Look, we are here!

I just had to write another one of those comments on a well-intentioned but oh-so inappropriate social media post by a neurotypical yoga teacher about teaching autistic children:

As an autistic person, I’m feeling uncomfortable – once again – at being discussed as if I’m not here by neurotypical teachers. I don’t find it acceptable for all of you to be talking about us as if no one autistic could possibly actually be here and teaching ourselves. If this discussion was about white teachers teaching black students, or straight teachers teaching gay students, or male teachers teaching female students, how would it sound to you, and how is neurological status any different?

The problem in this case wasn’t so much the content, which wasn’t too bad, it was the actual and implied pronouns – the ‘we’ here and the ‘they’ there, and never the twain shall meet. Obviously ‘they’ are away rocking and spinning in a corner.

There are many autistic yoga practitioners. I guarantee that there will be one or two of us in any medium-sized general yoga class. A significant number of yoga teachers are also autistic. Many have not yet put together the two and two of their social and sensory experiences and made them into four. Others have embraced autistic identity but remain in the closet. Autism continues to be highly stigmatised and widely misunderstood.

The response from the posting teacher was along the lines of, ‘I’m sorry you feel upset’. But I don’t feel upset, I feel angry – incandescent with lava-hot rage. What’s so hard for NT teachers to understand about this situation? Neurotypical teacher, you march in in your three-mile boots, but do you really have permission to be an author here? And all of you other neurotypical teachers who ‘like’ this post and chime in with your expriences of helping the poor dear autistic children and how great an experience it was for them … how about shutting up and amplifying the voices you are talking over? Let’s hear from them how great it was. Or not.

Have you ever been minding your own business in a toilet cubicle when two people come in talking … and with slow horror you realise that they’re talking about you? The hot shame. The confusion. Do you hide and have to hear it out? Do you stop it and speak up … and then you know … that they know … that you know. Maybe you’re a yoga teacher and they were talking about your class. (Most yoga teachers have had this experience.) That’s what it’s like when I come across one of those neurotypical-person-opines-on-autism threads.

I know that if I speak up, I’ll be spoken over. If I’m lucky, there may be another out autistic person or two on the thread. Or there may be a teacher of colour who recognises something of their own experience and offers some intersectional support. (I always try to do that the other way round.) I know that I’ll feel ashamed, and exposed like the lone soldier on the parapet. I know that I’ll take a hit to my mental health and it will require time and energy to recuperate.

‘Nothing about us without us!’ has long been the watch word of the autistic self-advocacy movement. (1) You do not own the rights to our experience. It isn’t for you to tell us what we need, and if we want other neurotypical people to know, we can tell them ourselves. We keep communicating this to you, but you do not hear it. Are you listening now? Are you actually listening to this? Please stop appropriating from us. Please cease and desist. Please evacuate our space and give us back the megaphone.

Image: Patrick Fore.

1. Originally the title of a book by James Charlton and taken up by the disability rights movement.