, learning, and inclusion.
Cole is an autistic advocate for minorities and people with invisible disabilities. They are afro-indigenous with Romani and European Jewish ancestry and have multiple co-occurring diagnoses. In their interview, they speak about the stereotypes and discrimination that have affected their life.
“The human spirit is one of ability, perseverance, and courage that no disability can steal away. Able does not mean abled and disabled does not mean less abled. I may be different as a neurodivergent person, but [I am] not less as a human being. Keep calm and let the neurodivergent soul do its thing. You matter and you are valid as a human being.”
Julianna is a person with autism who works in the non-profit and social services sectors. She is living with Crohn’s disease. She shares how allies can better support autistic people, the assumptions she faces, and the difference between a safe and unsafe space.
“People with autism all want to be accepted, respected, valued, and able to access the same opportunities, such as employment, like everyone else – we just see the world differently with different abilities that are our own superpowers. There is still work to be done in the work force for employers to educate and encourage inclusion of people with autism in their teams – by opening opportunities for those with autism to thrive, it will give them a sense of self-worth and the feeling that they are contributing members of society.”
Ulina is a mixed-race single mother from Squamish who only recently learned she is autistic. For her interview, she shares the unique challenges of being an autistic mom and the stigma attached to it.
“Be accepting. Of yourself, if you’re on this journey, or of others who are confiding in you or teaching you about their journey. It takes such a small amount of effort to truly listen to each other and it can make a world of difference.”
Millie was diagnosed autistic at age 36. They are queer, non-binary, disabled, and a person who uses drugs (PWUD). They spoke to us about the relationship between their identities and the traumas of existing as a neurodivergent person in a neurotypical world.
“Please don’t try to fix us or change us. Meet us where we are at and appreciate our strengths, rather than focusing on challenges and behaviours. Realize that autistic people are experts on autism. Nothing about us without us.”
Keara is an Asian adoptee who has anxiety and depression. She spoke to us about facing discrimination and bullying for her race and neurotype and the importance of acceptance.
“Autism acceptance means treating people equally and accepting their differences, no matter how challenging that may seem.”
Safe Space Checklist
A safe space is a place of rest from the physical burden of protecting yourself and the emotional burden of justifying yourself. Not only is it a refuge from those who would do you harm, but it is also a refuge from the well-intentioned who simply do not understand you.
Creating a safe space for your autistic peers, family, students, etc. is one of the best things an ally can do. But what does a safe space look like and how do we account for intersectionality in creating them? See below for a checklist of aspects to consider:
- Is it physically safe?
- Is it emotionally safe?
- Is it accessible?
- Who created the space?
- Who was consulted?
- What protects the space?
Celebrate Autism Acceptance Month
This Autism Acceptance Month, let’s move from passive awareness to the active act of acceptance. Let’s recognize the beauty of neurodiversity. What are you doing to become a better ally?
A version of this article appeared on Daily Hive’s opinion section: dailyhive.com/vancouver/world-autism-month