Marvin and I went out to eat after protesting the 2014 Autism Speaks walk with ASAN Vancouver. From the moment we entered the restaurant, a patron sitting and eating with her family was openly staring at me and my wheelchair.
It seemed like this person really had a problem with me when I got out of my wheelchair to fold it up and sit at the only place we could- the table right next to her and her family. The staring got really obvious then. When Marvin brought over our food and McStaringson saw that we were going to stay and eat there, she got very uncomfortable.
I was tired, 110% finished with non-autistics, hungry, and overloaded in all of my senses. In that moment I cared a sub-zero amount about looking non-autistic, or less obviously disabled. I just did my thing and ignored McStaringson. I made no eye contact with anyone. I didn’t force any facial expressions. I was rocking in my seat, and I very likely flapped my hands when I saw our food coming.
When she couldn’t take it anymore (and she didn’t last long) McStaringson leaned over and pointed me out to her family. From the table immediately next to us. She was upset. I could hear her very clearly, but I’m sure she wanted me to. She actually managed to convince her teenage kids and spouse to get up and leave their food, which none of them had finished, so that she could get away from me as fast as possible.
I never went back to that restaurant. It took a little time and a lot of gritting my teeth to be able to eat in public again.
I have tried to talk about this three times in the presence of non-autistic people. All three times I was met with disbelief, justification, or correction- as if I were wrong about the thing that happened to me. Perhaps you’re feeling bristly and defensive yourself. Perhaps you’re already composing a #NotAllAllistics response like the ones I have heard in real space.
“It couldn’t have been that bad.”
“I’m sure you misunderstood.”
“Maybe she was leaving for some other reason.”
“Well, don’t autistic people struggle with understanding facial expressions…?”
They spoke for me, over me. They were so unwilling to hear what I was saying or believe that ableism is a widespread problem to which everyone is owed some responsibility, that they denied reality and my experiences.
And yet, this is the same kind of person who expresses dismayed surprise when they are finally confronted with an act of violent ableism or obvious oppression that they can’t deny. The denial of our daily lived experiences is the foundation for more obvious forms of oppression, but they can’t see the link. That link needs to be pointed out and the silencing needs to stop.
It’s not so much that autistic people aren’t speaking. We are speaking. It’s that so few are listening, and the rest of you won’t stop speaking over us. Our voices get drowned out. Often this is intentional. Sometimes it is the result of a true ignorance about autistic people and our lives, or the wrong belief that autistic people need someone to speak for them. But allies can help fight this ignorance and slay that insidious lie.
When an autistic person shares their lived experiences, believe and support them. When we have something to say, listen. Value our knowledge. Share our words so they fly farther. Amplify our voices, no matter how we communicate. I would say that the Autistics Speaking Day hashtags are an excellent place to start.