Why I Can’t Call Myself an Ally (and Neither Can You)

autism ally

It’s a point of contention between some people on the spectrum and neurotypical autism advocates. How we advocate really is just as (if not more) important than the intention to simply advocate at all. In particular, let’s explore the right to identify as an autism ally and the traits needed to genuinely support those on the spectrum. Not everyone who calls themselves one is really on the side of autistics. In any disagreement, a dose of humility and introspection is needed if anyone is expected to learn anything or if any progress will be made (See my previous post: The Roles and Responsibilities of the Neurotypical Autism Advocate). This week I’m asking neurotypical parents to review why autism advocacy issues exist and consider ways to improve their efforts. The more I read and listen to people on the spectrum, the more I learn about better ways to support and accept them. Let’s listen to autistic advocates and be open to change.

We Want to Be Autism Allies

So many autism parents consider advocacy as part of their identities. They spend time and energy fighting for what they believe is best for their children, so anyone who tries to shape what this behavior looks like is certain to be met with some resistance. Autistic neurodiversity advocates have been feeling this resistance for years. Some common arguments are:

  • “You are so high functioning. You have the ability to advocate. You can’t possibly speak for my low-functioning child. Your experiences are entirely different. If you were as disabled as my child, you would want a cure for autism.”
  • “Shouldn’t I be able to determine what therapy is best for my child? My child is too young to decide for himself .” Or “My child does not understand the importance of therapy.”

Parents want to be allies to their children. As an autism parent, it is a natural extension to want to be an autism ally for anyone with autism, or to support autism-related causes, both locally and nationally. But autistic self-advocates have insisted there is a lot to be learned in the neurotypical autism advocacy community if you want to be a true ally.

How to Be an Autism Ally

Based on what I’ve read and the people I’ve talked to I’ve learned (from people at a variety of different places on the autism spectrum):

  • Autism allies must consider people on the spectrum a foundational part of their advocacy efforts. Their opinions shouldn’t merely be an “add on” or “extra” to a campaign. They should be the forefront voice of autism advocacy. Allies will recognize autistics as experts on the autistic condition.
  • Allies don’t dismiss autistic voices, opinions, or expertise as insignificant or skewed because of their source.
  • Allies don’t push for autism cures or work to eradicate autism in its entirety.
  • Allies don’t push for autism therapies. Instead, they support the decision of the autistic individual to choose their desired therapy and help implement it in ways that promote positive autistic development and happy, healthy living.
  • Allies never encourage people on the spectrum to behave in ways so they will appear less autistic.
  • Allies should be careful not to call themselves allies. Autistic people can call you an ally. If no one on the spectrum identifies your work as helpful, maybe reconsider the way you are advocating. Your validation comes from the autistic community. Neurotypicals must constantly strive to be allies, but be humble enough to recognize that title isn’t yours to claim.
  • Allies shouldn’t be advocating in order to gain personal fame or fortune.
  • Allies should understand that people on the spectrum don’t exist solely to educate and correct neurotypicals. They should be respected as humans and not purely as educational vessels.

At first glance this might sound like a lot of restrictions on behavior that has good intentions. Good intentions are an important start to any advocacy campaign. And, after all, the definition of advocacy means that you are fighting for the rights of others. It takes a certain dose of humility to step back, listen, not assume you have all the answers. We must learn from the people we are trying to help. Whoever you are advocating for might have more or different ideas of ways you can be a true ally. This is simply a summary compilation of ideas I’ve found in my own interviews and research. Find out where help is needed. Neurotypicality should not be our goal. Helping support the needs of autistic individuals in our society today is.

Additional Resources

Allies: Are You Hurting Us Or Helping Us?

What is an Ally?

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