The Appropriation of Autism

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Since, at 51, I’m officially an ‘Over 50’ – and really should be finalising my funeral arrangements by now according to the adverts suddenly appearing on my TV and Facebook feed – you won’t be surprised to hear that many terms used today are completely new to me. ‘Cultural appropriation’ is definitely one of them.

When I was young, people were free to dress up in any costume that took their fancy – from geisha to Apache warriors – without ever having to worry about being accused of some dark, hidden agenda. For many, many years, wearing these outfits was seen as a tribute to a different culture, and a sign that you actually liked what they stood for, but now, thanks to the usual highly vocal minority, those days are rapidly disappearing.

The concept of cultural appropriation, like political correctness, certainly has its place. When people mimic the appearance of other cultures with the sole intention of ridiculing and devaluing them then there’s something seriously wrong, and of course it needs to be addressed. Other than that though, as someone whose life is devoted to celebrating the acceptance of diversity, I’ve got to say that I still see this kind of thing as very much a positive.

On my travels round the internet, I’ve recently noticed an increase in the number of discussions about how autistic people are having their ‘culture’ shamelessly appropriated by people who’ve adopted the ‘Geek Chic’ and ‘Gamer Chic’ lifestyles. Hmm…I think someone’s kind of missed the point here: Autistic people don’t become gamers or geeks to be part of any specific peer group; it’s other people who decide to categorise them this way. The truth is, they’re simply being themselves and doing what they love. If others have seen something attractive in them and it’s turned into a way of life worth copying, shouldn’t we be pleased? Personally I think it’s fantastic that the nerds, the weird kids and the outcasts (people of all ages, not just children) who’d give anything to feel a little more accepted – a little more (Heaven forbid) ‘normal’ – are now being seen as potential role models instead of the peculiar oddballs they were when I was growing up.

While we’re on the subject, here’s another popular term that’s new to me: ‘sapiosexual’. In a nutshell, it means you’re attracted to intelligence, regardless of looks, social skills and so on. This is now a well-recognised thing apparently – Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes being a good case in point – and if anyone thinks autistic men’s (and women’s) love lives haven’t benefitted from it then they’re very much mistaken. Do you think they felt their culture had been appropriated when they became attractive to other people and found love and happiness as a result? I’m quite sure they didn’t give it a second thought.

What prompted me to write this post however, was reading various people’s outrage about the ‘cultural appropriation’ of none other than the humble fidget spinner. Yes, you read that correctly: the fidget spinner. ‘Oh, now you want to play with my son, just because he’s got a fidget spinner…’ complained one woman. ‘Where were you when he was alone and friendless? You have no right to play with his things.’ ‘It makes me so angry’ whined another ‘to see neurotypical children appropriating sensory toys like this…’ Resisting the urge to gouge my own eyeballs out with a blunt spoon, I decided to share my thoughts about this horrifying cultural crime wave with you here instead.

I genuinely believe that there’s nothing wrong and everything right about the idea of children (and adults) finding common ground and connecting across society’s complicated and often confusing divides, whether they’re based on nationality, religion, sexuality, neurological wiring or anything else.

In my book I talked about how things have changed over my lifetime and said: ‘Autism-friendly cinema and theatre performances, vast social media support networks, Special Educational Needs departments in mainstream schools and custom-designed toys, clothing and equipment to help make life easier for families living with autism are just some of the positive steps I’ve noticed and celebrated along the way.’
These things are gradually becoming more and more accepted in mainstream culture, and God knows it’s been a long, hard road to get them there. Surely – surely – we shouldn’t now be trying to keep these things exclusively for our own use, while excluding anyone who doesn’t fit within our understanding of ‘being autistic’. Isn’t this precisely the sort of divisive and discriminatory behaviour so many of us have been fighting against for so long?

My charity Autism All Stars provides a portable sensory den at lots of its events that’s really popular with people of all ages and abilities. Seeing autistic children playing happily alongside children who’ve never even heard of the condition doesn’t make me angry; it makes me happy. Should I start banning neurotypical children from using the sensory den on the grounds that autistic people’s culture is being appropriated? I think not. I might ban the occasional neurotypical kid for being a little git and lobbing the toys at other children’s heads, but to tell them they can’t play with autistic children because they’re not autistic themselves seems completely counterproductive to me.

Sensory toys are becoming more and more widely available on Amazon and EBay nowadays, and even weighted blankets are making the jump into mainstream consciousness, with a Kickstarter campaign for ‘Gravity: The Weighted Blanket for Sleep, Stress and Anxiety’ recently raising over four and a half million dollars. Wow! Is this an outrageous example of cultural appropriation? Does this mean that everyone will soon consider themselves to be autistic? Should we be concerned?
Well, no.

What we should be doing is celebrating the fact that society at large is finally getting to grips with something many of us have been saying for a very long time: we are all far more alike than different. All of us.

In conclusion then, if you’re going to shout about the need for autism acceptance (and goodness knows I shout about it all the time) then please don’t take offence when autistic needs are finally accepted and embraced by the general public. Not only does it make no sense, but it perpetuates the myth that autistic people should be seen as somehow separate from everybody else, and that can only serve to delay a truly integrated and accepting society for us all.


  • Violet13 says:

    While you have valid points here, I do hope you realise there are other minority groups who aren’t benefiting as much from ‘appropriation’.

    Case in point, disabled people are now being told by people with dyslexia or fibromyalgia, how they should feel, what the disabled experienxe is like, and so on – since they know what it’s like because they, after all, are disabled themselves. People who have never needed an a accessible toilet, who can go wherever they want whenever they want. People who haven’t endured hate crime upon hate crime just for going out in public.

    It’s not always a good thing.

    • Helen says:

      I couldn’t agree with you more – the only person who can ever decide how they ‘should’ feel is the individual themselves. Being disabled affects everybody differently so no-one has the right to dictate what another person’s experience ought to be like, whether they’re disabled themselves or not.

  • Rosa says:

    You’ve completely missed the point.
    For starters, cultural appropriation isn’t celebrating differences in culture – the two are entirely separate things. I’ve heard the analogy of cooking and I thought it explained the issue well, so I’ll insert it here. You go to a person’s house for dinner, and you enjoyed your meal so much that you ask for the recipe. This is cultural appreciation. You go to a person’s house for dinner, and you enjoyed your meal so much that you steal their entire cookbook and sell it under your own name. This is cultural appropriation. It is harmful to minority groups, not because it allows those in the majority to appreciate the culture of those minority groups, but because it allows the majority to profit from the culture of minority groups while still discriminating against those minority groups. To use your example of geisha: cultural appreciation would be to talk to and understand geisha, and wear their costume authentically and with their permission. Oftentimes though, when people dress as geisha, they are wearing cheap knock-offs which are produced for white people to profit of that particular part of Japanese culture. And when they take their fake geisha costume off, they are still Caucasian, and so aren’t discriminated against and can even participate in the discrimination of Japanese people.
    In the same way, when fidget spinners became part of mainstream culture, allistics weren’t talking to and understanding autistic people, they were just taking the parts of autistic culture that they could mass-produce and sell to other allistics who would likely then continue discriminating against autistic people. Additionally, when fidget spinners and other fidget toys became a part of popular culture, many schools began banning them, citing the fact that it distracts children from learning. Of course it distracts neurotypical children from learning, they weren’t meant for neurotypical children in the fist place! And as is the way with popular culture, current trends eventually begin to be viewed as ‘cringy’, and so it just becomes another thing for allistics to use to discriminate against autistic people.
    Nobody is saying allistic children can’t play with autistic children. Nobody is saying that ‘Geek chic’ and ‘Gamer chic’ were appropriated from autistic culture. Nobody is saying Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is beneficial to autistic people. And nobody is saying that the appropriation of autistic culture will help autistic children to integrate. Maybe instead of talking to the moms of autistic people or making unsound arguments, try talking to actual autistic people.

    • Helen says:

      What on earth gave you the impression that I don’t talk to autistic people? I am autistic myself, so please keep your judgemental attitude in check. What you say in your reply is based on your experience and what I say in my post is based on mine, so of course we will have different views and that’s perfectly fine, but I can assure you that people ARE saying the things you so firmly state that ‘nobody is saying’ because I’ve heard them being said time and time again.
      Your assumption that I’m neurotypical and for some reason only talk to the mothers of autistic people (which is frankly a very weird assumption) clearly makes you feel like I’m somehow unable to formulate an opinion about autistic culture, and believe me you couldn’t be more wrong.
      I have no interest in arguing with you over this but have replied simply to point out how dangerous and short sighted it is to make assumptions about other people and dismiss their opinions when you know nothing whatsoever about them.

  • Kay says:

    Thank you for saying this. Appropriation is such a difficult subject to talk about, and as a society we are still working out exactly where to draw the line. But I completely agree with all your points. In no way do I deny cultural appropriation is a very real thing, but I do think the way some people approach it is incredibly detrimental and counterproductive to whatever gap they’re trying to bridge. Many have taken what was originally meant to be bringing awareness to the inequality and power dynamics of certain elements of society and culture, and have turned it into an opportunity for them to “get back at” whoever had previously oppressed them. But that helps no one. It is done purely for the sake of the ego, and not the actual cause. When you are dogmatic and unempathetic towards someone you only create further division.

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