There are two primary ways that the autistic community is able to attract the attention of the public. Most preferred is the inspiration porn videos and articles that sensationalize a task only because the person doing it is disabled. The second is the sensationalism of accomplished autistic people who appear in the media as public figures in positions of power.
A general feature of the autism diagnosis is a discomfort with adapting to unpredictable social expectations associated with the spotlight. Thus the opportunity to be a public representative of the autistic community produces a circumstance laden with difficulty. The advocate in the public spotlight becomes consumed with simply navigating the unscripted interaction at hand. In that predicament, the advocate is in no place to speak on behalf of all autistic people.
The movement towards autism acceptance is painfully slow, very unlike the significant attitude shifts and changes effected by transgender advocacy. Both movements are fraught with controversy and outright shaming; significant harm stems from a societal discomfort with the concept of neurological and physiological differences. In the case of the transgender movement, when the cultural conversation is fixated on the bodies that trans people have, it causes the challenges that trans people face to go unaddressed. Like trans people, autistic public figures rarely get to share the complexity of their authentic life experience. In the public eye, the fixation on the behaviors that make them different, takes center stage.
An ordinary autistic person’s difficulty with navigating the grocery store or the classroom is not regarded as newsworthy and is thus silenced by the focus on an overarching pathology. Topics that are not inspiration porny enough are sidelined because the protagonists fails to magnify their atypicalities and make them the sole focus their message. The public interest in intriguing differences augments the deviance which directly contributes to how the difference becomes highly vilified in the media.
Transgender activist Laverne Cox has said, “by focusing on bodies, we don’t focus on the lived realities of that oppression and discrimination.” Societal objectification contributes to further disempowerment of some already-vulnerable groups in society. In any population, lack of acceptance leads to sadness, isolation, devastation, and pennilessness. This mistreatment creates a learned helplessness, and the despondent person become consumed with getting through their day rather than burdening themselves with public advocacy.
When the unaccepted differences take center stage, the focus shifts away from the collective harms imposed by society onto a given group. After all, the only disabling condition is the human one. We need to embrace a more relevant neurodiversity-friendly and fully inclusive, non-spoken paradigm for demonstrating autistic pride. This will involve paying attention to different forms of media that make heard the voices of autistic people who would not otherwise be comfortable with the demands of public-figure sensationalism.