Wednesday, May 27, 2020

“Our Own Little Worlds”

Tiny World
Photo © Jill at Blue Moonbeam Studio | Flickr / Creative Commons
[image: A wooden gate in a botanical garden, with the Austin skyline
in the background, as seen reflected in a crystal ball.]

Devin S. Turk

As I have become more involved with the autistic self-advocacy movement, I’ve found myself paying more and more attention to how non-autistic populations talk about us. I have often heard my beautiful, vibrant community described by non-autistics with words like “disease” and “epidemic.” Even if it’s not as blatant, the language our wider society uses to talk about autistic people is reflective of a deep-seated discomfort and even disgust with the non-normative. 

One example is the idea that autistic people are in our “own little worlds.” “They’re in their own little world” alludes to the intensely ableist trope of the “mysterious autistic” person, someone who is “trapped” within their “Autism-ridden” body or “locked away”in a brain that “can’t” communicate, empathize, or socially matriculate…as if Autism is a sort of bubble around a “normal” person. Additionally, the word “little” in “own little world” adds infantilization to the mix: “little” is another way to deem a person’s neurology to be childish, and therefore even lesser-than. If I am in my own world, it sure as heck isn’t “little.”

For a moment, let me play devil’s advocate and entertain the idea that there hypothetically could be separate autistic and non-autistic “worlds.” (Just go with me on this one.) Say the autistic and non-autistic mental landscapes actually do exist as opposing habitats, like the North and South Poles at the opposite ends of a planet. 

If this were true, why is the autistic landscape automatically considered less fulfilling than that of the non-autistic? Why is the realm of neurotypicality the baseline standard while the “world” of Autism is devalued and dismissed as disordered fantasy?

The “own world” sentiment expresses the gross assumption that the autistic brain is somehow inherently unhinged from reality, and that there is something deeply wrong with that. Moreover, the phrase implies that we operate from behind some kind of pane of frosted glass: the obviously-autistic person is deemed unreachable as well as unreadable. Our natural responses to the surrounding environmental stimuli (which can include various forms of stimming, echolalia, meltdowns, shutdowns, burnout, etc.) are characterized as symptoms of distorted realities or of pathological detachment. 

But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Many autistic people express a heightened sensitivity to sensory input, empathy, or environmental connectedness…non-autistic people just aren’t good at recognizing it.

Here, I am reminded of a video uploaded to YouTube by the late Autistic activist Mel Baggs, titled “In My Language” which has had a profound effect on myself and many others in my community. If you haven’t seen “In My Language,” watch it, and then watch it again. 

I continue to be very moved by Mel’s description of existing in continuous, wordless conversation with surrounding objects, forces, and other beings, and I also relate to it. (However, when I’m around non-autistic people, so much of my energy is allocated toward masking my autistic traits, I am forced to tune-out those conversations. I hope for this to change one day soon, but I digress.)

Even when this is not the case, when an autistic person lacks empathy, is “out-of-touch” with present social norms and values, or acts in a visibly-neurodivergent manner, their personhood remains intact. I wish these were not statements I felt I needed to include in this writing. I hope that they are obvious to every person who interacts with my community, but there are many systems, large and subtle, that aim to undermine the humanity of Disabled people.

So, it bears repeating: Autism does not render a person less worthy of the respect and dignity that our society automatically awards to non-disabled individuals. After all, my community and our “own little worlds” are not the result of my people becoming encased in some sort of Autism bubble…we are simply autistic people. We are not inherently separate from or in opposition to the “real” neurotypical world…But if we were, why would that be a bad thing?

My hope is that, as the autistic self-advocacy movement continues to blossom through and around us, our broader neurotypical peers can uplift our voices, experiences, and expressions instead of dismissing them.