Identity, Discrimination and Autism

  • slide

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay 

 

Identity, Discrimination & Autism 

Jen Blacow

16th July 2021

 

This is possibly the most personal post I have ever written. Some may think it’s controversial, but I only want open-minded debate and healthy discussion. 

What is identity? I suppose to me it is how you would define yourself and your role in society. 

For some, I am sure it is more about their heritage, their profession, or their socio-economic status. Many I know do not even seem to consider it (not because they are privileged, but because they worry about other things instead). Maybe some do not think about it because they are ‘privileged’ enough to not have to think about how their identity affects them. 

One can most likely have lots of ‘identities’. For example, the very same person can identify as a woman, a mother, a lawyer, and a sufferer of Inflammatory bowel disease. 

The Cambridge dictionary definition of identity is as follows:

Identity is defined as “who a person is, or the qualities of a person or group that make them different from others”.

Somebody recently highlighted to me that perhaps I had not bothered to change my Maiden name (Blacow) to my married name (Hughes), because it was part of my identity. This triggered me to do a little reading around identity. As my work is centred around autism & neurodiversity, I also read a bit about autism & identity. 

Much I read (and I will be honest, I did not look too far) seemed to be about people whose identity was marginalised, or who identified with being ‘marginalised’. Therefore, they felt strongly about fighting for ‘justice’. For example, fighting with ‘society’, or fighting against the ‘people in power’. 

Then I started getting more and more frustrated because I could not find any concrete evidence of this current day marginalisation and discrimination. You know, the things that people who identified as marginalised (or their friends) were fighting against.

NB: I am NOT saying discrimination does not exist. But that there is a lot more noise about discrimination than I see discrimination. Whether it is because it is the way that things are presented or because of the censorship of discriminatory abuse, I don’t know. 

But it seems we are relying on the mainstream media, and other various influencers, to tell us these various modes of discrimination still exist and are rife. 

It would probably be argued by these people that, that is because I am blind to my ‘privilege’. 

Except that does not work because I am technically disabled, I am a woman, and my family was pretty much working class. My Mother’s DNA, family name (Goree), family history, and my skin tone evidence that I am a direct descendant of West African slaves. 

TLDR: I see more people complaining about discrimination than I actually see or experience discrimination. But I am also a target for discrimination, so I cannot be too ‘blind’ to it. What is going on?

 

Then I looked up the notion of ‘Identity politics’. 

I believe that there is nothing wrong with identity in general. But where I get worried is when it moves into the realm of ‘identity politics’. 

According to Wikipedia, identity politics is a political approach wherein people of a particular gender, religionracesocial backgroundclass or other identifying factor develop political agendas based around one or more of these categories.

If this is the case, then I start to wonder about how the conversation about discrimination benefits people. 

Could it be that being a victim gives people extreme gratification that makes them feel much better about themselves? 

Is it that the elite (or the rich and powerful) have seen that to influence people, you have to tap into their identity and make them believe that their sense of self is being exploited by others?

Is it also to push those who are not affected by so-called protected characteristics into believing a narrative that others from them are being marginalised? 

Is it that on the surface the response to this looks good (e.g. anti-discrimination campaigns, privileged people being encouraged to ‘check’ their privilege), but this response is only designed to push certain political agendas on all people through the back door? 

There is also the phenomenon of virtue signalling. This is when we do outwardly good deeds or talk about our moral values to increase our social status and give us a sense of self-satisfaction. For example, many people change their Facebook profile photos in support of a cause when something tragic happens in the world. I am unsure as to how many people do anything to help beyond that. Some argue that these little acts of virtue signalling make it less likely for us to do something of substance to help said cause. 

Or it is that we are truly living in a horrifically discriminatory world that is just getting worse and worse?

 

Autism and Identity

Based on the definition of identity, there is a lot written about autism and identity. This is strange as although autistic people experience the world significantly differently from others, they are still human beings with relatable human experiences.

However, what also does not make sense is the fact that people with autism are often so different from each other. 

I get that you can identify as someone who likes playing Tennis. But when you play a sport like Tennis, you generally play by the same rules. Granted, you might like Tennis for a different reason to the next person. But generally, Tennis is pretty consistent. 

As is outlined at point 2 below, we recently met an autistic adult who was upset because the service that was once helping him had become too politically minded and he felt excluded by this.

He has pretty much ended up back under Aspiedent’s umbrella because he recognised our way of helping individuals with autism was conducive to moving people forwards and not holding on to them to justify more funding from the government. 

This is why I feel linking identity to politics, especially regarding autism (only because is what I am focusing on in this blog post) is dangerous. Here are some more reasons: 

  1. If everybody with autism is so vastly different (which they are) how can somebody ‘identify’ as autistic? What are the criteria to identify as autistic? Surely for any political movement for people with autism that is of any use, everyone would need to be affected the same way.
  2. People who ‘identify’ as autistic and set the political agendas for autistic people, risk marginalising other autistic people. Many autistic people do not want to be defined or identified at all by their autism, or do not think the same way as ‘identifying autistics’. They will not have a voice in these agendas. 
  3. As mentioned earlier, some people with autism do not even realise or can realise that there is such a political discussion around autism & identity and just go about their lives as best they can. Their world bears no resemblance to some of the autistic activists pushing this stuff. 
  4. If you can ‘self-identify’ as autistic, you might not actually have autism and therefore will only wreak havoc on autism research and the ‘autism community’. We need to be careful of this. 
  5. Creating a political agenda for autism & neurodiversity will and does marginalise many autistic people and can prevent them from reaching their potential (something Aspiedent is focused on). They may become stuck in an echo chamber of their ideas and ultimately participate less in society. Participating in wider society is what I assume is part of the goal as they care about equal rights and treatment. If not, why not just make your own society and live by those rules?

There are more… 

Again, this does not just go for autism, but probably for all protected characteristics. It is a bit similar in mental health. Sadly, some people seem to take on certain mental health conditions as their identity, and then they never move forward. People get scared if they are not ‘ill’, they will not be looked after or loved.

Although some people cannot recover from some mental health conditions, you can still move on in life and live a fulfilling life. You can have other identities whilst battling mental health conditions or diagnoses. You just have to accept that some things are really tough for you, and most people will not understand what you go through (much like you may never understand their struggles). 

I suppose the point of this blog post is to release some of my recent frustration around all things bandwagon and political. Anybody who knows me will hopefully agree that discrimination against people for ANY reason or difference is so far away from my nature that to perceive this blog post as such, would be ridiculous. 

I am not saying that anybody is wrong or right or that any approach to tackling discrimination is fully wrong. I am saying that I do not see some of the approaches to tackling unfairness and injustice in the world as always helpful. In fact, in some cases, they can be harmful and the opposite of inclusive. 

 

If you want to ask questions or discuss anything in this blog post, please e-mail Jen at j.blacow@aspiedent.com.

-->