London Autistic Pride 2019

Text of a speech given by Joseph Redford, organiser of London Autistic Pride, on the 16th July, 2019.

Pride, as concept applied to marginalised groups, originated from the black power and black pride movement that sprung up in the wake of the civil rights movement in early 1960s America. After the Stonewall riots in 1969, gay pride became a concept. Both movements were reactions to the dominant cultures at the time, which saw black and LGBT people as subalterns rather than full citizens and human beings, whose role in life was to either hide, keep their heads down or assimilate. Both movements asserted the right to be conscious of your own dignity Rather than look to wider society and the majority culture to base their identity on, both movements looked to other sources of validation, African culture in the case of black pride, and other liberation movements in the case of LGBT pride, but they also looked to other black and LGBT people to base their identities on, and looked upon each other in order to uplift themselves. Instead of assimilating and keeping your head down, both movements publicly asserted the right to be different, and emphasised this difference through dress, actions and many other ways.

Over the decades other marginalised groups applied the concept of pride to themselves. Disability Pride came about in 1990, and Psychiatric Survivors Pride, which later evolved into Mad Pride, originated in Canada in 1993, which aimed, like the previous movements, to increase visibility and challenge the dominant narrative. Mad Pride is probably the most direct precursor to Autistic Pride, as the initial aims of the movement were to reclaim the identity of being mad from a negative onto a positive one, and also to reclaim terms such as ‘mad’, ‘nutter’ or ‘psycho’ from pejoratives to positive words words. While Mad Pride Day was officially on September 18th, events have been held around all the summer months worldwide.

In 2005, a decision was taken on the internet forum Aspies for Freedom, run by Gwen and Amy Nelson to bring the concept of Autistic Pride Day to the masses. The date of June 18th was picked because it was the birthday of the youngest member of the group at that time. Initially it was celebrated online, but in 2006, Amy Nelson led a group of people into Hyde Park on Autistic Pride Day and had a picnic there. This was quite a symbolic gesture and provided a template for public celebrations of Autistic Pride. Hyde Park has been a centre of public life for hundreds of years, and many radical movements originated there. Also, because it was in a park, people celebrating Autistic Pride were not cut off from the rest of society, autistic people were out there, in society, publicly and openly asserting ourselves, not hiding away either physically, or our hiding ourselves from society or each other.

I first came across the concept of Autistic Pride in 2007 when browsing on the internet, and was immediately inspired by this concept, and the strapline “Acceptance, Not Cure”. I was diagnosed with Aspergers at 11, and in my early 20s I had partially accepted my autistic nature, while I had embraced some aspects of my autism – for example I was proud of my ability to memorise, my attention to detail, my strong and focused work ethic, my strong system of personal ethics, my ability to think for myself and not get swayed by groupthink.

If someone had asked if I was proud to be Autistic then, I’d have said yes, but in reality I was more proud of doing things that people said I couldn’t do. There were still parts of myself I was ashamed of and wanted to hide and suppress. I was ashamed that I wasn’t as verbally fluent as others, that I struggled with speech and handwriting, and that I could be very emotionally sensitive, at times, both about people and inanimate objects, that I would have unusual facial expressions or body postures, that I could get overwhelmed by complex social interaction and could easily be taken advantage of, and various other things that weren’t glamorous or exciting. I tried to hide from the fact that these were also part of what I am and that they shape me just as much as my strengths. I was trying to succeed and get ahead in life in spite of my autism and I was still trying to force myself to live up to a mainstream conception of the ‘rebellious eccentric’ that wasn’t necessarily who I was. This is why coming across Autistic Pride meant a lot to me on various levels. Autistic Pride unashamedly demands acceptance from wider society, but on another level calls upon Autistic People to accept ourselves and everything about us.

The biggest factor that pushed me from supporting Autistic Pride to organising an event myself, was when I first went to Autscape in 2014. This was nothing less than a life-changing experience. For the first time in my life, I was in a physical space where Autistic people were in the majority, and weren’t supervised by non-autistic people. It was great being amongst a group of people with mannerisms, reactions and life experiences that were similar to my own. I went away from it feeling a sense of belonging and relaxation that I had very rarely felt before, and I wanted to replicate this experience as much as possible.

In 2015 I eventually got around to organising an Autistic Pride event myself, and have done so every year since then. Thanks to the efforts of Rachel Cotton in Reading, Kabie Brook in Inverness and many others, Autistic Pride has been brought to the attention of many more people. Although the first event I ran in 2015 was hastily organised, it was a massive success. About 20 people turned up. While most people just relaxed and enjoyed themselves in this newly created Autistic Space, some others spoke at Speakers Corner and others entertained the group with speeches or songs. Being there, I got the same feeling that I did in Autscape in 2014.

Although it’s incredibly stressful to organise, there have been many highlights for me during these events:
I have watched autistic people go to Speakers Corner – a loud, intimidating environment – and still speak about Autistic Pride, also having passers-by who are autistic themselves notice us and become aware of a wider autistic community, often these people have never spoken to another autistic before, having people who aren’t autistic approach us, but acknowledge that it is our space and are deferential and respectful to our ways of being, which is a big difference from how things normally are, often hostility is expected from members of the public but never materialises and the events themselves tend to be very peaceful, self-regulating and naturally inclusive of all.

Over the four years I’ve organised Autistic Pride events I’ve seen people gain the confidence to open up, and seen people visibly relax and settle into this new-created Autistic Space.

Autistic Pride has grown gradually over the years, but has expanded rapidly since last year: in 2017 there were 5 autistic pride picnics all over the country, but in 2018 there were 16, and I suspect there will be more this year. These were from Inverness to Exeter, from Cardiff to Cambridge, ranging from large festivals such as this one, to small picnics involving a dozen people. Autism Rights group Highland managed to fly their Autistic Pride Flag outside the Scottish government house on Autistic Pride Day last year. After the NAS and Ambitious about Autism tried to co-opt Autistic Pride in June, a group of organisers clubbed together to form the Autistic Pride Alliance, in order to ensure that Autistic pride events remain something that is run and organised by autistic people, and to swap information and help each other organise events.

Every pride movement is different, and every Autistic Pride event is different and what works for Autistic people will be different to what works for other groups. It’s a fundamental trait of many autistic people not to conform socially, so any movement that accurately reflects the autistic community needs to reflect the individuality of each autistic person. Many of us struggle to travel long distances, many of struggle with socialising, with crowds, with sounds and noises. And for these reasons watching the movement grow over the last year, I think it’s great how every single Autistic Pride event:
is different in character, has a different flag
has a different conception of what Autistic Pride is
while most events are clustered around June 18th, some, like this one, can be as early as April, while others can be as late as September, while some organisers have clubbed together, there is no centralised authority that directs Autistic Pride, and any attempts at gate-keeping are resisted.

For individuals, Autistic Pride doesn’t necessarily need to take the form of public events. The organiser of Inverness Autistic Pride, Kabie Brook, told me that she celebrated Autistic Pride day by taking a walk in the park with her family. And enjoying herself.
Openly stimming, or vocalising or expressing yourself in your own body language is an example of Autistic Pride in Action.
Standing up and passionately defending your own truth, regardless of convention or tone, or social dynamics even if it goes completely against the grain, or others consider it minor or pedantic, is Autistic Pride in Action.
Seeking knowledge according to your own logic is Autistic Pride in Action.
Completely breaking social rules, if it doesn’t cause harm, is Autistic Pride in Action.
Demanding to be treated with the same respect and dignity as others is Autistic Pride in Action.
Walking away from something if you can’t handle it is Autistic Pride in Action.

In a world that in many ways encourages Autistic people to be ashamed of ourselves and in a world where we suffer greatly in many ways, then being happy and content with who you are, even if it is fleeting, is the most radical thing you can do, and the most challenging to the status quo.

Another thing I like about the Autistic Pride movement is everyone can get involved in it. Not only does it try to be accessible to those who attend it, if done right it is also accessible to those who organise it. And this is why I prefer that there are many events up and down the country, rather than a few large, centralised events.

We need an Autistic Pride in every small town and village, as that way it will reach far more people, both autistic and non-autistic, and everyone who attends these events will play a role in shaping the character of the event.

Out of all the points I have made in this talk, the one I’d like to emphasise the most from this is that each and every one of you here makes Autistic Pride what it is. A successful event will empower everyone present, and give everyone present the platform and space in order to uplift themselves. A failed event or movement will just reduce people to passive spectators of another person’s vision of what Autistic Pride should be. If Autistic Pride carries on the way it started, as diverse, decentralised and fundamentally respectful to the autistic individuals, then I think it has a great future ahead of it.

If you are interested in attending or organising an Autistic Pride event, you can visit our page here.