Author’s Note: A similar version of this post was published here last year on April 3rd, 2012. This one has similar elements, but is not the same post.
It’s almost April. Last year, April, I was about 4 months deep into the blogosphere, trying to find my voice. I was connecting with bloggers for the first time, and learning how to navigate yet another social situation that I was unfamiliar with, and I was trying to figure out my place in the blogosphere. This year, I’ve been around for a little longer. I’ve seen nasty things, been the victim of nasty things, and seen just how easy it is to set off a chain reaction of anger and hate over a tiny little error, and how polarizing that can be. But I’ve also seen some amazing things. I’ve seen people band together to share messages of love and acceptance. I’ve seen some incredible projects, like last year’s Autism Positivity Flash Blog (which will happen again on April 30th of this year, details TBA), and Autism Shines, and the Autistic People Should and Autistic People Are flash blogs (among many, many others), that have had ignited real changes in the way that people within the autism community and outside of it think about autism.
And so, with that said, I have been around here long enough to know that April is a time when tensions run high and the autism community tends to fracture. Emotions and opinions intensify to a breaking point. It’s human nature, I think. With more awareness comes more visibility and more voices striving to be heard. And April is a time of high visibility. April is a time when people read and judge, often without context, and we are more likely to get caught up in a wave of support for one group or hate for another. When emotions run high, divides between different groups within the community shift to become deep schisms. April is an interesting month. Love it or hate it, it comes every year, and there are a number of forces in place that keep it coming.
Now this is the Internet. And for some reason, on the internet, some people turn into the same people they are when they are driving super aggressively. Anonymously, they feel they can say or do whatever they want, no matter who it hurts.. But most people aren’t like that. Most people have good intentions. If a parent is on the internet, it is most likely that they love and care about their child and are trying to help them however they can. And if an Autistic individual is on the web, they are likely there to advocate either for themselves or for others, and to have a discussion. (Of course, this is not true for everyone, but for a vast majority it is, and thus, the assumption should be that they are reasonable people.)
And so when you’re on the internet, and someone says something that offends you, rather than jumping on them immediately, take a deep breath, count to ten, and try to assume good intentions. The person may have said or done something that offended you. But chances are, when they said it, they didn’t think to themselves “I’m going to write this essay and publish it because I think it will piss off a lot of people in the Autism Community. I’m hoping to have a major argument and get nasty comments and cause a mess.” – While this is sometimes true, it really isn’t the nature of most of what goes on*. Rather, it’s far more likely their thought process was something along the lines of: “this is something that I think might resonate with some people. I want to help.” Unfortunately, most of the time, when there’s an offending essay, article, or anything else, we pounce, attack, and get very angry. We rally our friends against the person, and attempt to shut them down completely. I think its human nature, but I don’t think that it is the right reaction. In some situations, it probably is, but people are so much more open to learning and communicating when something is brought up kindly.
In light of this, I have a simple rule that I live by, and it seems to work out pretty well.
Assume Good Intentions. (And treat others the way that you want to be treated)
Now while saying something that offends someone is really not very nice, we have all been guilty of an “open mouth, insert foot” moment (or two or many). Sometimes we say something that is offensive to someone. I recently wrote about this in my post When an Autistic Person makes a Social Error. I’m not perfect, and really, I’m pretty confident no one else is either. We’ve all said and done things that have offended others, usually completely accidentally, coming from a place of ignorance, not a place of hate. Unfortunately, once the offense is out there, it can’t be un-done. Offense is offense. I simply contend that there are multiple ways to respond. If you say or do something that offended someone, would you rather have them scream in your face about how much of an awful person you are, while dissecting everything you’ve said to prove that you are a terrible human being? Or would you rather they told you, calmly, what was offensive to them and why? Which scenario are you more likely want apologize? Which response makes you more likely to broaden the way you think? Even if you disagree completely with the person’s viewpoint, agreeing to disagree, while maintaining a respectful dialogue is progress. Exchanging verbal blows simply alienates and deepens divides, which is exactly the last thing we want.
And after all, it is about to be April. Like many people out there in the Autism Community, my hope is that this April, there will be increased dialogue and increased acceptance of autistic people. It’s easy to get angry. It’s easy to respond with hate. But hate begets hate, and it is rarely the right answer. This April, as we strive to spread the message of Autism Acceptance, I hope that we can dig deeper into the roots of why we want autism acceptance. We want it, because we believe that every human being, regardless of neurology, is worthy of personhood, of being treated with respect, dignity, kindness, and understanding. And if we want that level of acceptance for ourselves and/or our loved ones, we have to live it ourselves. So please, this April, spread autism acceptance. And while doing so, assume good intentions, and make it commonplace to give everyone else what we so want: the rights to personhood, respect, dignity, and kindness.
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” –Gandhi**
*There are some very awesome autistic advocates who regularly publish “controversial” posts that are designed to make allistic parents question their motives or actions. These posts are not what I am referring to. I am more referring to posts by parents looking for help managing certain situations with their autistic kids, etc.
**I was going to end this with the “Be the change you wish to see in the world” quote commonly attributed to Gandhi. However, I went to find out whether he actually said it – something I do when I’m going to cite anything (thank you academia), and since I know a lot of these inspirational quotes attributed to people weren’t actually said by them, and I found that we have no record of him actually saying this. http://www.compassionatespirit.com/Be-the-Change.htm. Further investigation turned up this: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/30/opinion/falser-words-were-never-spoken.html. And so, while I believe that this saying effectively embodies what I am trying to say, I cannot attribute it to Gandhi. The quote I have used is attributed to Gandhi in the NYTimes article, however a source is not cited, so I haven’t attributed that to him either. That doesn’t diminish the power or sentiment behind it, however.