Autism and the Politics of Everything Else
Politics is like noodles. You pull on one bit, and a mass of different strands comes with it. It might be possible to separate out one single strand, but it’s not particularly rewarding, and anyway you end up losing all the sauce.
So lately I’ve had my mind on autism politics a lot of the time, and sometimes I worry about neglecting the bigger picture, but it’s not a serious worry. The politics of autism is so entangled with the politics of everything else that addressing the problems flagged up by neurodiversity can’t help but mean trying to unpick broader problems in politics, economics and culture.
The most obvious context that autism is embedded in is disability politics. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, autism is a disability, at least some of the time, for most autistic people. That makes autism politics part of the broader disability rights movement, by default, and autistic activists would do well to make sure they’re acquainted with debates around the social and medical models of disability, the history of other disabled people fighting for and winning civil rights and accommodations; and the ways that ableism operates in society. We are taught to value disabled people less than those who are highly abled, and they call it ‘meritocracy’. Questions of who and what we value, and why, are pretty all-pervasive in politics, so we’ll come back to this shortly. Likewise questions of autonomy: who gets to make decisions over their own lives, and how.
Autism is also a feminist issue. Not just because female autists are massively under-diagnosed, although they are; and not just because autistic people are far more likely not to be gender-conforming, although that’s also true. Autism is a feminist issue because societal norms are systematically oppressive, many of those norms are inextricably bound up with gender, and autism and norms just don’t mix. One of the most prominent features of our neurotype is a chronic inability (accompanied by a deep-seated unwillingness) to fit in with what people expect of us. This hurts us in a lot of ways, and intersections of neurodiversity with cultural and racial difference can also be extremely hard. But of course gender is tied up with many of the ways that we refuse or fail to fit in, because society is obsessed with gender. It’s illogical, constrictive and deeply socially nuanced, all of which sit very badly with an autistic disposition.
Men who don’t conform to ideals of masculinity are devalued and dismissed; likewise women who don’t fit comfortably in the box marked ‘woman’. Not that we adequately value women who do conform with feminine ideals, either. We also routinely undermine women and girls’ agency in ways that find echoes in the denial of autistic agency and disregard for autistic consent. Still, women can claim at least a modicum of social power and perceived worth if they are willing and able to conform with societal ideals of womanhood.
Questions of value make up the entire foundation of economics, so the fact that ableism and sexism are so pervasively built in to our assessments of worth makes them impossible to separate from political economy. Meanwhile, the dominance of neoliberalism in politics has elevated economics to an overwhelmingly dominant position: we have had multiple waves of politicians seemingly convinced that market mechanisms are the answer to all our problems.
Market mechanisms are not the answer to all our problems. Obviously.
Assigning worth based on market evaluations has always negated, and will always negate, the value of many, many things of profound importance to humankind. This is a well known, widely recognised and extensively evidenced fact, so the fact that neoliberal ideology has convinced politicians on more than one side to ignore it for decades is really rather odd, but then, people are weird. Other people have spent much more time carefully unpicking this phenomenon than I have space for here, so I won’t attempt to reproduce their work.
Suffice to say that the privatisation, deregulation and marketisation of everything is incompatible with giving autistic people the help and recognition we need to reach anywhere close to our full potential. While I’m focusing on autistic people, this also goes for everyone who is disabled, working class, female, gender non-conforming, an immigrant, not white… because as humans we all need help, and recognition. Some people get plenty already, but they are a minority everywhere. We all need security, encouragement and social support, but many of us — most of us — are not getting it.
We also have a fundamental need to spend our time doing things that are meaningful to us, that give us some autonomy, that accord with what we hold to be important in the world. Far too many of us are stuck in jobs that do no such thing, and this is a terrible thing both for our mental and physical health, and for our productivity. It’s even worse for autistic people, for whom it is often agonisingly difficult to get anywhere at all with work that doesn’t engage our interests, and for whom the workplace is often a hostile environment.
Not only is the existing political order failing most of us as human beings, it’s also failing the world at large as an ecosystem, and for very much the same reasons. Society is set up for the benefit of a few, who get to make decisions affecting all of us, and who have strong incentives to make decisions in their own short-term interest at all of our expense. We do not adequately value the things we all need to keep us going, and we do not empower people to act on what they value.
So forgive me if I seem to be spending a lot of time pulling on my autism-politics noodle over here in the corner. It’s stuck to the politics of everything else, you see, and the more I pull, the more I can see that we’re going to have to untangle the whole mess before any of us is going to get free.