My kids have become slightly obsessed lately with Free to Be… You and Me, the Ms. Foundation’s 1972 book / album / TV special. I have not discouraged this obsession because when I was a kid I liked these stories and songs for their own sake, without much conscious analysis of the message.
Free to Be… You and Me is all about being comfortable with your identity, as long as your identity is entirely defined by your place on a one-dimensional gender continuum: it’s OK to be a boy who cries or a girl who plays sports and doesn’t marry. It has nothing at all to say about being OK with your sexuality, race, class, ethnicity, ability/disability, or neurology. And it’s hard to read or sing it to my kids now without thinking about all the things it leaves out.
“Mommies can be almost anything they wanna be. (They can’t be grandpas, or daddies).”
I suppose an acknowledgment that transgendered people exist is too much to ask of a children’s book published during the Nixon administration. But each time I sing this song to the kids while reading along in the book, my son asks why I skip the line (They can’t be grandpas, or daddies), and I fumble through an explanation about some people being called boys but they don’t really feel like boys on the inside… and usually end up just drifting off awkwardly before skipping to the next verse. My kids are 2 and almost 4, and their understanding of gender identity at this point is limited to occasional questions about whether or not ______ (insert name of person, snack food, or home appliance) has a buh-gina.
Of course, I can’t depend on a children’s book to cover all of this. And I am grateful for the parts that Free to Be… You and Me got right. My kids have never even heard anyone say “dolls are for girls” or “boys don’t cry” outside of this book, and I know I have second-wave feminists to thank for that. Our culture has changed in the last 40 years — not because of the book, but because of the social movement that created it. The magnitude of that cultural shift is apparent when I notice how tame and outdated much of the content in Free to Be… You and Me sounds today, no matter how radical it may have seemed in 1972.
The Neurodiversity movement is just gathering steam, and has a long road ahead of it before it produces a Free to Be… You and Me of its own. Autistic activists are still fighting for some pretty basic things (such as universal recognition of their humanity and right to live in dignity), and they’re starting in a much deeper hole than the white middle class women who were the primary beneficiaries of the relaxation of gender role enforcement of the 1960s.
November 1 is the second annual Autistics Speaking Day. The event is both catalyst and distribution channel for a new body of writing about what it’s like to be autistic. The participating writers and activists are building a civil rights movement, and they’re also stockpiling cultural capital in the form of blog posts, books, interviews, art, videos, music, and comics. Some of them will, without question, write the Free to Be… You and Me of the Neurodiversity movement one day. But most of them have bigger things on their plates right now, like fighting for the right to self-determination; or advocating for access to employment and housing and medical care and education.
Like every other movement for civil rights, the Neurodiversity movement will make progress over time. One of the best things that I got out of the Parent/Self-Advocate Dialogues hosted last month by the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism was a list of concrete things that neurotypical parents can do to be allies to that movement and make sure that progress happens sooner:
- Make it our job to learn about autism. Avoid assumptions. Ask questions.
- Remember that behavior is communication. It is just as important for us to learn our children’s language as it is to teach them ours. When neurotypical people engage in conversation with someone with a communication disorder; the burden should be on us to meet them more than halfway to make communication work.
- After we listen to and absorb what autistic people have to say, boost the signal. Demand a seat at the table for autistic adults when we participate in disability rights organizations. Don’t sit back and allow parent voices to dominate.
- Correct misinformation and stereotypes about autism and autistic people every time we have the opportunity.
- Identify and work consciously to eliminate ableist thought patterns and language.
- Question autism therapies for our children, and reject any that prioritize modifying our children’s behavior only to increase the comfort of neurotypical people.
Some of my favorite posts by autistic writers (writing not connected to Autistics Speaking Day)
- The Self-Advocate/Parent Dialogues, Day 8 by Amanda Forest Vivian
- Why I Dislike Person First Language by Jim Sinclair
- Neurodiversity, Self-Determination, and the Magic Pill by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
- Don’t Mourn For Us by Jim Sinclair
- Am I More Than My Autism? I Refuse to Answer the Question by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
- Dear “Autism Parents” by Julia Bascom
- Quiet Hands by Julia Bascom
- Speaking My Mind and Heart by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
- Autistics Speak Day by Kassiane Sibley
- Autistics Speaking Day Post by Amanda Forest Vivian
- Autistics Speaking Day 2010 by Elesia Aschkenasy
- Reflections on Autistics Speaking Day by Ari Ne’eman
- ASD: Autistics Speaking Day by Melody Latimer
- Autistic Speaking Out Loud by Corina Lynn Becker