This article was co-authored by David Gray-Hammond and Katie Munday
Trigger Warning: This article contains references to systemic and structural oppression, multiple marginalisation, and negative wellbeing and identity.
Ableism is prevalent in the wider world, but something that we often don’t consider is the ableist views we hold about ourselves. It is inevitable that after spending our lives surrounded by normative culture, we become conditioned to view ourselves as broken, deficient, or less than. Despite being able to share compassion with others, we still harbour overtly bigoted views towards ourselves.
We internalise the harmful things said to us by our peers and professionals – sometimes even partners and friends. We take them all in and think less of ourselves and we begin to believe that there is something wrong with us.
It is clear that our interactions with other people play a significant role in the development of our sense of Self. Our identity is constructed by interactions with people in our environment, as noted in the golden equation from Luke Beardon:
Autism + Environment = Outcome
When Autistic people are in an environment that constantly belittles and mistreats us for our Autistic embodiment, the materials that we can access to construct ourselves are often self-deprecating.
How does one dismantle a lifetime of criticism and negative views arising from those experiences? First we have to understand the impact that said criticism has had on our psychological wellbeing. We have to recognise the neutrality of human thought, we have to learn that not all thoughts we have are reflective of who we are. It is possible to have negative thoughts without judging them as an indictment on our character. Once we begin to do this we are able to replace the criticisms with authenticity; a refusal to be ashamed of our embodiment. Perhaps, then, this is where neuroqueering comes into play.
It’s important to note the privilege at play when people are safe to queer their neurology. Authentic embodiment of Autistic experience can cost people their lives and their freedom in the wrong environment. Whether we care to admit it or not, not all Autistics are born equal in this society. Many Autistic people are multiply marginalised, and experience more than “just” disability discrimination.
One might ask whether or not neuroqueering is a physical act, or something that can be achieved in the mind. Many of us are at peace with ourselves whilst not openly confessing our Autistic experience. This reflects more on the environments that we inhabit than how we feel about ourselves. We can be proudly Autistic whilst understanding that not all environments are safe to authentically embody those experiences.
We also have to consider the role that the pathology paradigm plays in the existence of neuroqueering. The pathologisation and medicalisation of Autistic experience is the driving force behind most (if not all) of the ableism that we experience day-to-day. The idea that people who do not fit cultural standards of “normal” are broken, has not only created the mistreatment we experience; it also necessitated the existence of a counter-culture- neuroqueering.
How does neuroqueering change our perception of ourselves?
Neuroqueering can involve leaning into our weirdness, regardless of other’s opinions. It can also be radical self-acceptance and showing love to the parts of our Self that others have mistreated and abused. Not only does this allow us to reclaim the narrative surrounding our existence, it also gives us permission to take up the space that we have been conditioned to believe we are not entitled to.
Neuroqueer theory teaches us that assimilation denies us access to ourselves, and thus, denies access to the communities (or environments) that will help us meet our need for connection. Only by being our authentic selves can we find similar others and share in reciprocal validation. Neuroqueering dismantles internalised ableism, and the oppressive structures that have been built in our minds by others. It is a practice which champions diversity whilst appreciating that many of us still need support.
Neuroqueering politicises the nature of disability, centering us as the individuals in control of our own lives. Control that many of us are denied for being authentically Autistic. It allows us to appreciate the aforementioned neutrality of our existence through the lens of pride, and the refusal to be ashamed. It recognises that reduced wellbeing is the result of systemic oppression, and a chronic lack of access.