Autism and Ecosocialism
April is celebrated as Autism Acceptance Month. You may notice the use of “acceptance,” not “awareness;” this is intentional because Autism Acceptance Month was created by autistic people in reaction to the harm and oppression we face from mainstream autism groups, most notably Autism Speaks. Autism self-advocacy and the neurodiversity paradigm have been gaining recognition in recent years and their demands for justice are being taken up by more allies. However, actualizing disability justice implies radical social change, and I have not seen much deep analysis of what that means or how to achieve it. So, as an autistic person and an ecosocialist, I would like to explore how resistance to the mainstream autism discourse implies revolutionary change, how ecosocialism is specially equipped to fulfill that demand, and how autism expands the utopic potential of ecosocialism.
To start, I would like to provide a definition of autism. Autism (or autism spectrum “disorder”) is essentially a way to describe people who have neurological functions that are “atypical” in particular ways. Specifically, autism characteristics fall in two broad categories: social difficulty (e.g. communication issues, difficulty reading social cues, etc.) and rigid or repetitive thought or behavior (e.g. adhering to strict patterns and routines, hyper-focused interests, etc.). What this actually looks like varies from person to person and covers a wide range of actual characteristics, but people who fit these categories share many similar experiences and challenges. From this perspective, autism as a category is useful for its ability to articulate our shared experiences and interests. I will also note that I reject functioning labels (as in high-functioning or low-functioning) because they define autistic people by their ability to appear “normal” and are used to exclude us from conversations about our own futures.
Mainstream discourse about autism follows the pathology paradigm, which treats the differences explained above as aberrant and wrong, as something that must be cured or suppressed. It is based on a social framework that says one way of being is normal and that all others are inferior. This same framing is used in race, gender, sexuality, and so many other categorizing schemes. This framework leads to atrocities like the high rate of filicide for autistic children (see also) or the federal government’s “war on the epidemic of autism,” ratified in the Combating Autism Act, which funds research to eliminate particular types of people rather than provide social support for them. The most recognizable autism “advocacy” group — Autism Speaks — follows this paradigm, and it manifests in their long history of fear mongering, aligning themselves with eugenicist causes, and excluding autistic voices from discussions. Autism Speaks has made some messaging changes since 2016, but their position within the non-profit industrial complex and their connection to the broader systems of capitalism means we should still view their actions critically. Overall, the pathology paradigm and the institutions that support it function to dehumanize autistic people, strip them of their self-determination, and try to invent profitable cures without paying attention to the stated needs of autistic people.
Developed as a response to the abuses of the pathology paradigm, the neurodiversity paradigm argues that atypical neurological functioning (like autism, ADHD, bipolarity, etc.) are part of a normal spectrum of human diversity and that none of them are inherently wrong. Following the social model of disability, the neurodiversity paradigm frames the issue as one of social structure, not inherent biological deficiency: autism is thus a form of diversity that is made into a disability by the way we organize our society. The social model of disability states that everybody needs some type of support to manage living, but our society is designed only to meet the needs of people in the normative categories, which thereby disables people with different bodies or minds by denying them the support they need to live a healthy life. Thus, the neurodiversity paradigm seeks to recognize the humanity of people with atypical neurological functioning while also demanding the provision of support or treatment be equitable, dignified, and in accordance with our needs as we define them.
Socialism operates on these same principles of universal humanity and diversity of need: “to each according to their need from each according to their ability,” as the saying goes. But these facts of social cooperation and community based on mutual dependency are incomprehensible to liberalism and capitalism with their fetishization of “rugged individualism” and competition at the expense of communal well-being. That is why building a just society of autistic people and all other physical and neurological diversity requires revolutionary change from capitalism to socialism.
Furthermore, ecosocialism specifically is well-suited to accomplish disability justice because its core values and practical applications align with the requirements of a society that fully accommodates human diversity. Ecosocialism is fundamentally about reorganizing society to place people and planet in the position of highest value; thus, an ecosocialist economy would be geared toward providing maximal care for each other and the places we live. Any type of socialism shares this fundamental goal of prioritizing being over having, but ecosocialism uniquely extents this attention and love to life unfamiliar to ourselves: functional ecology requires devoting care to unimaginable lifeways like those of soil bacteria or 1000 year old trees. Similarly, disability justice requires society become cognizant of different ways that humans experience the world. The ecological thinking necessary for ecosocialism promotes people’s ability to conceive of different ways of being, which then translates to stronger capacity to empathize with the needs of the full spectrum of human diversity. One major premise of ecosocialism is that we need to prioritize low-carbon work over carbon-intensive work, which in practice means that “care” work (things like nursing, elderly care, child care, etc.) and labor focused on individual and social reproduction would be given much higher priority. Many disabled people need this type of support but cannot access it under capitalism. The burden of that care usually falls to the family (mostly in a gendered way), which contributes to the perception that an autism diagnosis is detrimental to a family and thus ought to be eliminated to save them from suffering. An ecosocialist economy can help autistic people participate in society to the best of their ability in their own unique ways while also lifting the undue burden placed on mothers and women under capitalism.
Bringing a specifically autistic lens to imagining ecosocialist society will help also us build a more nurturing society for all. It’s often said that an autism-friendly society is a human-friendly society and I argue that is the case. Because autistic people tend to have sensitive perceptions of things like light and noise and touch, a society that can be comfortable for the most sensitive of us will be more comfortable for us all. Also, many autistic people need to do regular physical/kinesthetic self-care (stimming as its called in the autistic community), and a society that accepts loud hands (a common stim is hand flapping) and different kinesthetic needs would also accept that people can’t be bound to a desk all day, a freedom everyone would enjoy. Autistic people often struggle interpreting their emotions and those of others, which, when unaddressed, can lead to outbursts of anger and frustration, but a society that patiently teaches autistic people emotional intelligence would also lift the empathic abilities of everybody, making our social consciousness stronger, deeper, and more fulfilling. And the reward for building this autistic utopia, besides a more sublime state of being, is that every individual can become self-actualized and contribute their special gifts for the betterment of everyone.
For these reasons, my vision of neurodiversity justice is ecosocialism. And I think actively creating space for autistic voices (verbal and nonverbal) will make ecosocialism more beautiful: as proof, witness the incredible activism of Greta Thunberg (my personal hero). In the meantime, instead of “lighting it up blue” in April, we as socialists can take some time to learn about the experiences of autistic and differently-abled people, consider how our spaces do or don’t accommodate their needs, and start building ecosocialism (which is also a celebration of Earth day!).