High-Level Discrimination and Prejudice

On Feb. 10, I posted a piece criticizing Nancy MacLean, Duke University history professor and author of the National Book Award-nominated Democracy in Chains for her anti-autistic statements. To say that my post has taken off–particularly, but not exclusively, in conservative and libertarian outlets–would be an understatement. There are many who are using this for purely political purposes, but as far as I’m concerned, if we can get more people aware of the issues we on the autism spectrum face, it’s all to the good.

For me, Nancy MacLean’s comments are hardly unique to her; if anything, they are quite typical of altogether too many people. In my experience, most especially among academics like her, who can tolerate anything other than different ways of thinking. And autism is certainly a different way of thinking. While one would expect universities to be a place where different ways of thinking would be encouraged, the fact is that all too often autistics in particular are punished by the dominant culture in our universities.

I’ve experienced the explicit discrimination against autism in our universities first-hand. I made the mistake of disclosing to the administrators at the University of North Texas at Dallas, which led to an effort by the administration to not renew my Lecturer contract. I next made the mistake of disclosing to my students at Southern Methodist University, leading to students actually complaining that I was autistic and “acted weird,” a complaint I had never had prior to disclosing my autism to them, with the result that I was not brought back in the spring as an adjunct.

There is a strong prejudice against autistic people. We are treated as damaged–including by so-called supporters who promulgate anti-vaccination nonsense because of nonexistent connections between vaccines and autism–rather than as people who have different ways of thinking. Yes, there are extreme versions of autism that result in a number of serious physical and communication problems, but while these are in many ways the most visible, the “milder” versions such as my son and me are in fact the more common by a long shot. We are people who want to work, but who face extremely high unemployment rates (I’ve seen numbers from 20% to 80%) precisely because of the kinds of prejudices promulgated by even the most educated among us (perhaps by them most of all). Worse, despite these high unemployment rates, primarily due to explicit discrimination against autism, we all too often cannot even get disability.

I hope this issue continues to have legs. I do not want autism to continue to be the last acceptable form of discrimination. But as long as people like Nancy MacLean continue to spread negative stereotypes of autism, it will continue to be acceptable.

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