For this year's Autistic Acceptance Month, Autistics United Fort McMurray chapter organizer Christopher Whelan has written a series of short essays on autistic rights. We have selected a few of our favourites to share!
[Image description: Overhead shot of six disabled people of color at a rooftop deck party. An Indigenous Two-Spirit person with a prosthetic leg smiles directly at the camera and gives a thumbs up while everyone else is engaged in conversation.] Photo from Disabled and Here.
Promote Neurodivergent Peer Support & Advocacy Groups
A neurodivergent sharing circle is a place where neurodivergent people can learn to slowly unmask and grow into our natural selves. It is a place of acceptance, kindness, and celebration of who we are. It is a place where we do not need to keep track of unwritten social rules, follow cues, or pretend to be somebody who we are not.
When a group facilitator works to ensure that everybody has a chance to speak, uninterrupted, it can be a place where everybody has a chance to tell their own story, from their own perspective. When we are allowed to share this way without interjection from others, and be heard by people with similar experiences, it develops a bond of community between the sharer and the listeners that is not found outside of the circle. When we are accepted by others, we learn to accept ourselves. When we are loved by others, we learn to love ourselves.
Neurodivergent sharing circles are critical supports for mental health and community integration. Normally, outside of our homes, we have to behave a certain way and follow unknowable social rules in order to be accepted. Acceptance and love in typical community spaces like workplaces and businesses is conditional on following these behaviours we did not come up with or agree upon. We have to wear a mask and pretend to be a different person in order to receive this conditional acceptance. Wear the mask for too long, and you begin to feel that all love is conditional, and all acceptance is conditional. We begin to feel that our real selves are unacceptable and unlovable. When you believe that you are broken and unlovable, that is the cause of addiction, self-harm, and suicide. But when you are in a space where love and acceptance are given to you without condition, then good mental health follows.
These circles are also important for the perpetuation of disability culture, and the sharing of our history and values. In society, disability is seen as something that is experienced alone, and that being disabled makes you the “other”, and an unacceptable burden to the abled people around you. But disability is a communal experience, not an individual experience. Even if we exist on a spectrum, we have similar social experiences of being excluded or made to feel unworthy because we were disabled. Or that we had to hide who we were in order to be accepted. Linking our experiences together in the sharing circle transitions the individual story to the story of us all.
When you share your story, and the challenges that you face, people who have experienced or are experiencing what you are going through can offer guidance on what can be done to build strength and support. Disability elders, who have lived with disability for a long time, can guide disabled youth on what they did when faced with adversity. People in the sharing circle often develop friendships, and check in on each other to ensure that everyone is well and adequately supported.
When a communal story of disability identifies a common barrier that members face, then the whole circle can advocate together for an official response to the barrier faced. The circle can bring testimony based on multiple lived experiences to politicians and community leaders, as the voice of many speaking together is stronger than one voice alone. Instead of relying on advocates who do not have lived experience to bring disability issues forward, a whole community of people with lived experience can offer accurate, cohesive solutions that benefit disabled people to those leaders who can make the change.
We ask that communities and disability services create space for neurodivergent sharing circles to take place. We ask that neurodivergent sharing circles become recognized as essential mental health supports. And we ask that these sharing circles remain by-us and for-us, lead by neurodivergent people, with all people holding equal status and equal authority in the circle.
Other select essays:
Christopher Whelan is an autistic social worker living and working in his home community of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Christopher is a founder of Neurodiversity YMM and Autistics United Fort McMurray – Cree, Dene, Dane-zaa, & Métis Territory. After months of consultation with autistic self-advocates, Christopher published The 95 Theses of Neurodiversity in April 2020. You can read more of his work on his blog, AutisticRights.net.