The adult autistic community dreads the cerulean lights of April. Another crop of anti-autistic hate sites will appear, invigorated by the artificial sunshine of that cruel spotlight. The pastel blue of Autism Awareness Month will be everywhere, together with the jigsaw piece that demeans us to the core. We aren't fragmented puzzles; we experience ourselves as complete humans; we're capable of empathy, despite that terrible prejudice perpetuated by some diagnosticians. We do communicate, even if it takes a receptive, unbiased ear to hear us.
Only hours after the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary, the shooter was fingered as autistic; the hate machine hit high gear. The bigotry was fanned by media outlets driven to find simple answers for a shatteringly complex event. My circle of online activists began tracking down and reporting the worst of the pages that appear every time attention is focused on us. Many hide under innocuous-sounding names like "A Cure for Autism." The first toadstool rising from the rain of hysteria following the Newtown tragedy hid under a "solution to protect our families" identity. The single post announced:
Once we hit 50 likes, we are going to go out and find an autistic kid and set it on fire.
The creators of these sites don't care that we're far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence, and don't register that they couldn't reach their digital audience without the work of minds like Tesla, Einstein and Turing -- all of whom showed markers of autism that would define their childhoods today.
Einstein was non-verbal until long past his appropriate "developmental milestones," and socially awkward throughout his life. Few ask what elegant concepts might arise in an autistic mind allowed to develop naturally, or whether autism genes might be there for a purpose -- that we might be part of the diverse pattern needed for the survival of the human race.
Let me be clear -- autism is not a disease. Autism is a congenital variation in neurological structure -- and a lot of us take pride in our difference. We have our own heroes, leaders and traditions. Those of us who struggle with spoken language often participate seamlessly in the electronic conversation within our virtual clan. The digital revolution has allowed us to find one another and build supportive social institutions of our own. A few forward-thinking academic programs study our world as an independent minority culture.
Like traditionally marginal communities, we're accustomed to bigoted vandals defacing our sanctuaries. Some of us have had to abandon Web pages because "trolls" leave hateful messages so thickly they overwhelm comment moderation.
One of us recently discovered that when the words "autistic people should ..." were entered into Google Search, it would automatically complete the phrase with "die." "Die" was the most common word on the Internet connected with the first three; the list of suggested possibilities underneath wasn't much more pleasant.
Our community has battled to sway the algorithm with positive postings, with some success. Acknowledging our protests, Google manually adjusted for it; still, if one entered "autistic should," without "people" in the term, the hateful words would reappear -- in a recent check, the list started with "be killed." When "people" was replaced with "children," "be euthanized" appeared.
"Autism Awareness" is at a frenzy; we're an "epidemic" to be dealt with by aggressively working to eliminate autism and, for some, by extrapolation, autistics. We were described in recent congressional hearings as a crisis, situation, tragedy, tsunami and, over and over, as a burden. Of those testifying before the committee, only two were autistic; we had to fight for even that much representation.
Our witnesses faced the same Catch-22 any autistic person does when we self-advocate: either we appear too competent to be judged genuinely autistic, whatever the challenges we confront, or we're incompetent to speak for ourselves no matter what we have to say. If we show compassion for our most vulnerable, we aren't autistic enough to have the right to speak on their behalf; if we advocate assertively, we're autistic, and therefore incapable of empathy for those burdened by us, so our words can be dismissed.
This April, please turn your "Autism Awareness" to the actual autistic community. Like anyone, we blossom best with compassion, but even without it, few of us will ever strike back at the world, no matter how it crushes us. We're human beings with uniquely valuable traits, not just vulnerable, embarrassing progeny of very publicly disappointed parents. Know us beyond the rare, pathologically desperate outcast. We become adults; we face huge challenges, but we can and do speak for ourselves, if we can be allowed to get a word in edgewise.
Selene dePackh is an artist and writer who lives in Wilkinsburg (www.facebook.com/TheAutisticTsunami). First Published April 7, 2013 4:00 AM