Battling ableism: Standing up for autistic rights on the job
A 2009 protest against Autism Speaks in Ohio. | Autistic Self-Advocacy Network

This month, as I have done for seven summers now, I’m participating in the annual summer camp held by the Joshua Center for Neurological Disorders. And while, as a young adult, my responsibilities have shifted from simply frolicking in the sun to include the daily work that keeps the camp running deep in the woods, this will still be a time of nostalgic bliss—a time to see old friends, distant from the concerns of the world.

For many of us who attend this camp, those concerns include workplace discrimination and underemployment simply because we are neurodivergents.

Last August, I was elated to have been accepted into a Bachelor of Science program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City—a program I recently left. While this was a complex decision, a major factor was the university’s relentless systemic discrimination against autistic people, such as myself. Millions of dollars annually are spent on the school’s various athletics programs, while counseling and disability services go critically underfunded. Over the past several years, autistic students have attempted to organize on at least three occasions, with the University directly intervening to dissolve each student organization. The net effect is fragmentation and alienation of the autistic community.

Some would claim these patterns of oppression are inherent in autism itself, that we are somehow “mysterious and frightening.” These tropes find their way into the cultish environment of “parent support groups,” where, without bothering to ask our input, our own families immerse themselves in echo chambers of their own self-pity for our existence. The false and harmful ideas that we cannot make our own decisions, that medical treatment is the sole determiner of our success, and that we are prone to childish and violent outbursts for petty reasons—and thus must be “controlled”—permeate society. We are raised on them. It is placed on us to discover our own human decency, and then to fight for it.

It’s little wonder then that we are systemically underemployed! I have four friends, whom I shall call Morty, Greta, Jeff, and Ronda. Morty and Greta were both employed by the same local fast-food restaurant. Morty has ADHD and Tourette’s; Greta has Asperger’s and Epilepsy. Both were fired under questionable circumstances.

Ronda holds a Bachelor of Science in Biology. She was turned down from veterinary school because “her hands were too shaky to perform surgery” (she has a hand tic as part of her autism). She is one of the most resilient people I have ever met; she has worked multiple blue-collar jobs for which she is overqualified but which were the only jobs which would hire her. More often than not, she has been unemployed. Nevertheless, she persists in her job search.

Ronda’s humility is immense. You wouldn’t know from just one conversation, but she is a survivor of suicidal depression. So is Jeff, who carries a semicolon tattoo on his hand. And so am I. And so are disproportionately many autistic people, as an effect of our dehumanizing and disenfranchising oppression.

When we fight for autism rights, we are fighting for our continued existence. Against our dehumanization. Against a “cure,” which is a dogwhistle for ableist eugenics. And against the systems that push so many of us to poverty and suicide.

Autistic Self-Advocacy Network was founded in the 1990s—before my birth, in a time we autistics cringe at the memory of—to be a platform for our voice in this fight. The motto “Nothing about us without us” has taken hold in the disability rights community as a whole. I joined ASAN at around the same time as I joined the Communist Party USA, and for similar reasons—to advocate for the humanity of all, when the status quo favors the opposite.

My experience as an autistic person in Overland Park, Kan., has been, believe it or not, one of great privilege. The Blue Valley School District, which I attended for middle and high school, is one of particular affluence—and one which takes great pride in its special education programs. As a high school special education student, I had the resources to excel and be my own voice—which most students like me would not have had. I will always hold precious memories from that time, while I may have held fearsome memories had I graduated from another school district. This is one of the reasons why Overland Park is often considered one of the most disability-friendly places in the United States to live.

Contrast this with the Judge Rotenberg Center, of #StopTheShock infamy. Located in Massachusetts, this facility uses electric shock devices to punish its detainees for socially undesirable acts—including stimming. The method—Applied Behavioral Analysis—is a torturous and dehumanizing version of Skinner’s operant conditioning, with the goal of enforcing neurotypical norms upon autistic people. Indeed, for one victim, a cry of “Somebody help me!” was marked as “severe disruptive behavior.”

Force is used to keep us in line not only in medical facilities but throughout society, including by law enforcement. It shouldn’t be necessary for me to point out the inherent brutality of the police—an institution which exists to enforce the power structure of society and “protect” capital from workers. But the police are especially to be feared by neurodivergents—who are disproportionately subjected to acts of excessive force committed by police. This is a point of intersectional unity with other marginalized groups who face increased police brutality; we have a shared interest with the immigrant and black communities, for instance.

Communists also have such a history. Across Latin America, they have been killed in CIA-sponsored coups, while the world has ignored or praised these acts of aggression. The people of Vietnam saw their country carpet-bombed, and old, racist tropes used to victim-blame them for their condition. And right here in the United States, the horrible legacies of McCarthyism and COINTELPRO live on by other means.

I will see Morty, Greta, Jeff, and Ronda at camp. That’s our community—our escape from systemic ableism. The one we fought and resisted a whole year’s worth of ableism to get to. And the one that reminds us what we’re fighting for.


Jackson Connors
Jackson Connors

Jackson Conners holds an Associate of Arts in liberal arts from Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas, where he served on the Accessibility Committee of the Student Senate. During the 2018 mid-term elections, he volunteered for two campaigns in the Kansas City area. He is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Astrophysics, while advocating for socialism and intersectionality with neurodiversity.