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.

QUEERTISM

How Autism and Queerness teach us how to find the rainbow in a black and white world.

Author – Ted Rogers

I am Queer and Autistic.

I was diagnosed Aspergers during a stay in an institution aged 17. Although, at the time, it gave reason to a lot of my struggles, it seemed a fairly useless thing to pay attention to. I didn’t really understand what it meant socially, politically or even personally. It was simply another thing to add to the list of things that made me sick.

I have never been diagnosed queer and fortunately was born in the UK in a time where queerness is no longer considered a disorder. But I do happily identify as Queer now. Because thanks to my experience and journey I certainly have a greater understanding as to what this means socially, politically and personally.

For me, autism has taught me huge amounts about my queerness and I have been able to use models of queerness to free my autism. Give it space to feel ecstatic, comfortable, valued and productive.

Autism is SO queer! – the interconnectedness of thought patterns, the fluid logic that doesn’t understand seemingly illogical rules of gender, sexuality, blue and pink, authority without question, lying, unnecessary tradition, ceremony and complication, avoidance of problems and brushing stuff under the rug that the rest of society seems to follow without question.

We have the ability to open ourselves to completely radical, new ways of thinking provided they look to a solution.

Typically a solution to a problem that exists in an oppressive way, a problem that doesn’t really need to exist, but does because that route works for neurotypicals or people who see themselves as the majority and the other routes have been brushed off the table.

I have found that frequently, in life, you are offered one or two ways of doing something. You either succeed or you don’t, you are right or wrong, gay or straight, boy or girl, employed or unemployed. It’s a case of yes or no with no room for maybe.

This is taken into extremes in things like the education system, the mental health system, relationships, marriage and employment. If you are not sane, you are insane and your thoughts don’t matter, if you don’t conform at school you will become a terrible drug addict with no qualifications or direction, and if you don’t have a job – which you definitely won’t get if you perform poorly at school – then you are a failure.

And if you aren’t married with a kid, a house and a mortgage by 30, what was the point?

I am queer and I am autistic. And often because of how these are viewed and treated by majority society I have been unemployed, institutionalised, a drug addict, lacking direction, without love, homeless, scared, poor and completely insane.

I have struggled with the education system, been kicked off my philosophy A-level for asking too many questions, been bullied daily into submission resulting in poor attendance and disruptive meltdowns. I have been systematically abused by low-key homophobic staff and teachers, denied ears to listen to what I was struggling with because they thought they had it nailed and that I was just kicking up a fuss.

I have struggled in employment because I wasn’t “the right look”, too “extreme” or my needs didn’t matter, because sales targets, image, budgets, rota’s or customers are more important.

I have struggled to find purpose in life because I sleep with people who I don’t wish to reproduce with, and growing up I had no narratives or idols to look to who weren’t insanely famous or dying of aids or both. And I didn’t want to get married and have kids because I hated the idea of being tied down by anything until I had pursued my dreams.

My dreams of becoming a famous dancer and spreading energy and joy which were considered unrealistic and selfish and worthy only of failure by mainstream society and parents of other kids.

And then when I finally cracked, I struggled in the mental health system because therapists are an 8 month wait away, and even when you finally get to see one they are shocked by what you have to say. I found no-one paid attention to why you are struggling because according to them if you don’t function like everyone else then you, yourself are subjectively THE problem; and solutions are so expensive, mysterious and time consuming that it’s much easier to say that you are impossible to understand and that you are sick. So you get miserable and hopeless and end up in hospital.

This was my experience for a long time. Until I found Queerness. And Recovery (or 12 step programs as they are more popularly identified as), which I actually find pretty queer in principle too.

I was lucky to move to London clean, sober and working on myself. I met some peers, and then some friends and even some idols who were all a whole lot more relatable and realistic than anything I had come across before.

These people didn’t mind that I had a very loud mind and that I had loads of thoughts, and wanted to share them and understood that if I didn’t they might eat me up. They also understood if I got overwhelmed by big noises or distractions. And that I had an unconventional way of expressing myself.

They went so far as to encourage it. And to grow it. And even to listen so well to what I had to say that they could interact with my thoughts and offer up some truly engaged debate.

I met Larry Tee and Sink the Pink, both queer Idols whom took me under their wings and taught me that it’s completely wonderful to do things how I saw fit. Providing it was done with love and caused no actual harm to anyone knowingly. And that often, “the majority”, doesn’t know the best way.

They only know this way and that way. But between this way and that way there are an infinite number of paths with potential outcomes.

They taught me to love myself in all my forms and to explore those forms and try something new. To experiment with my gender, to bend it, to dance in my style, to be sexy in my way, to listen to music, to draw pictures, to put on events, to not see things as big and scary, but completely possible and available to me. They taught me that mistakes are not failure, and that perfection can be limiting, and instead of self-loathing to learn from all my experiences. They taught me to not fear the cracks but to find all the good juice in there that everyone else was missing. They taught me that although there may be healthy boundaries and respect, there is no black and white, and so often there are rainbows that majority society is completely blind to.

I find it utterly infuriating when as autistic people we are told we are black and white. My experience is that I have a whole lot of time for the maybes, the grey areas, the endless fields of dark matter and the potential paths, as long as there is strong potential for a solution or a nugget of truth the be unveiled.

And the more this has been encouraged by my queer peers, the more grounded and relaxed I feel in my autistic soul.

These principles of queerness; the openness, the willingness to explore, the ability to mess up, get up and keep going, the freedom to share and express my emotions, my body and my mind as well as the time and patience to allow me to figure out what these expressions are, have freed me. This queer menu offers me a suitably unconventional way to function in the world.

Around its systems, its boundaries, its policies and blind truths. It helps me to seek help, to open conversation and to commune with like minds to see what can be done between the “yes” and the “no”.

I am Queer and Autistic, and because of queer guidance, I am no longer sick! I don’t need to be employed, I am not a drug addict, I have love and can share love, I have options and possibilities, I have lived out dreams, I don’t need a mortgage and a kid to feel happy, but if I decide I do want those things I can also make them work. I am in movies, and music videos and magazines. I am an activist, writer, performer, bar-top stripper, family person, genderqueer human, nature lover and charity worker.

I enjoy solitude and specificity without shame, I enjoy my logic and know it has value.

I am certainly not a problem, a disorder or an illness. I could in fact be a mirror to some of society’s problems and a potential vessel towards solutions and options. And although the path may be rocky and struggles still appear. At least I have the map of Queerness as a very open-minded guide.

Why Join the Empire?

The Autistic Empire is a new institution that aims to provide services for autistic adults. There are currently many autistic-led organisations that act as liaisons between the autistic community and the neurotypical world, seeking to change public policy-making in our favour. There are also many medical, social and campaigning organisations that are run by neurotypical people who may or may not consult with autistic people to determine who they are and what they should want, and allocate resources and strategic priorities accordingly. Both of these strategies assume a power hierarchy with neurotypical people at the top and ourselves either asking to be let in or negotiating the terms on which we are accepted.

The Autistic Empire aims to create autistic-majority spaces where much of the stress and feelings of marginalisation that come from our door-knocking for acceptance can be alleviated and our people can concentrate on self-development and fulfilment, the development of our people and community and mutual support networks that are meaningful and conceptually based in the way that we see and interact with the world. There are a number of autistic advocacy organisations that exist doing good work to protect all of us, but they are primarily advocating for publicly funded interventions. It is our belief that the autistic people is made up of a hugely diverse crowd of people, some with disabilities, some who do not lead independant lives, and many who do have financial and social independence and have no need of publicly funded interventions. We all have problems that we face in our day to day lives, like everyone who is human, but the way we approach and solve them is often different to neurotypical people.

The Autistic Empire is a place for autistic people to get together and share what they have found works for them, to allow other autistic people to benefit from people who have been in the same position, and to develop tools and services that facilitates people to be happy and content.

Much of the work of the Autistic Empire as it currently stands has been informed by our interactions with autistic people who have been creating homemade coping strategies that we want to provide on scale. Our Q+A, for example, was built when we realised that people were posting questions asking for autistic people’s perspectives on social scenarios, or how to do something, to their personal social media feeds. We want good answers to be accessible by the world. Our Grand Sensory Survey was built while we were trying to figure out whether you could use autistic people’s sensory experiences as a more effective form of identifying autistic people who might never think it necessary to spend two hours explaining their childhood habits to a clinical psychiatrist, and couldn’t find any research on just what people experience and how that is different from neurotypical people. This article was written after a conversation with a friend who said they weren’t interested in being around other autistic people and why should they join?

Other ideas that people have input to us that we are planning to investigate:

  • How autistic parents manage being hypersensitive to sound and the sound of children screaming – we’re going to create a podcast episode with an autistic parent to advise on this and other aspects of parenting from an autistic perspective.
  • Living with other people when you don’t like other people but you can’t afford to live on your own – we want to put together a guide on common solutions people have found to managing your relationships with flatmates and potential sources of conflict such as sharing bills, cleaning, and mental health problems.
  • Travelling while autistic – we want to publish an article on how people have found solutions to standing in enclosed spaces, managing artificial lighting and loud noises, and the ever-present reality of constantly getting lost.
  • A speaking tour employing autistic adults to explain autism and answer questions to parents of autistic children.
  • A customisable autistic alert card that people who need them can select the information that is specific to their experience of autism instead of generalisations of what autism is.
  • A weekly course giving autistic people in geographical proximity who grew up without certain life experiences to visit common social spaces such as bars or swimming pools in a supported environment, and to develop social skills and friendship networks with other people on the course that they can stay in touch with when they graduate.
  • Non-verbal autistic adults – up to a third of autistic people do not speak. These numbers are likely to be much lower due to the unknown but huge numbers of undiagnosed autistic people, but non-verbal people still make up a huge and neglected segment of the autistic community. We have been unable to find any support groups or representatives of non-verbal autistic people other than some small localised groups or exceptional individuals who have been published. The reports of these individuals is that it is assumed by nearly all professionals and those who interact with them that because they cannot speak, they have severe mental disabilities, and therefore it is not useful to try to help them to communicate in other ways. This is completely unacceptable. The position of the Autistic Empire is that you do not have to talk to communicate, and we plan on reaching out to non-verbal autistic people to offer them citizenship, consult them on their needs and integrate them fully into our autistic-majority spaces.

There are many, many conversations taking places all over the world on these kinds of issues, as autistic people problem-solve with ingenuity, inventive thinking and panache. We are not here to reinvent the wheel. We want to gather together what people have learned, share tools that already exist and apply our own knowledge to build tools that everyone can benefit from. We want to create infrastructure that autistic people can use to make their lives better, so they can get on with the business of being happy and do what they want with less stress, less anxiety, and less depression.

Maybe none of this applies to you and you have no need of these services. Brilliant, how did you do it? Enrol now and help others to be where you are. We’re planning on starting a peer mentoring service for autistic people with more life experience to support autistic people with less. We’d love you to take part. We are one people and we need to take care of each other.

Why the name Autistic Empire?

We have spoken to a huge number of autistic people at all levels of society, ability and need. We found that across the spectrum (ahem), people feel bad about being autistic. They have low self-esteem and low mood. Some of this is just the result of minority stress. We want to go in the other direction, to say that you as an autistic person have skills and talents that non-autistic people don’t have, and we think that’s great. You are great. The use of the term empire was to invert the general power dynamic of autistic groups seeking acceptance from a neurotypical society, to an empowered community, moving forward, in command of its own destiny.

Doesn’t the organised autistic community already exist?

It does. But there are also an unknown number of autistic people who live without diagnosis or knowledge of who they are but because they may be employed, in relationships, or otherwise moving through neurotypical society without the “impairment” necessary to be picked up by social or psychiatric services, who have no autistic identity or contact with other autistic people. It is our experience that there are significant numbers of autistic people who are integrated into neurotypical society, who do not consider themslves disabled, but who nonetheless have a feeling that something is “different” about them. Like the LGBT community, many of these people have, on finding out they are autistic, expressed relief to have finally received a conceptual framework and vocabulary for these feelings of difference and to initiate some kind of relationship to the organised community.

We want to identify, reach out to, welcome and integrate these people into our tribe and to create autistic-majority spaces into which they can feel like they belong and from which they can derive benefit. Policy-making for our community, and its financial sustenance, will be impossible as long as a significant segment of our people remain unknown to us. As far as we are aware, the autistic community relies on people who have already been told they are autistic finding them. We want to go find everyone else.

So join us!

Enrolment is open now, and only costs £9 a year!