Autism Interview #51: Brent White on Autism Advocacy

Brent White is autistic, dyslexic and multiply neurodivergent. He designs and directs adult programs for neurodivergent young adults for a non-profit in Berkeley, California. Programs include an adult transition program for the he designed for the Berkeley Unified School District. Brent White is a grassroots researcher, scholar and advocate. This week he shared some insight for non-autistic parents and other autism advocates who are trying to support their loved ones in the most respectful and meaningful ways.

Can you explain your hesitation in participating in interviews with non-autistic autism advocates?

To be very honest, my personal experience with non-autistics who want to advocate on behalf of autistics has been pretty vexing. I’ve been dismissed as “Too high-functioning” to understand or “too verbal” or “too difficult, “too emotional,” “too one-sided” or that “everyone is a little autistic anyway.” I want non autistics to understand autistic experience. I want to reach out to parents and others who care for an autistic loved one. I promise you that after 17 years in the field working with autistic children and adults [plus my own 59 years lived experience], I understand the hopes and fears of non-autistics. I also know full well, that the voices of actual autistics are only now being heard and that the range of those being heard is super narrow.

Describe the traits/behaviors of a true autism ally.

Listen carefully and believe the stories autistics tell, no matter how we tell them. Autistic communication is varied, and verbal communication is often not what we are best at. Communication is deep and complex. Words are limiting, but watch someone communicate with their environment by using their body, or flapping their hands or arms. Listen to the language of stimming- it is often more beautiful than words; listen to drawings and the typed words; listen to the silences.

Believe that the everyday is processed and experienced differently for autistics. Every autistic I know is bursting alive with experiencing our environments. Lights, people, smells, noise, words, demands flow and often explode inside our minds. It can be exhilarating at times, but most often it is overwhelming; even painful. Give space and time.

Presume the competence of autistics [or all disabled people]. Every autistic is a capable, fallible, magnificent human being.

Learn our history. The narratives of autism have been written by non-autistics, to the empowerment of the authors and the degradation of and violence to autistic minds and bodies. Autistic mind/bodies do not need to be cured, fixed, pathologized or normalized.

Based on your personal experience transitioning out of schooling and into adult employment, what strategies/techniques did you find especially useful in finding and obtaining a meaningful career where you could thrive? 

Transitioning from school to employment was a struggle for me. I did not realize that I was autistic [or otherwise neurodivergent] until my late 40s. Communication with supervisors and understanding job expectations were the most difficult aspects for me. They remain so for me today. I failed. I failed a lot, almost constantly. I wasn’t able to hold a steady job until I was in my mid-20s. The biggest change for me was finally figuring out the patterns of work life, but this isn’t something I can easily articulate or formulate for others.

Before we start talking about careers, we need to look at what we need to do to help young autistics grow into full, meaningful, self-determined lives. While I understand the focus on employment, we face two very big challenges. The biggest challenge is that the unemployment rate for ID/DD people in the U.S. is around 80%. Disabled people are framed as broken and unable to provide productivity. This is major issue which is hardly ever addressed outside of the disability itself. The second challenge is having “special” educators and providers who view disability as a problem to “fix or “cure” and create systems of dependency for autistics and other neurodivergent youth.

Self-determination is more than self-advocacy; it’s….

  • Choice Making
  • Decision Making
  • Problem Solving
  • Goal Setting and Attaining
  • Self-Regulation
  • Self-Awareness
  • Personal Responsibility
  • Self-Efficacy

Self-determination requires risk and failure. The goal of any provider system [including families] should be to create space and time for autistics to practice self-determination skills as we are, to honor self-determined hopes and dreams.

When can parents of autistic children begin teaching self-advocacy skills? How does self-advocacy encouragement/teaching change or evolve as a child becomes a teenager or an adult?

Self-determination skills should be taught from the beginning. No person can succeed if they don’t believe themselves that they are capable. Self-determination takes daily practice.

What mistakes do neurotypical autism advocates make?

  • Not presuming competence
  • Infantilizing
  • Using normalized communication methods [eye contact, talking too much, etc.]
  • Using nuero-normalized methods of competence to evaluate success
  • Presuming expertise over autistic expertise
  • Not deferring to actually autistics when speaking about autistic experience, culture or politics
  • Undervaluing the autistic community

What’s the most important thing a parent can do to encourage their child’s positive autistic identity?

The best thing a parent can do is love their whole child.

Parents should understand our history [books like the Autism Wars, The Real Experts, or even Nuero-Tribes can provide powerful insights]

Introduce your children to autistic adults.

Love the unique autistic world.

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2 Comments

  1. Miriam Amado

    Reply

    What an interesting article, it shows your insight and knowledge.
    Brent you are an amazing individual.
    We have learnedly so much from you. Thanks for all you do and done for our young adults.

  2. Gail Cross

    Reply

    The depth of understanding and putting that understanding into words that we can all feel and see as nuerodivergent folk and the ability to convey that to non-nuerodivergent folk is both a comfort and , shall I say, hopeful? Thank you for the way you communicate so beautifully.

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