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2016 ASAN Gala, Harriet McBryde Johnson Award for Non-Fiction Writing: Dylan Matthews

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Ari Ne’eman, Introducing Presenter of Award

So in what is now my actual last public remarks as President of ASAN.

[Laughter]

I have to say, it’s my pleasure to have the opportunity to introduce the person who will be presenting our next award. Steve Silberman, you know him as your emcee, who is doing a spectacular job for his first time mastering ceremonies.

I’ve known him over the course of many years now, as an exceptional journalist, author and friend. The truth is there are a lot of folks who write books about autism and in some way engage with the topic of autism, and usually it’s sort of a drop in operation. Steve really took the time to get to know our community, to get to know the autistic community and to delve into the history of our community in ways that even we were often not fully aware of.

In addition to that, last year Steve chose to take funds from a prize he had won from his award winning bestseller “NeuroTribes” and support the creation of the Harriet McBryde Johnson Award for nonfiction writing.

Harriet McBryde Johnson was a disabled writer who is known not only for her activism and advocacy in the disability rights movement – many of you knew Harriet McBryde Johnson very well in this room – but also for the extraordinary degree to which she brought home the message to a public that often did not want to hear, that our mission and our cause is about rights, not about charity.

Steve’s support for this award and our presentation to our upcoming awardee, Dylan Matthews of Vox.com is important, and we chose to name it after Harriet in large part because the continuation of that message and the cultivation more writers who can take that message out of the simple world of disability rights advocacy and into the broader public, into the national and international conversation about our lives, is the most important thing we can do over the coming years

Steve, without further ado.

[Applause]

Introduction by Steve Silberman, Award Funder

Thank you, Ari.

One of the things I try to do following the publication of my book is to throw the spotlight that fell on me onto autistic people as much as possible, because in part my book would have been impossible to write, or would have turned out very differently and badly if I hadn’t listened so hard to autistic writers, if I hadn’t read things like Jim Sinclair’s “Don’t Mourn for Us,” Julia Bascom’s “Loud Hands.” I can be standing here for hours talking about the autistic writing that I read that informed the writing of “NeuroTribes.”

One of the stipulations that I made when I approached Ari about creating this award was that I would not choose the writer, that the writer would be chosen by autistic people. I was overjoyed when Ari told me that they had chosen Dylan, because in a storm of BS I always know when I’m reading a piece of Dylan’s writing, that it’s trustworthy, that it’s real, that it’s sensible, that it’s sober, that it’s grounded in data, and he’s also just a very elegant writer as well.

What I wanted to do most of all with this award was to nurture the next generation of autistic writers. I have to say, many of the best autistic writers are women, I think, actually, which is a wonderful, historical development, but in this era when journalism itself has been demonized and discredited and directly attacked, I think it’s absolutely appropriate that the first Harriet McBryde Johnson award go to Dylan Matthews.

[Applause]

Dylan Matthews

Thank you all so much. Thank you to Ari for this selection, to Steve for the wonderful introduction.

I think I would speak for everyone in features journalism broadly when I say we look up to Steve and have read his writing for years with great admiration. I don’t think I’d be here today if I hadn’t read him as a teenager. Many thanks to Julia and the team at ASAN, and Mike Elk, Eric Garcia, Lydia Brown and any number of other autistic writers I can name who made me happy to be part of a community.

If you asked me five years ago about an award for autistic journalists, I would question the plural.

[Laughter]

I didn’t think we were a constituency.

[Laughter]

I’ll try to keep this brief, but one of the great privileges of our job is that we get to tell stories, and in small ways. They’re not always rip roaring. I’m working on a piece explaining budget reconciliation.

It’s not Cervantes.

[Laughter]

But you get a choice in talking, you get a choice in how to tell them. One of the most important choices you get in that is whether they’re in the first or third person. I mean that both as a formal matter and a substantive matter and a matter of empathy and content. There’s going to be a lot about us that’s happening in the next year and four years, and a lot of it will be covered in clinical detachment.

I have a lot of good conservative friends, well meaning people, who I’m sure mean well, who write about Medicaid as though they’re solving a math theorem, but my brother is on Medicaid and has been for years. I’m the product of an IEP and the IDEA and would not be here without that. My brother has used SSDI on occasion. These are not abstract issues or things that can be consigned to white papers and cannot be written about as though they’re white papers.

So it’s my hope to do something in a small way, and I’m counting on the people in this room to pressure me and people like me to make sure to keep us to the promise, to write about that in the first person, and as though these are issues that affect people’s lives in a deep and personal way.

So thank you all so much.

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