Where I live (Texas), every June 19th is the commemoration of “Juneteenth,” an important day in Texas history. Also known as Juneteenth Independence Day, Emancipation Day, or Freedom Day, it refers to June 19, 1865, the day a Union general and his troops occupied Galveston Island (a small strip of land in the Gulf of Mexico less than an hour away from Houston) and read a declaration from the federal government that announced the total emancipation of all slaves, effective immediately. Although slaves in several other American states were freed from slavery as of January 1, 1863 according to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Texas slaves had toiled an additional two and a half years until that first Juneteenth.
Elated by the news that they were no longer captives, the newly freed slaves rejoiced and celebrated in the streets. Since then, despite the numerous challenges and other forms of marginalization and disenfranchisement the descendants of slaves have had to endure, commemorating Juneteenth has been an annual occurrence. Now celebrated in numerous states beyond Texas, Juneteeth is a symbol of the importance of freedom and independence for many.
Interestingly, the day that precedes Juneteenth is “Autistic Pride Day.” Since 2005, June 18th has been a day to celebrate Autistic people and culture, and like Autistic Acceptance Day in April, Disability Day of Mourning in March, and Autistics Speaking Day in November, it provides a way for individuals across the globe to connect as a community, to affirm our existence, to oppose the narrow, often inaccurate and negative societal view of Autistic people. Like Juneteenth, it is also a day representative of freedom – the freedom of Autistic people to exist, to be who we truly are, to be able to reside in communities of our choosing, to have a sense of autonomy over our lives, to be accepted and supported, not pitied and patronized. This year (2017) will mark the twelfth consecutive Autistic Pride Day.
Sadly, though, when I observe my local community (and other communities), I don’t perceive a sense of collective pride. I see established, respected autism groups that have little to no meaningful representation of Autistic people among their leadership. I see the voices of parents and professionals with regard to autism elevated to near-deity status. I see gargantuan efforts to transform Autistic youth, teens, and adults into something we aren’t under the guise of “helping.”
Although there are many Autistic people who have developed a sense of acceptance and pride in who they are, I also encounter far too many Autistic people who have grown to despise themselves for not being neurotypical, unable to sufficiently acknowledge nor appreciate their unique strengths and positive attributes. I see segregated educational programs and segregated recreational outings; excessive promotion of dehumanizing compliance-based “interventions,” a plethora of targeted, rigid “social skills trainings,” dubious and unethical “alternative treatments,” restrictive diets, martyrdom complexes among autism parents whose entire identities are derived from their Autistic loved one’s diagnosis, failure to presume competence or respect privacy, shameless infantilization. I see so many things that I cannot unsee.
It took over 2,000 Union troops sent to Texas for the slaves residing there to obtain their long-deserved, much anticipated freedom. Though they still faced horrific discrimination and immense challenges after independence, they were still aware that they were no longer in bondage. They were no longer property and would no longer have to be subjected to the same types of mistreatment they had been forced to endure for hundreds of years. Though life would not automatically become a carefree paradise, it was also no longer what it once was. Juneteenth made certain of that.
Who, I wonder, are the Autistic community’s Union soldiers? Because despite the growing size of the “autism community” around the globe, there don’t seem to be many outsiders in the trenches with us fighting for our freedom. There are some, yes, and they are greatly valued and appreciated. But when I look around, we seem mostly left to fight for ourselves.
The others – the parents and professionals whose opinions and presence are so heavily idolized – are fighting, but they’re fighting for something else. For funding to determine how to prevent us from existing; for expansion of programs designed to modify our speech, movement, behavior, and interactions with others so that we can be less Autistic and more pseudo-neurotypical; for development of sprawling, segregated modern institutions or “villages” where Autistic people will be housed like prisoners in gilded cages rather than being integrated into communities; for earlier and earlier detection of Autistic traits so that we can be funneled at younger and younger ages into the system in hopes that we can be “fixed.”
How am I supposed to expect to find a sense of camaraderie and community amongst these people? How am I supposed to ensure that my Autistic children maintain a sense of pride in who they are and have high self-esteem in the presence of individuals with authority who would be regularly and emphatically sending a completely opposite message? How does one find a way to effectively impact the worldview that the general public has regarding Autistic people if the people who profess to love us most seem almost impossible to get through to?
How are we to ever “get free” when those nearest to us think that instead of breaking the chains that bind us we should instead line those chains with satin so that they will have a nicer appearance?
(Image is a colorful meme with a rainbow-hued infinity symbol [indicating Autistic Pride] with text that states: “Autistic Pride Day/June 18th/It is a day to be proud of who you are. Celebrate Neurodiversity.” Photo credit: Jeannette Purkis)