Part 103: (Don’t) Stop That Pigeon

Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. It’s good to have you here. Before I get onto the main topic of this week’s blog, I thought I might update you on the exhaustion I was struggling with last week. Yes, I did go to the gym; I’ve been back on my three-times-a-week gym schedule. I’ve managed to catch up on some sleep, and I’m feeling much better. Now, on with a somewhat controversial topic…

I’m a middle-aged, straight, white, working class, British male. I’m genetically male (whatever the relevance of that might be), and I’m comfortable identifying as male gender. This puts me in a demographic that many people would consider problematic, due to the social and political beliefs often identified with that background. But people can grow and learn, and expand their horizons. And so it is that I, even coming from that background, understand that misgendering people is wrong. Gender issues have become high-profile in recent years, and this is largely because people are fighting back against countless generations of history in which innumerable human beings have been forced into unsuitable and harmful pigeonholes based on the notion that genetic sex is only ever binary (untrue), and that socially-constructed genders are also only binary and automatically conform to the binary genetic expectations (equally untrue). At last, many brave people who do not conform to old-fashioned gender stereotypes are just being themselves. It seems to me this should be a cause for celebration, and that also we should take care to be aware of people’s gender identifiers in the same way we apply common courtesy to all our other interactions with people. Enter Jameela Jamil…

Okay, where to start? I’m chuckling at the fact that Jameela has capitalised that NOBODY reads Twitter bios. As any good scientist knows, it only takes one piece of contradictory evidence to destroy a hypothesis, so, Jameela, I’m sorry to burst your bubble but I do read bios when I interact on social media, not only for gender information but for neurotype. I even read your Twitter bio, Jameela…

Clearly, Jameela doesn’t think discussing gender identification issues is social commentary, if her Twitter bio that NOBODY reads is anything to go by. And if NOBODY reads Twitter bios, why did she put such an important announcement – that her Twitter account is “just for fun” – in her bio? And why did she have her little pronouns rant on Twitter if her Twitter account is “just for fun?” Maybe she didn’t read her own bio. Anyway, let’s tackle her pitiful argument, which is that other people should make it easier for her to not insult them by putting their pronouns where SHE wants to see them…

Seriously, if you’re interacting with someone, and gender is going to be mentioned, and you don’t know that person well enough to be confident of their gender… just check. You only have to do it once. Jameela reckons she can’t do that because she’s so damn popular, though…

Poor Jameela, with her one million followers, seems to think that correctly gendering the one person she is interacting with means she has to read all one million bios. Honestly, I can’t go any further with this, partly because I can’t type properly when I’m laughing so hard. Seriously, though, I’m not non-binary or trans, but I hope I’m seen as an ally, and as someone who would be willing to own up to any misgendering mistakes I make, and as someone who is always willing to learn. But this is an autism blog, so I want to talk about autism stuff, although the subject of misgendering does segue nicely into the issue of misidentifying neurotypes.

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I recently made a comment on social media to the effect that it would be helpful if young autistic people were not identified with person-first language by those who are supposedly helping them. I’m deliberately not providing a link to that social media interaction here, because I don’t want to accidentally cause a pile-on for the person who disagreed with my comment. For anyone not up to speed, person-first language is a linguistic rule cooked up and disseminated by people who wanted to be linguistically fair to disabled people, but forgot to ask disabled people if they are okay with it. Generally, we are not.

Where autism is concerned, person-first language says, person with autism, whereas the overwhelming majority of autistic people prefer to be referred to as autistic rather than with autism or having autism. Incidentally, most other (non-autistic) disabled people reject person-first language, too. Autism isn’t an accessory that we are with. I can’t put on and take off my autism like a hat. We do not have autism in any real way that makes sense. Autism is a difference from supposed norms in the brain. The brain is the seat of all personality, emotion, thought, perception, cognition and agency. Everything an autistic person thinks, says or feels is autistic, so autism is not added onto us; it is us. There are other problems with person-first language which I cover on my Words Have Power page. So, what happens when an autistic person says, Actually, I prefer to be referred to as with autism. That’s how it’s always been, and I don’t want to change it. Please don’t pressure me to change it.

This throws up a huge problem for me. Of course, I support this person’s right to be identified however they wish, and I don’t want to pressure them otherwise. But as I explain in Words Have Power, there is a drip-drip effect with the language people use about autism that feeds into the public consciousness, and problematic language helps perpetuate harmful preconceptions. The person who responded to me saying they (no pronouns on their bio, so I’m going with the most neutral) prefer with autism does not exist in a vacuum. The majority autistic community have good reasons for rejecting person-first language. While I accept this person’s right to choose their own identifier, I also believe they are misguided and in their own small way are adding to the problems we autistic people face. What can I do? This issue goes right to the heart of freedom of expression. Largely, I follow the principles of John Stuart Mill when it comes to freedom of expression. Briefly, I work on the principle of; express yourself as you wish, as long as it doesn’t cause harm to others. But sometimes, suppressing one’s expression because it might cause harm to others might actually harm one’s self, and I got the impression that the person who said they preferred person-first language fell into that category; the identifier was emotionally important to them.

This is a difficult situation, and provisionally, I’m going with this: I will continue to support the right of anyone who prefers to refer to themselves as with autism or having autism, rather than being autistic, and will address them accordingly. I will also continue to argue for the rejection of person-first language, and where applicable, I will respectfully explain to people with autism why I believe they are, actually, autistic. If they expect me to respect their choice of identifier, then equally they must accept my right to express my own view on the subject. If a person with autism tries to shut down that discourse, they are actually rejecting the very rights that allow them to choose the person-first identifier.

Freedom of expression cuts two ways. Far too often, people espouse a view, particularly on social media, and if anyone disagrees with them, they claim their freedom of expression is being stifled. But that is utter nonsense. Disagreement is not suppression. Disagreement is simply two or more parties, all using their freedom of expression. If we are going to exercise our freedom of expression, we should certainly take care to respect the rights of others to do the same. If we feel someone else’s view is causing harm then we should probably challenge that position accordingly, but that does not mean suppressing their view; it means arguing logically and coherently, preferably with explanation and evidence. My explanation and evidence is covered (partially) two paragraphs above, and more fully on my Words Have Power page, but to recap…

It makes no sense to say a person is with autism or has autism, as autism is not a possession or accessory that is with a person. Furthermore, the use of person-first language goes into a socio-cultural mixing pot with other (often unhelpful) words and terms used in discussion about autism. This leads to the dissemination of harmful ideas and myths about autism and autistic people, which underpin the prejudice autistic people face daily. When seen in context, it is clear that the decisions people make when deploying words or phrases to describe autism are part of a drip-drip accumulation of ideas. People might not pay too much attention to those individual drips, but anyone who has had a leaky pipe in their home knows what those drip-drips can lead to if untreated.

That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care.


You can find The Autistic Writer on all your favourite social media channels

Why Do I Write This Blog?

When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism.  I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation.  With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery.  Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers.  I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.

You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.

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