One of the most painful parts of any kind of advocacy work, for me, is having to call out a person who just doesn't get it (just doesn't get it yet, one would hope). It's even harder when that person is a beloved community member. But ... that doesn't mean they can't stumble, and badly. That happened yesterday when Rob Gorski of Lost and Tired published his autism opinion piece Autism is NOT one size fits all, in which he attempted to call for community but actually ended up reinforcing some fairly harmful stereotypes about people with autism, as well as divisions between autism and Asperger's. Which Emily Willingham called him on, and rightfully so.
Thing is, it's completely fair to say that my son's experience as a non-conversational person with intense autism is not the same as those of Aspergians like Alex Plank or Rudy Simone. We should absolutely be true to our own experiences, and to that end I implore you to read Kyra Anderson's brilliant meditation on autism parenting and autism diversity and inclusivity and open dialogue, Bring Everyone Out.
But it is rarely helpful to make those differences dividing lines or points of contention, because focusing on them obscures a critical commonality: every last person with autism or Asperger's -- no matter their node on the spectrum, no matter how "high functioning" you perceive them as being or whether you think they can "pass" -- has that diagnosis because of intense challenges in at least one area, usually more. I recommend reading Steve Silberman's recently published interview with Ari Ne'eman, specifically the passage:
"Not too long ago, a colleague commented that I should be proud for being so nearly “indistinguishable from my peers.” Only in the autism community would anyone consider that a compliment. Despite the good intentions behind the remark, I felt a profound sense of hate and disgust motivating it — not of me as an individual, but of the person I was growing up, and of the person I still am, hidden underneath layers of mannerisms and coping strategies and other social sleights of hand. Those kinds of statements define our worth as human beings by how well we do looking like people whom we’re not. No one should have to spend their life hiding who they are."Autism and Asperger's are the same universe. Anyone who thinks differently has not spent enough time participating in the wider autism community.
The real issue is that Rob is seen by many as a role model for autism parenting -- and if his opinion has influence, and that opinion is actually damaging to autism communities rather than constructive, then we can't stand by and excuse him because of the separate issue of his personal life being so stressful. That's the hard truth of real advocacy, and it sucks.
I think we all empathize with Rob, and we want to support him and his family the best we can -- to that end, we have featured his writing on Thinking Person's Guide to Autism, and I encourage you to visit the Move the Gorskis campaign page.
I don't envy Emily for the blowback she's received for being willing to call Rob out -- his readers are very protective of him, which is understandable. Their emotional investment, and the fact that even deserved criticism can feel like an attack, makes it hard to accept the fact that his opinion piece, though heartfelt, was badly misguided.