Today, I went to The Autism Show in London for the first time. I didn’t know about it until recently, and I was excited – whilst we autistic people have built ourselves spaces online, like the #actuallyautistic tag on various social media sites, it’s rare for that to translate into the physical world. I wasn’t expecting perfection, of course, but I was expecting something that welcomed and celebrated autistic people.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed. On multiple levels.
Imagine, if you will, something called “The Women Show”. Then imagine that most of the resources and stands at it aren’t aimed at women, but instead aimed at ‘helping men deal with the women in their life’. That’s what it felt like to me as an autistic person at The Autism Show.
It wasn’t for us. It was for parents, and families, and pretty much anyone tangentially related to autism – except us. Yet again, we’ve been excluded from our own lives.
There were some stands, like the Autism UK stand (edit: not actually a stand from them, but they were present at the Autism Meets stand), which were aimed at us as well as parents. Aside from that one and one or two others, though, most of the stands and talks… just weren’t for us.
Obviously, I’m only one autistic person. Other autistics might have a different opinion on the show, and that’s fine. But for me? There was a definite sense of alienation, of othering. A sense of ‘this show, with your label on it, isn’t for you. It’s about you’.
The literature handed out as you enter doesn’t help. On the first page of the programme, there’s a welcome letter. In this welcome letter, it’s assumed that you are a parent or otherwise allistic. It talks about “your child”, “how you can help” autistic people. There’s no consideration for the idea that actually, you might be an autistic person, coming to an event that’s about you. You’re also handed things like the magazine Autism Eye. I hadn’t heard of this before going to The Autism Show, but a quick flick through confirmed the concerns the front cover raised. In the introductory letter, the magazine claims to be “the only ones raising the issue of the abuse of chill-out rooms in schools”. What about the autistic adults who must have been involved in this? Continuing through the magazine, it was very much by parents, for parents, with little to no consideration of autistic people. The adverts alone were telling – they ranged from adverts for schools, aimed at parents, to an advert talking about ‘leaky gut’, a non-existent condition, and ‘recovery’ from being autistic.
And then there’s the ABA. For those who don’t know, ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis) is a supposed treatment for autistic traits. However, many autistic people who have undergone it have spoken out about the fact that ABA is essentially abusive compliance training; here’s a few links. The Autism Show had talks promoting ABA from behavioural analysts, and stalls from the same. The only place an alternative view was offered was at the Autism UK stand, where their literature included articles on why ABA is harmful.
Going into the sensory resources offered at the show, these were in the minority. Most of the stands were various schools, organisations aimed at parents, and the aforementioned ABA stalls. The few sensory resources were targeted very clearly at children – or rather, at their parents. The assumption seemed to be that autistic people wouldn’t be present, or wouldn’t be buying these things for themselves – only parents and other relatives or educators would be. Whilst resources for autistic children are needed, what so many events like this seem to forget is that autistic children grow up into autistic adults. We don’t vanish when we reach adulthood.
That’s the key thing about this show, and the sense of alienation I felt. Autistic adults exist. But we were hardly acknowledged. There were some autistic adults giving talks, so that’s at least progress. But overall? If you’re going to call something The Autism Show, I – and probably other autistics – would appreciate it if it were aimed at autistic people as much as at others.