Today is Autistic Pride Day. For ten years, our community has come together on June 18th to celebrate who we are and affirm our right to build a culture and community of our own. When Autistic Pride Day first began, it was the first in what would become a series of Autistic holidays, each of which brings its own unique set of emotions. From the somberness of the annual Disability Day of Mourning in March to the defiance of Autistics Speaking Day in November, our communal gatherings help define who we are as a people.
So what emotion should Autistic Pride Day bring out in us? How should we celebrate? On days like this, my thoughts turn to the majority of autistic people throughout the world who are not yet able to celebrate autistic community. Some are suffering in special education classrooms and institutions that teach them to hate and fear the way they move, think, feel and are. Others are like the majority of autistic adults – as yet unaware of our community and their own neurology, but struggling with a profound sense of difference that they have never been able to understand or explain to the world.
To me, Autistic Pride Day means solidarity with those parts of our community that have not yet had the opportunity to be proud. It means thinking about how we reach further and farther. Autistic space, community and culture should be available to all of us, early-, late- and un-diagnosed, speaking and non-speaking, with and without intellectual disability, of all races, religions, orientations, disabilities, genders and every other facet of difference. It should be available whatever your politics or views on the controversies that motivate much of our advocacy. It should be your birthright, however you communicate and experience the world.
We often fall short in this. While autistic people are as diverse as any other part of the human race, Autistic community events, organizations and spaces often don’t reflect that diversity. On any number of dimensions, we have to do better. It’s worth thinking about why that is the case.
Inclusion is an important value in and of itself. For our own sake, we should be addressing the barriers, from society and from our selves, that have kept autistic people from fully participating in autistic community life. But I believe opening up Autistic culture and community is important for another reason: we have something very important to offer.
We are fighting for inclusion in a broader society that is not like us. Opening up that society must always be our goal – the places where we live, work and experience most of our lives will always be amidst the non-autistic majority. But to survive in a world where we are different, we have to be able to find places where we can feel at home with others who understand the toll that takes – and whose company can lift that burden, if only for a time.
That means finding ways to open up our community to every kind of autistic person, even when they are different from us in some way. We all know the pain of being alone in this world – and so all of us should have the chance to feel the exhilaration of belonging too.
Autistic Pride Day isn’t what it once was, when the Autistic community was new and it was our only holiday. In some ways though, it is stronger, as our community has grown to the point where being openly autistic is no longer as radical an act as it once was. There’s a lesson there: being who we are, without shame and without concession, can open up opportunities for all of us.
While our communal passions are now split across many events, organizations and projects, our growth as a community enables us to do and be more than ever before. It enables us to advocate for policy change, to fight for the right to be represented on boards and commissions on autism and disability and to change the way that the media talks about our lives.
But just as importantly, it also makes it possible for other people to be open about being autistic. It sends a message to all our children who grew up being told to have “quiet hands” and all our adults who have secrets they feel like they must always keep hidden deep, deep down:
You are okay.
You are not alone.
Who you are is not wrong.
We are with you.
So take a moment today, to feel proud of who you are and seek out others who have not yet had that opportunity. Build autistic space and autistic culture wherever you can. Make our community open to all of us – so that next year, our circle on Autistic Pride Day is a little bit larger and our voices a little bit louder.
You’d be amazed at how much that can do.