Christian Wilton-Kingauthor of this article, has worked in the field of special educational needs for almost two decades. Christian strongly believes in inclusive practice for all and is particularly committed to creating a more inclusive world for people with autism.
Christian was concerned that children and young people who 'did not fit in' were encouraged to see themselves as transgender, and after some of his comments in a private Facebook group were reported to the Education Workforce Committee (EWC), he was confronted with a disciplinary committee. Christian received a warning and was subsequently told that he could not continue teaching if he was unable to protect his students without risking being sued or fired for his opinions (see here).
"Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects the way a person communicates and relates to other people and how they experience the world around them.". National Autistic Society, United Kingdom
The Neurodiversity movement has been growing steadily since its inception at the end of the 1990s and aims to change the public perception of autism from a disabling condition (see definition above) a neurological variant. A different but valid way of being, which requires societal acceptance and adaptation, rather than treatment and cure.
I am a teacher specialising in autism with almost twenty years of experience in supporting and educating children and adults with special educational needs, so I was intrigued when I discovered the neurodiversity movement. I get on particularly well with my autistic students and friends, perhaps because their atypical and out-of-the-box ways of thinking are in tune with my slightly atypical personality. This has made it easy for me to support a political movement pushing for the recognition, understanding and acceptance due to autistic people. I joined and eventually became an administrator of autism support and education groups on Facebook.
It is well documented that people with autism often experience an sensory overload in social situations, faced with the veritable cacophony of unpredictable personalities, responses and behaviours of neurotypical people. As author Steve Silberman says in his 2015 bestseller. NeuroTribes:
"By autistic standards, the 'normal' brain is easily distracted, is obsessively social and suffers from a deficit of attention to detail and routine. So people on the autistic spectrum experience the neurotypical world as inexorably unpredictable and chaotic, perpetually too noisy and full of people who have little respect for personal space'.
This "too much noise" can cause social anxiety and make it difficult for autistic people to participate in public life. However, in recent years online autistic communities have multiplied, as social media allow to bypass many of the difficulties of face-to-face socialisation. From behind the screen of a computer or phone, with easy blocking functions, anything that causes anxiety can be avoided. Dedicated online spaces have become a paradise for autistic people who want to socialise with other like-minded individuals and organise politically.
The activism of the neurodiversity movement emphasises theimportance of 'lived experience' and of being able to be one's 'authentic self". These principles are also at the heart of the trans rights movement, which took off around the same time, whose ideological beliefs have been fully and unquestionably accepted by autistic communities online. This may be due in part to the higher prevalence of gender non-conforming, lesbian, gay and bisexual autistic people, which according to a 2016 study is between 15 - 35% (see here).
It is commonly understood that autistic people can have a difficult relationship with language, preferring precise and descriptive words to metaphors that can be confusing when unfamiliar. However, For neurodiversity activists, playing with language and creating neologisms can be a powerful way to reclaim authority. and assert their autistic identities in a society that misunderstands them and tries to bring them into a world for which they are not cut out.
The creation of a new language and new codes of behaviour are tactics also employed by trans activism. to pursue its goals, including the primacy of identity politics and the right to self-determination. These similarities may be due to the fact that both movements have proliferated in virtual spaces rather than in 'real life'.
In the 1950s, the developmental psychologist Reuven Feuerstein worked with children with Down syndrome. His innovative cognitive learning techniques enabled Down's children to make greater educational progress than was thought possible at the time. These educational achievements helped them to integrate better into mainstream society. But he went further by stating that families with Down'sshould also consider plastic surgery to soften the facial features characteristic of Down's syndrome children.The 'active modification approach' criticised the 'passive acceptance' by parents of their children's genetic, physical or intellectual disabilities and their belief that society should accept their children's genetic, physical or intellectual disabilities. Feuerstein's "active modification approach" criticised parents' "passive acceptance" of their children's genetic, physical or intellectual disabilities and their belief that society should accommodate the differences of Down people.
Here in the UK - and even more so in the US - theApplied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) is one of the most popular methods used to teach students with autism. Developed from the work of the behaviourist and contemporary of Feuerstein, B.F. Skinner, together with others, the ABA method suppresses natural autistic behaviour in favour of 'normal' behaviour, and is the Achilles heel of the neurodiversity movement - the antithesis of autistic acceptance. Despite recent efforts to make ABA less punitive and more 'person-centred' (early techniques involved physical chastisement), the question remains of who decides what behaviour is 'normal' and who should benefit from it. Intense opposition to the use of ABA for autistic children persists and recently efforts have been made to collect testimonies from autistic adults who have in the past been forced to participate in ABA programmes that were supposedly designed to 'help' them but instead traumatised them.(see here e here).
The idea that autistic children have to 'be less autistic' in order to fit into mainstream society is as barbaric as Feuerstein's 'active modification' approach. In my opinion, this demonstrates a peculiar cognitive dissonance within the neurodiversity community. How can neurodiversity activists lend their support, for example, to organisations such as the American Civil Liberties Union which tweets 'trans children are perfect just the way they are' while knowing that 'affirmative care' for children with gender dysphoria sets them on a medical path of opposite-sex hormones, double mastectomies, genital surgery, hysterectomies and the serious side effects of drugs used off-label, the long-term effects of which are unknown?
Diane Ehrensaft is a clinical and developmental psychologist who works with children with gender dysphoria. She states that all behaviour is a form of 'gender communication'. In a video posted on YouTube entitled 'How to tell if a baby is transgender' ('How to Tell if Babies are Transgender'.), explains how he interpreted signals from a child who did not yet speak, who would 'communicate' that she was in fact a child:
"There's a video of [her] as a child ripping clothes pegs out of her hair and throwing them on the floor sobbing. This is a 'gender message'.... Sometimes children, between the ages of one and two, in rudimentary language, will say, 'I boy'. So, you have to be careful about these kinds of actions, like ripping a skirt".
Autistic people frequently experience problems of hypersensitivity, also soften disappoint or ignore expectations related to gender stereotypes of the societies in which they live. They may intensely dislike certain sensations or have very strong preferences for certain clothes, regardless of whether they are considered 'appropriate' or not. In the world of Ehrensaft is it any wonder that children with a diagnosis or traits of autism make up almost half of all Tavistock patients (see here), the largest gender identity clinic in the UK.with even higher proportions in others?
I have watched the trans rights and neurodiversity movements become increasingly intertwined over the last four or five years; their demands have become so confusing that some autistic activists even refer to themselves as "autigender".
While the autistic community's apparent sympathy for people who do not conform to rigid gender stereotypes is understandable, there is a growing - some might say puritanical - tendency to exile those who distrust the full acceptance of mantras such as the ubiquitous 'trans women are women', or who simply do not recognise this as common cause. I have seen one woman after another unceremoniously expelled (and a few men too) from autistic support groups for not putting the so-called 'trans experience' at the centre, e.g. by discussing the importance of 'preferred pronouns' and neo-pronouns. Adopting this 'zero tolerance' approach towards violators of the new etiquette, many autistic groups seem to prioritise gender identity over autism itself.
Newly politically connected autistic communities still face many barriers to acceptance and equality. Curiously, some of these barriers are also being put up by well-funded trans rights pressure groups, such as the Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES)which has strongly suggested in his literature that gender 'transition' can also act as a 'cure' for autism.
Herein lies the serious and unsustainable paradox that eats away at the heart of the neurodiversity movement; on the one hand declaring common cause with the trans rights movement, which advocates the use of drugs and surgery to 'affirm' transgender identities and supports the pseudoscientific notion that female brains can reside in male bodies and vice versa; on the other hand, attempts to find a cure for autism and force autistic people to look and behave like neurotypical people.
It is increasingly evident that the link between the trans movement and the neurodiversity movement, which perhaps initially seemed related, benefits the former at the expense of the latter. Autistic women, especially lesbians, are pushed out of their support networks. Autistic children whose behaviour does not correspond to gender stereotypes are pathologised and medicalised.
This is a thorn in the side that the neurodiversity movement will have to consider carefully and soon. When a disproportionate number of autistic people - even children - are diagnosed with gender dysphoria, the "treatment" of which can lead to infertility (see here), this is beginning to look worryingly like eugenics in reverse.
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