Everyone, including autistics, wants autonomy to make their own choices. Unless it directly harms someone else, you should have the autonomy to make your own decisions. This includes how you view your disability/disabilities and how you want to engage with the disability community.
Previously, autistic people have been denied agency over their own thoughts and decisions. With the growth of the neurodiversity movement, we are more able to advocate for ourselves to make our own decisions, make mistakes, and take risks. A part of our advocacy involves the language used to talk about us and the imagery used to represent our disability to the wider public. Let’s take a look at two examples and what they indicate about autonomy for autistics.
Why I love the infinity symbol
If you’re deep into online autistic advocacy circles, you have possibly come across this article explaining the ableist history of the puzzle piece. It is very well done, and I recommend you check it out if you have not done so already.
The puzzle piece was originally chosen because autism was thought to be a "puzzling condition." It has been used by some fundraising organizations to represent and further their agendas. For autistics to distinguish ourselves from these organizations, we needed a new symbol--one that we chose for ourselves.
The rainbow infinity symbol has been embraced by many in the autistic and neurodiversity community. When I was first introduced to the symbol, it was presented solely as a representation of autism. Yet, its meaning is there is beauty in the diversity of how each brain functions. That is probably why those with ADHD or other neurodivergent conditions have also started using the rainbow infinity symbol. This has led the autistic community to use a red or gold infinity symbol to indicate autism specifically, though sometimes we still use the classic rainbow design.
The reason why I love the infinity symbol is not just because it represents the importance of celebrating and accommodating everyone’s unique perspective, but also because it is one that our community chose. We would post it on Tumblr, we would write about its meaning in our blogs, and we started to put it on t-shirts and other merch so we could wear it publicly, if we’re feeling brave.
This symbol means a lot to me because I know it was a collective effort to have it be recognized. It is still not as well-known as I would like it to be, but I believe with time, the infinity sign will be identified as an icon of neurodiversity.
There are some autistic people that do still like the puzzle piece. However, they have reinterpreted its meaning. Some autistic people see the puzzle piece as a symbol that we all have a place where we belong or the strength of our community connection. That being said, the author encourages everyone to move away from ableist usages of the puzzle piece. One way to achieve this is to have organizations use different symbols. They can be based off of the infinity sign, or any other symbol they feel represents their organization.
I was at the Society of Disability Studies conferences back in 2019. I got to meet so many amazing people, including some fellow autistics. However, during one person’s presentation and our subsequent conversations, this young man referred to themselves as "a person with autism." Wait…what?
I had thought everyone switched to the new terminology of "autistic person" rather than "person with autism." I saw their presentation and it brought up some good ideas for how to make colleges more accessible for students on the spectrum. Why was this person working towards goals that are aligned with what I want for our community, but referring to himself as a person with autism?
Well, to be honest, I didn’t get a chance to ask. (Lunch arrived and I was starving!) But I did think about this after the conference was over. I think the most poignant thing to mention is that he is a Black man, so his lived experiences and community supports are likely different than my own. We should always keep intersectionality in mind when interacting with others, both inside and outside our community.
I also know that we live in a society that still considers people with disabilities, especially autism, as less than human. Perhaps some people use this terminology to emphasize their humanity. While I do say "autistic," sometimes on its own, I often follow the word “autistic” with the word “person” because I do want our humanity to be recognized. When writing, I do use "autistic people" to refer to the whole community.
However, if someone truly prefers to be called a person with autism, I can be okay with it. I want those in our community to have the agency to make that choice for themselves, and to have the freedom to try out different language as a form of self-expression. Some people may not want to call themselves an autistic person, some people use these terms interchangeably, and some may not be comfortable calling themselves autistic yet. I feel like we can have more variations in our language, if we come together to forge a more accessible, inclusive society for each one of us.
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