Over the past two years life has been more fraught than ever for autistics in Ontario. It all began when the provincial Conservative government decided to trash the existing Ontario Autism Plan and cut funding. Politically, we know that Doug Ford does not like autistic folk and thinks we should not be living in any respectable neighbourhoods. When this happened autistic advocacy groups made up of actually autistic folk were wary. On the one hand, they were cutting funding to conversion therapy for autistics, Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), a cut autistics can and do support. At the same time the theory was that other supports for autistic children would be put in place. Predictably many parents of autistic children and the lobby groups that are run by ABA practitioners and parents lost their collective shit. As a result, the minister responsible was forced out and the govenrment created a panel to “consult” with autism community. This panel consisted mostly of ABA practitioners and parents. There were two actually autistic people on the panel. It is this representation, or more accurately lack of representation, that has led to the voices of the majority of actually autistic folk being shut out of the discussion.
Both autistic members of the panel were active in Autistics for Autistics Ontario (A4A) prior to the panel being convened. One had been on the executive and left due to other life commitments. The other, Matthew Dever, remained an active part of Autistics for Autistics Ontario and communicated with the executive and overall membership. During the work of the panel this relationship went downhill. Matthew’s bio as part of the panel explicitly states that he was part of A4A and the final report presents this in the present tense. A4A is run on a model of collective decision making and the executive is made up of a majority of people who are not cis white men. As a collective, A4A asked for regular updates and were told that there was an NDA so no information would be shared in a timely manner. What dribs and drabs that were received were vague, further, A4A executive and membership were not consulted on any of the recommendations that Matthew put forward.
When the report finally came out it was clear that it mostly appeases the ABA lobby. In addition, the implementation group has even less actually autistic representation than the original panel. Nothing in the implementation talks about supports for autistic adults. The implementation focuses on “needs based” services and creating five levels of need. This move to creating levels feeds into the myth of the “high functioning” autistic person. Further, what has been shared about the implementation has no discussion of class, racism, and poverty and how these marginalizations limit who actually receives services. In addition, there are significant concerns about who will be providing some of the seminars and training sessions.
When members of A4A and its executive raised concerns about the overall process with Matthew the messages back were all focused on being nice and not rocking the boat. That autistic advocates should be nice to the groups that have, and continue to shut actually autistic folk out of discussions unless they unquestioningly support ABA and the programs that they promote. The argument is that autistics should engage in respectability politics and thus support the ableism and further marginalization in the hopes of receiving a few crumbs. While in this case there is one person who is causing the problem, it is indicative of a wider issue with any sort of activism work and, specifically autistic advocacy. The problem is that the most marginalized within the group are shunted aside.
In the case of advocacy and activism for LGBTQ+ rights trans folk were pushed aside in the fight for same sex marriage and sexual orientation to be protected by human rights. In most activism areas issues of systemic racism are pushed aside with groups claiming not to be racist while engaging in systemic racism. We are currently seeing the idea of respectability politics being pushed on various indigenous groups across Canada who are protesting pipelines. This is an ongoing problem, and not new.
In my own case, when I have tried to engage teachers and talk about the systemic issues facing autistic and disabled students straw-man arguments and sealioning abound. Autistic self-advocates are shut down and dismissed as not being legitimate. Some people involved in mainstream autism even go so far as to accuse autistic run advocacy groups of being cult-like, while ignoring how the behaviour of some of the ‘acceptable’ groups could be considered cult-like. One of the defining features of many autistic people is a love for justice and fairness. I have always been like this. Thus, I have on many occasions been punished for speaking out about injustice and unfair practices. It is what I am doing in this post.
Appeasement of oppressors almost never works. It is inherently unjust and leads to more oppression. When people who are autistic support the very systems that oppress and harm autistic folk they are not helping the cause, they are actively harming it. Activism is not about pushing people down, but raising everyone who is being harmed up. To stop the oppression and create a society where marginalized folk can live free from harm.
When those of us who are activists participate in systems that are set up to benefit the majority it is incumbent that we use our positions in these systems to speak up and name the problems, not roll over and appease those who maintain the systems. In the cause of autistic advocacy in Ontario that means standing up to groups like the Ontario Autism Coalition, the association of behavioural analysts, and the government that is seeking to eliminate supports for disabled folk.
When I see tweets and read the piles of male bovine manure spouted against autistic self-advocates I name it for what it is. Bullshit, and more of the same crap we hear regularly from those who are unwilling to apply any sort of critical thinking to their work.
Yes, this piece is a bit long, and does not pull any punches. I have outlined many of the problems in Ontario with autistic policy, planning, and practice. My call to action is the following:
Listen to actually autistic folk and not just the handful who are acceptable to those most vocal and getting the most press about autism policy.
Ask questions. Follow the money. Examine who most benefits from the policies these panels recommend.
Speak up when autistic people are being shunted aside in favour of those who are not autistic.
Pay attention to the autistic folk who are not white cis men.
Talk to your Members of Parliament, Members of Provincial Parliament, and, most importantly, if you are active in a political party push them to listen to those who are actually autistic and not unions, ABA providers, etc.