“I Heard a Rumor That You Have Asperger’s. Are You Even Capable of Running This Program?” An Encounter with Ableism.

I’m not naive. I understand the personal risk that comes from being open about my autism. I thought about it for a long time before I decided to make my diagnoses public. I understand that being openly autistic makes me vulnerable to ignorance and even cruelty.

I direct an Adult Transition Program called ACAT, which I designed, and an Adult Day Program called ACT. I have worked with transition age intellectually and developmentally disabled adults for over 10 years. I am all too familiar with negative attitudes society holds toward our population; our capabilities are undervalued; our voices are ignored and dismissed; our lives are viewed as burdensome and tragic. I choose to be open about my autism, to be an advocate, because I believe that it is absolutely essential for me to challenge these negative attitudes which are not only wrong, but harmful as well.

Apparently not everyone got the word. Yesterday at an IEP meeting, the sister of one of our students was ranting on about her displeasure with the program. She leaned across the table, raised her voice to me and spat out “I heard rumors that you have Asperger’s; are you even capable of running this program!?” I was outraged. Then she repeated, “I heard rumors that you have Asperger’s!” Anger rushed through me and my access to words locked up. I think I told her that it was none of her business and if she insisted along this line, the IEP meeting was over. My staff, Eric worked to diffuse and redirect the conversation. I was grateful for him. I know he was angry too. The rest of the table said nothing. Maybe they were stunned that a family member of an intellectually disabled young man would question my capability based on my disability. Maybe they were filled with shame. Maybe they were indifferent. I don’t know. I do know I felt unsafe.

As I walked home later that evening with thousands of thoughts and emotion racing around my head, something occurred to me; something important. It is easy and justifiable to focus anger on the ignorance of the family member and her nakedly cruel ableist words. Not only is her brother disabled, but she also works as a special education speech specialist. I have a profound sense of disgust for her. But I thought of the others at the table, all neurotypical and their collective silence.

Being open and public about your neurodiversity takes courage and certainly more courage then the others at the IEP table showed. I’m reminded how “experts” try to speak for us all the time, but when it come time for them to stand up for us, they fall silent. If my capabilities had been questioned because of my gender or my sexuality would there still be silence?

The best part of being an Autistic Advocate is presenting the positive side of neurodiversity, but there is another side to this as well, a scary side, which must be acknowledged. So as my hurt and anger slowly dissipate, I publicly wear my wounds. I don’t want people to speak for me, but I wonder, when this happens next time to any of us, who will stand up.

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[Brent White is Autistic. He designs and directs adult programs for intellectually and developmentally disabled adults for the non-profit Ala Costa Centers in Berkeley, California].

 

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