#Autistic canaries in the neurotypical coal mines

Coal Miners Canary Trinidad, CO
Coal Miners Canary Trinidad, CO

Woo hoo! World Autism Awareness Week is now officially underway. It goes from today till the 2nd of  April, whereupon Autism Awareness Month picks up and rolls on through the month of April.

So, yeah, big trigger warning for lots of us.

A lot of folks say that we don’t need autism awareness, we need autism acceptance. I think we need both. People outside the neurodiversity community are so woefully behind the times, so vexed and misled by inaccurate, flawed, harmful, dangerous information about this “epidemic”… I’m fine with all the awareness we can get.

‘Cause we’re not there yet.

Not even close.

There’s always that talk about how autism is a source of suffering, and I’d just like to say a few things about that. Autism is NOT a source of suffering. Our environment is — sensory and social.

The obnoxious scents. The random touching. The awful lighting. The blaring music. The non-food that we’re fed, including all the antibiotics and hormones that screw up our sensitive systems. The artificial unreality that passes for “standard” just stresses us out on every level, kicking off allergic reactions and stress responses that crowd out the social cues we’re supposed to just magically pick up without any effort on our part.

And then there’s the logistics of just getting through the day in a world that congratulates itself on multi-tasking, loudness, chaos (apparently, it’s inspirational for non-autistic people?), constant activity without reflection, arbitrary rules of engagement that favor liars and cheats and self-absorbed “takers”…   All of the above is the problem. Not my neurotype.

So, quit blaming autism for my (and your) issues. Autism isn’t the “culprit”.

All the characteristics that people love to chalk up to “autism” are actually symptoms of being forced to live in the non-autistic world.

It’s not just a non-autistic world, it’s the entitlement, the privilege, the assumptions, the enforcement of ways of being that are innately foreign — even harmful — to us, as well as to everyone else. Think the neurotypical world’s standards are a great idea? How’s that working out for everyone? Just look at who/what is in power in the USA and UK. Just look at how things are turning. Just look at the oceans, choked with plastics and killing off deep-sea creatures before we even have a chance to realize they exist.

Autistic folks are like canaries in the coal mine. We’re ultra-sensitive, and we pick up on what’s going on. Just like the hapless birds in cages that coal miners used to lower into mine shafts, to make sure there wasn’t too much gas that would kill them, we’re sensitive to what others cannot detect. And it hurts us, even kills us, when we’re kept in it too long.

If the canary died, it didn’t mean the bird was defective. Oh, sure, I’m certain that was the case, every now and then. But the assumption was NOT that the bird was too weak or too deficient or too weird to make it in the mine shaft. It was a clear indicator that something was wrong. And it wasn’t safe for the miners to descend. All those canaries. Poor things.

Likewise, if an autistic child or adult is struggling with their issues — stimming, rocking, having trouble socially and logistically, under constant sensory overload — let’s apply the same standards. It’s not the autist who’s got a problem. It’s the world in which they’re forced to live and operate… expected to function, as though everything were just fine.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, autism is NOT the symptoms. It’s a distinct neurotype, which responds to environmental hostilities with symptoms. Let’s not confuse the symptoms for the neurotype. I know the vast majority of folks do, but maybe, just maybe, we can inject a little more awareness around that into the general populace.

It would be a start.

Have a good week… and ensuing month, everyone.

Stay safe out there.


10 thoughts on “#Autistic canaries in the neurotypical coal mines

  1. I think my own situation a year ago provides context to the whole awareness aspect. My mother has a masters in psychology, masters in art therapy, and a doctorate in education administration. Her second husband (and the person responsible for seeing I had help managing meltdowns at a young age) was a much older psychiatrist. My (adopted) father has a doctorate in genetics (cancer research). I grew up with a ton of struggles, both my own, and those of people around me, but I also grew up in an environment rich in discussion and information in fields that one would think might have more awareness than typical about autism. And for many varied reasons, my path has crossed with multiple mental health professionals for my children and sometimes myself over the course of decades. I also read and absorb a lot of information from multiple sources myself.

    And despite all of that, I had nothing more than vague, general, and error-ridden (or at least seriously dated) knowledge about autism until I had reason early last year to specifically dig into the subject. Once I did, I was able to find the rich online resources that exist today. But those resources are mostly invisible unless you specifically search for them. I went from a recognition that autism wasn’t at all like what I had thought it was to questioning if it might be the explanation for all the things I had struggled with my whole life and which were starting to overwhelm me. (I hadn’t started digging into it with myself in mind at all.) And finally decided I wanted a third party opinion and started working on assessment.

    So there is very little actual awareness about autism, other than as a scary bugaboo, in the broader world today. There’s not even a chance for anything like acceptance (not that I’ve ever found society particularly accepting in any sense) while that remains true. Everyone’s heads have been filled with largely erroneous nonsense about autism, even when they know anything more than just the word itself. So we not only need more actual awareness, we need to correct a ton of existing misconceptions. Erroneous awareness is even worse than ignorance.

    Even if there were a tremendous growth in awareness and acceptance, we would still be targets. From my own history, I know our difficulties reading and interpreting intent and motive from social cues leave us particularly vulnerable to cons and abuse, especially when younger. And there will always be people who pick up on that “weakness” and target us. And given that we can’t somehow escape the broader social context and depend to some degree on the good will of others, I don’t react strongly against the idea that it’s a way we do suffer from autism. Being autistic makes us particularly vulnerable in a way that allistic people are less vulnerable. Nobody is immune, of course, and many non-autistic people are also vulnerable for other reasons. It doesn’t help that abusive and exploitative people seem to have some sort of sixth sense for those who can be attacked.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. VisualVox

      Thanks for sharing that. I agree – unless there’s a specific reason to dig into things, investigations and insights into autism aren’t likely to figure much in your life.

      I went for years understanding myself to be on the spectrum, but without actively pursuing more knowledge / understanding about it. It was “just there” for me, and even when I knew I was autistic, I still didn’t piece together a lot of information that would have helped me immensely. Things like the torture of open workspaces, for one. Meltdowns for another. I could always think of other reasons they were problematic for me — autism didn’t figure prominently with me, for some strange reason.

      Until it had to.

      As you said, we need to combat a lot of erroneous / dangerous / hurtful information, and no, there’s not much awareness at all.

      As for “suffering from autism”, when it comes to my sensory issues, I’m definitely suffering, so there’s that. There are more examples, of course, but to your point, autism can be a source of suffering in and of itself. Even when we’re in our own controlled space, and there’s nobody else around.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Thinking about, I’m not sure it’s ever really the case that there’s nobody else around. Even when we’ve pulled back from active social engagement and are physically alone, others are still with us in a way. I feel those impressions and connections, at least. And those are often the times I try to work out what happened, which certainly brings other people present to me.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. VisualVox

        Yes. I call it the “thermal shadow” of others. I find myself always assessing and re-assessing my behavior, my interactions, my very way of being, in reference to others. What will work with them? What won’t? What is mine? What is theirs? Always, always, always, the intrusion of others, even in my most solitary moments.

        You’re right – that’s a great point. Thanks for mentioning it.

        Liked by 4 people

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