Radio: Autistic people organizing under the banner of disability justice

Vivan Ly, Iris Parker, and Allie are organizing collective members of Autistic United Canada, a grassroots organization of autistic youth and adults with thousands of members across the country. Scott Neigh interviews them about autism and about the organization’s advocacy, mutual aid and peer support, and education work.

Vivian is an autistic multiply disabled queer settler of Cantonese heritage and a child of refugees from Vietnam. Vivian lives in the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Iris is a white autistic and multiply disabled settler living in the unceded territory of the K’ómoks First Nation on Vancouver Island. And Allie is a white autistic person living in the unceded territory of the Kwikwetlem First Nation.

Like many other autistic people, they understand autism as a form of neurodivergence, a term that also encompasses things like ADHD, mental illness, developmental disabilities, and anything else where people’s minds work in ways that don’t fit dominant norms. Autism in particular is about processing information differently than what we are taught to see as standard – sensory information, motor information, social information, communication, and so on. You will also hear today’s participants use the single word “bodymind” to get at how this isn’t just about brains, but about the embodied whole of human beings.

According to Vivian, autistic people are often regarded as if they are just a “pile of deficits.” But, Iris said, “We have our own completely functional way of doing things. It’s just different.” In the context of the social model of disability, where it is an ableist world that oppresses people whose bodyminds don’t function in the ways we are told they are supposed to, they also understand themselves as disabled.

In Canada, particularly until very recently, most organizations related to autism have primarily been led by and centred parents and/or professionals, while autistic people themselves have been kept marginal. According to today’s guests, this is a major problem because such organizations often take positions about what is best for autistic people that many autistic people themselves would vigorously disagree with.

Originally a chapter of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, Autistics United Canada became its own organization in 2017. Since that time, they have been adding provincial chapters and local hubs in different parts of the country. They are in the process of moving towards a more collectivist and horizontal organizing structure.

The organization’s advocacy has involved participating in consultations and lobbying related to legislation and policies that affects the lives of autistic people in particular and disabled people more generally. They have also organized protests, participated in campaigns led by other organizations, and taken part in days of action. Whether it is in the meeting room or on the streets, a common theme in their advocacy is pushing to give autistic people greater control over policy decisions that affect their lives. Crucially, this includes opposition to practices like seclusion and restraint of autistic people in medical settings, and opposition to Applied Behaviour Analysis (or ABA) as an intervention in autistic lives. Many autism-related organizations not led by autistic people support such measures, but in Vivian’s words, they “cause trauma and harm.”

Vivian continued, “Many autistic people oppose ABA because it’s widely reported to cause long-term trauma, mental illness, vulnerability to abuse. It’s basically like compliance training. There have been some analogies made that it’s similar or even worse to dog training. Its history is also deeply intertwined with eugenics and gay and gender nonconforming conversion therapy. … By standing up against ABA, we are also standing up against the interconnected oppressive systems of violence that uphold ABA, such as ableism, misogyny, white supremacy, colonialism, and eugenics. Behavioral interventions like ABA are in line with other coercive forms of control over autistic and otherwise disabled people, such as restraint and seclusion.”

Their mutual aid and peer support work includes organizing online social events and other kinds of online spaces for autistic people (and sometimes other neurodivergent people and allies), with extensive attention to making those spaces welcoming and accessible. They work one-on-one to connect people with resources and they support individuals engaged in crisis fundraising efforts. And they participate in celebratory events like the International Day of the Stim, which took place on September 17 – stimming is a general term for a range of repetitive behaviours that some autistic people use for calming or grounding themselves, or for other purposes.

In their educational activities, they have offered a range of different workshops and produced resource guides aimed at autistic people themselves as well as caregivers, parents, and professionals. One goal of this work is to build capacity among autistic people to advocate for themselves, individually and collectively.

Ultimately, Autistic United is committed to disability justice politics, a framework that originated among Black and other racialized disabled organizers in the United States. It is a radically transformative vision and one that, according to Vivian, sees disability struggles as essentially bound together with “racial justice, Deaf liberation, fat liberation, police and prison abolition, queer and trans liberation, anti-capitalism, and environmental justice.”

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Image: From the logo of Autistics United Canada designed by Chantel Snazel. Used with permission of Autistics United Canada.

Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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