As an advocate of autism rights, I sometimes dream of autism-only spaces. I’m sure other advocates have had that exhaustive moment of “Oh fuck it, I want to buy a private island and invite all my autistic allies to come live with me alone.” It’s pretty easy to feel that way, when the mainstream conversations about autism conveniently forget the disability rights credo of “Nothing about us without us” and prioritize the experiences and “knowledge” of parents and doctors over that of autistic people, effectively silencing them.
It’s also easy to fantasize about that when you are in a group where autistic people outnumber the neurotypicals, and the conversations are rich, interesting, and feel safer somehow, more free, because you are not constantly wondering whether what you say will be used to prove you are too smart or too high functioning to comment on this or that. I’ve participated in autistic-majority conversations when discussing projects, and the amount of smiles, laughter, and mutual understanding involved made me feel a cheesy kodak moment of, “So this is what it feels like to be accepted.”
But how productive would an autism-only space truly be? What if autism-only spaces were mandated at certain points, so that autistics could have a space to just be themselves?
It’s tempting. And in certain places, events, spaces, and discussions, I think that an autism-only conversation could greatly benefit the autistic participants who are sick and tired of being silenced repeatedly. But in the long-term, I do not want autism-only spaces to become the norm. Why?
Because it adds fuel to the idea that autistic people are incapable of meshing with neurotypicals, that we are somehow weaker than them and cannot participate on an equal level with them. It also reinforces this idea that neurotypicals don’t need to listen to us, because we’ll have our own places to go and be listened to. No! We should be fighting for the right to have an equal say in the conversation, not moved off so the doctors, teachers, and parents can continue to pad their comfortable echo chamber.
Autism-only spaces are wonderful, and after a long day of dealing with people who just don’t get it, they’re my promised land. But I will use them to come out refreshed and ready to continue the legacy of autism iconoclasm in the mainstream. I encourage other autism advocates to join up if they wish to. But most of them will, I know, because they are among the strongest people I know, and the most determined. You have to be, in this disablist society.