Autism and Appropriation

This is a partial response to Jim Hines’ post “Diversity, Appropriation, and Writing the Other“. Jim’s post makes a lot of good general points that have been made before a lot of times (and he rightly links to some of the more marginalized people who have made those points before). He also says:

Another facet of the conversation: when talking about autism in fiction, the titles I see people recommending again and again are often written by neurotypical authors. I wouldn’t say that automatically means these authors are appropriating the stories of people with autism. Some of those stories are very thoughtful and well-researched. But it troubles me to see whose voices are being promoted, and whose are being ignored. And while some of those stories may be well-researched, others are not. They portray a shallow understanding of autism, reinforcing myths and cliches for the entertainment and consumption of neurotypical readers.

While I don’t actually disagree at all with this point, I think it would be useful for me to clarify some aspects of how appropriation works, in the disability community, which Jim and other abled readers might not be aware of.

Disability can be considered a cultural identity sometimes (as in “Deaf culture” or “Autistic culture”) but it’s not generally a cultural identity which is passed down in the same way as racial or ethnic identities. Even when two autistic people get married and have babies, there’s no guarantee that the babies will all be autistic, since the genetic components of autism are complicated and not well-understood. So for most autistic people, there is a stage when the person (or their parents, or teachers, or doctors) are starting to think that they might be autistic, but they are not sure yet.

There are also a lot of autistic people who have no idea yet that they could be autistic. And there are a lot of autistic people who know perfectly well that they are autistic, but who have chosen not to disclose this to the public, even when they are talking about autism-related issues.

Many other disabilities also work in this way. There is legitimate uncertainty, and also legitimate hiding.

So when we get very worked up about the idea of appropriation, and the idea that only disabled people should do certain disability-related things, we risk making a couple of mistakes which can be more harmful to disabled people than actual appropriation. First, when people are in a stage where they’re not sure yet, we can inadvertently give them the idea that it’s not okay for them to talk or think about themselves in disability terms, because they’re not a “real” disabled person and they’re being appropriative. Second, any time we start talking about “real” disabled people we are at risk of a form of identity policing which silences invisibly disabled people, disabled people who choose to pass as non-disabled, or anyone who happens not to fit our stereotype of what disability should look like, for whatever reason.

No one should have to prove they’re disabled enough to tell their own stories. This is a type of gatekeeping that DOES happen – sometimes in the name of avoiding appropriation, and sometimes for more obviously ableist reasons. (Like when people say insulting things about autism, and autistic people complain, and the people who said the insulting things do a dance of “But you’re too high-functioning to know what this is really like!”) It’s sometimes meant well, but it is always insulting and intrusive.

Here is an example from Tumblr recently, in which a person gets yelled at for wanting to use autism communication badges at a potentially non-autistic event. The person who invented the badges then shows up with a very interesting explanation of why communication badges (and many other accessibility technologies) are actually good for everyone to use!

Here is my personal policy: If you write an insulting or inaccurate story about autism, I’m going to call you out. If you write a good, accurate, and insightful story about autism, I’m going to point that out too. If you’re openly autistic and it’s relevant to the story, I’ll mention that. If you’re openly autistic and folks are asking me for a list of SFF books by openly autistic people, I’m going to mention your SFF book. But if you are not openly autistic and feel you can write something accurate and insightful about autism, please DO. I am NOT going to call you appropriative for doing that, regardless of how you identify. We do need more stories by openly autistic people, but we also need more stories BY ANYONE, point blank, in which we are written intelligently and respectfully and treated as actual humans.

We need those stories WAY MORE than we need more identity police.

It is fine if your personal policy is not the same as mine. But please think very, very carefully before you accuse an apparently-not-disabled person of appropriating something from the disability community. It can hurt much more than it helps.