Being An Autistic Activist: On Ableism, Subtext and Good Faith

I never wanted to be an activist. Sure, I like standing up for people. I never got the kind of help I needed when I was a kid, so I try to help others where I can. I react to injustice because I think that’s what everybody should do.

Activist, though? Given the chance, I’d be a million other things. I’m an author, a librarian, a historian, an academic… I like knowing things, taking them apart, understanding subtext. But I would have never chosen to be an activist. That role was thrust upon me because I’m queer, I’m disabled, I’m traumatized… Simply put, I’m called an activist when I ask for the same rights and considerations as everybody else, even though I’m not really cut out for it.

In recent years, white and straight autistic folks using it as a ‘defense’ of their racist or queerphobic behavior have gotten a lot of negative attention. Rightfully so, too! Every time it’s come up, it’s been a clear case of trying to use a diagnosis as a shield. But for a long time, I’ve been wondering how much harder that makes it to talk about something both very obvious and very hidden. It does come up that academic jargon in social justice communities puts up an accessibility barrier, for those who didn’t go to university or those who have learning disabilities.

But what about autism, specifically?

Well, what about it? So much of activism hinges on subtext. Take the concept of the fake apology. I’ve had a lot of practice identifying insincere apologies, but it took me a long time to understand even the concept that somebody would bother lying. That’s pretty common with autism! We tend to know that people lie, but for a lot of us, doing it ourselves or identifying lying when it happens is a real struggle. So we take the apologies at face value.

Another example of how current activism, especially online, disadvantages autistic people is the concept of sealioning. Sealioning is incredibly frustrating to deal with. For those unfamiliar, it’s when somebody pretends not to understand something basically to frustrate whoever is answering their questions for as long as possible. The target, trying to answer all these questions in good faith, eventually loses their temper or patience, and the sealion can use this as an example about how “leftists don’t want to teach” or “libs are just mean”, anything they want. Understandably, the amount of sealions out there means that people get nervous around questions or what looks like willful ignorance.

Except… I sometimes genuinely cannot wrap my head around something. It doesn’t mean it’s up to somebody else to teach me. But as a queer, trans, disabled person it is incredibly frustrating to be intellectually struggling with something because of my disability and get brushed off as a sealion, an instigator or a misogynist. I am probably just missing a vital piece of information! There’s a running assumption that if you’re an activist or marginalized, you should “already know”, but most allistic* people have powers of osmosis or picking up on subtleties that I don’t have. (At least, I assume that’s how you all do it. Nobody’s ever been able to explain it to me.)


Even when we approach topics we don’t understand well with as much grace as possible, it’s a running problem that we’re brushed off or snapped at. And I get it. We’re all tired. But ableism is just as much part of the kyriarchy* as everything else, and if you’re going to put so much attention on subtext, implication and understanding, you owe it to autistic people of all kinds to make your subtext text.

I didn’t choose to be an activist, but I’m one anyway. I didn’t get a choice in the matter. So while I’m here, let me be the best one I can and make space for me.

How to do that: If you know something, even scraps of information, about somebody, think about whether or not they have all the information. If somebody’s queer and autistic and under the impression somebody apologized for being queerphobic, they’re probably not trying to be an ass. If somebody is clearly missing subtext, and you’ve got the energy, take the time to explain it to them. I’d rather that you come off accidentally mansplainy than to be mocked (again) for missing something that was obvious to everybody else. Don’t assume that something is so clear that ‘nobody could possibly misinterpret it’. Don’t assume that people should already Know Things.

In short, give all the short shrift to assholes you want, but remember to have a little bit of good faith to spare for those who need it. Thank you.

*allistic = not autistic
*kyriarchy = the system supported by all types of oppression

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