I Am Not Your Puzzle-Box.

9 06 2011

If I see one more piece of art by a neurotypical creator claiming to ‘unlock’ the ‘puzzle‘ of autism, I will puke. Violently, and in their direction.

This is something that’s grated at my nerves ever since I first attended a Disability Theatre conference back in 2010.  We are a group who, because we’re often seen as ‘lacking’ a voice of our own (as opposed to communicating differently, or just not wishing to), hold the dubious honour of being the cherished subject of dozens of pieces every year, always aimed at nuerotypical crowds, and most often claiming to ‘explain’ our experiences and view of the world, with the spoken aim being furthering understanding and compassion.

Part of the reason for this is no doubt education. During the entirety of my Theatre Design degree, we never touched once on the subject of dealing with minority groups when creating a piece of work, let alone making them the focal point of a piece. A fleeting objection may be made here by stating that that’s not the given purpose of such a course, and yet so many eager students even during that brief time on one course were rushing off to research and explain us, to take up their pens and banners and save us from a harsh and misunderstanding populous. This inundation would imply that such education is dearly needed after all. What needs teaching here are the fundamentals of including minority groups in your work without stepping on toes, and without furthering the very oppression that the stated aim is to reduce.

Imagine a straight creator going out and exploring the decades of research into the causes and inner-workings of homosexuality [1], interviewing the afflicted individuals and return to their own social shores to speak of the delicate wonders they have borne witness to, so easily crushed by the misunderstanding of the ignorant (yet well-meaning) masses, who could see the strange and fragile beauty for what it is if only they had it translated into metaphors they too could understand. Such a piece, and such a creator, I would hope, would be gently pulled aside before such an endeavour was begun, and had the basics of precisely what was wrong with this course of action explained to them. Namely that it is incredibly patronising to the minority group in question to appropriate their experiences in such a fashion, even with all the best intent in the world. If you truly want to help autistic people speak to the world, or enhance the understanding by neurotypical audiences, then take what is said and use your position of higher privilege to spread that. Otherwise you’re just speaking for autistic people; putting your words into our mouths, or taking our words and twisting them [2] into a narrative that you, from your perspective, see us in. You are not an ‘ambassador of autism’ [3].

This article may sound very disheartening, and make a lot of people very defensive. This wasn’t the intent, although I know that it will happen, as it’s a common gut reaction that pretty much everyone gets the first time we’re called on our privilege. But it’s important to walk away from this without simply feeling that there’s nothing you can do, or that you’re hated for trying. You can stand up to misunderstanding in society. You can stand up to bigotry in society. You can use your position as a creator and a neurotypical person to signal boost the true, unfiltered words of non-neurotypical individuals. You can be a good ally.

I recognise that in this article I’ve used the terms autistic and neurotypical as a binary. This is incorrect, and an oversimplification of non-neurotypical, which is in actual fact a complex umbrella of different conditions. I used ‘autism’ in this article because it’s the subgroup that most neurotypical people rush to explain to each other in their art. However, all of the points made above can be applied to any other group within the NNT [4] umbrella.

1] By straight researchers, of course.

2] Consciously or otherwise.

3] Neither is Bjork. Autism Speaks are a prime example of all the things to avoid doing.

4] NNT = Non-Neurotypical. NT = Neurotypical.

A quick pointer on comments; Anyone who drags out the “But you don’t really have it / don’t have it seriously enough! If you really had autism, you wouldn’t be so eloquent/able to speak at all!” line will be considered as having Not Done Their Homework or a Troll, and will be deleted and/or mocked mercilessly as a result.


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