In a recent Facebook post, someone commented how offended they were by this t-shirt:
Apparently, the shirt is being worn by someone who has an autistic child. Obviously, they are very proud of the shirt! No qualms sharing an image of it, let alone wearing it in public. However, the concern was that people don’t realise the harm in this sort of thing. Do you agree? Before you’re introduced to some reactions from the autistic community, followed by my own heavily biased opinion, do you find it offensive? Take a few minutes of think time…
Oh, you’re back! Well, response from autistic people was overwhelmingly negative. One major concern was the “puzzle pieces” imagery. This has come up again and again. It amazes me that so many of us dislike this design, yet people (NTs?) keep using it again and again to describe us. I guess they – the NTs – like it; perhaps that’s all that counts. Who cares what we think? No –really: who cares?
Another bone of contention is NT’s ignorance regarding autism. I’d like to be diplomatic and question if this “ignorance” is “real” or “perceived”, but I’m afraid that evidence and experience does not support the latter. In the absence of diplomacy, and calling it for what it is, I’ve mentioned this unfortunate “us against them” mentality in social media; but I can understand its origins.
Some autistic people feel NTs come up with things like this t-shirt just to make themselves feel good; they aren’t really interested in helping us at all. Some claim that NTs purposely put forward ideas like this because they don’t want us to be disabled; then we aren’t a “burden” on society. Some of the more outspoken touch on the “overbearing autism parents” camp; outspoken parents who want to “cure” their children of autism, by any means necessary. How do you think that makes us feel? Parents don’t want their children to end up like us! It’s hard for me to fathom that there are parents out there who are against bringing children into the world that will grow up to be like me. Despite all my education, skills, experience and accomplishments, I feel like I’m a target in some sort of fascist regime social cleansing program. Thanks! As if I didn’t have enough to worry about!
Returning to the Facebook comments, others dismiss the t-shirt as “NTs up to their old tricks again”. One of the more original comments I saw mentioned that dabbing is drug related! Is it? Haven’t heard that one before. Did I forget to mention how much I dislike dabbing! All my students used to do it – like a sign of mass conformity. No thought or originality went into it. So, come to think of it, how does THAT represent autism?
Lastly, there were some more moderate contributors who looked at the t-shirt and repeated the mantra: “they meant well.” I’ve noticed that mantra coming up a lot, whenever autistic people try to understand NT’s actions and perceptions. And I suppose you thought this was JUST A T-SHIRT! This goes to show you how sensitive the ASD community is (can you blame us?). Now, as promised, here is my heavily biased opinion of the offending garment.
First off, an admission: I’ve never seen an autism themed t-shirt that I liked – and believe you me, I have searched high and low! I’m a huge printed tee fan. I still have tour shirts from way back in 1987! As I’ve blogged before, shirts can be badges to attract attention and generate conversation. When I see any autism related t-shirt, I always ask the question: was this designed by an autistic person? Looking at the example in this post, my answer is: I hope not! So, what’s wrong with it?
First, the text on this shirt is false. Autism is a disability. This is a well-known fact, supported by the science – but somehow ignored by the person who made the tee. I consider my autism a disability. Acknowledging it as a disability is the first step in overcoming it. Autism is a disability that can be effectively managed and needs to be accommodated in the workplace. Once accommodated, autistic people can outperform their NT colleagues, in my humble opinion – and experience.
Second, as much as I like the Mexican Day of the Dead, why is this the chosen visual theme for autism? Bit dark, isn’t it? Or is that the point? Is this an illusion to our below average life expectancy? It doesn’t help that the media landscape surrounding autism is so negative to begin with. Now we’re represented by skeletons! On the other hand, are the designers trying to say that it’s what’s on the inside that counts – whatever that means! Let’s face it: people always say that, but I’ve seen precious little evidence that it is a guiding principle of contemporary life.
Thirdly, I have an issue with the colour scheme. I’m not one for bright colours in general, but I don’t like the “rainbow” representation of the spectrum. I feel this borrows from the gay rights movement. I’ve blogged before that our “neurodiversity movement” must use past movements as a foundation, but that doesn’t mean we have to copy their ideas. I expect more from us. We should have more original approaches to how we are perceived – not mimicking past efforts. Also, the “spectrum” needs to be reclaimed by the ASD community. Right now, the term is overused and abused. There is this misconception that everyone is on the spectrum. When I hear that, my ignorance alarm goes off. Because a NT has one or two conditions that happen to be on the ASD spectrum does not make them autistic! This really bothers me. It belittles what I go through, to function as an autistic person, and I find it incredibly dismissive. When people struggle to understand something as complicated as autism, they may very well turn to dismissive language like this. This only increases the gap between us, encouraging more “us vs. them”.
Lastly, a general comment on autism and t-shirts – a field ripe for discovery. Throughout my long life, I’ve bought thousands of t-shirts for bands, concerts, films, special events and authors. Believe me when I say that autism t-shirts feature some of THE WORST designs I have ever seen. Why are they so dreadful? They pump them out, one after the other – floundering for an idea that sticks. I recall one Facebook group that, while professing to be a non-profit supporting autism, posted nothing but ASD themed t-shirts for sale. How many did I like? Not one! When I realised they were making fake celebrity endorsements, particularly with a Photoshopped Hugh Jackman wearing their tees, I promptly blocked them. Why Hugh Jackman? Was that an oblique X-Men reference? Great – now we’re venturing into that media representation – autistic “superpowers”? Where is the balance? We are disabled – but we don’t have “superpowers”. Is there a t-shirt for us inbetweeners? I’m a mature, educated, experienced, worldly autistic adult and I’ve yet to find a t-shirt that I’d wear! What does that tell you?
So, what can we learn from this? Is it “just a t-shirt”? Are autistic people overreacting? I would say we aren’t. This is a mass produced product that people will wear proudly around the streets, publically displaying their ignorance. Ignorance of what, you ask? Well, everything we have been through and are going through now. Our personal struggles; autism is a very personal disability, perhaps hidden away and invisible to many. Each of us is completely different. You can’t sum us up with a logo and a catchy phrase. We think outside the box, so don’t put us into one. I think if autism themed t-shirts simply must exist, they should be created by an autistic person and worn only by that person. In fact, I need to stop blogging now and design my own t-shirt. Practice what you preach!