(I am not deaf, this article was originally a term paper for my American Sign Language class)
Culture is defined as the beliefs, behaviors, objects, and other characteristics common to the members of a particular group or society. Now apparently there is are some arguments over whether or not being deaf or having a disability like autism constitutes a culture. There is definitely a Deaf culture, and even though some people may try to argue against it there is proof in the definition of culture itself. “A culture is generally considered distinct when it has its own unique language, values, behavioral norms, arts, educational institutions, political and social structures, organizations, and “peripherals” like special/unusual possessions.” I am going to explore how autistic people are creating their own culture that is very similar to Deaf culture.
To prove that Autistic culture is just as much a culture as Deaf culture, I would like to go into how it meets the criteria very similarly to how Deaf culture does. While the Autistic community does not have a set language like sign-language, there are common communication methods that are specific to autism. Autistic people have different non-verbal communications, different speech patterns, and other things like picture boards or only typing to communicate. Autistic people also tend to understand other autistic people more than allistic (non-autistic) people. So there may not be a set language, but there ARE communication similarities regardless of which form is used. Autistics people also have their own values and ideas of rights and politics specific to them. They believe, like Deaf people, that what makes them different is what makes them them. They believe not in a “cure” but that Autistic people are whole people as they are, the same as Deaf people. Obviously autistic people have different behavioral norms, although most “behaviors” are actually communications. Autistic people flap, rock, squeal, mimic, fidget, and do all sorts of other things that are considered behaviorally different from other people. There are different schools for autistic people as well, although they are sort of iffy about how good they are, and some are similar to institutions. There are many Autistic run organizations such as the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) and the Autistic Women’s Network (AWN) which fight for rights, education, understanding, and respect. Autistic people also have many “peripherals.” While peripherals for deaf people may be things like video phones and flashing doorbells, one for autistics include communication boards, fidget toys, headphones, special glasses, weighted blankets and other things. Something both communities use are subtitles. By these criteria Autistic culture is just as valid as Deaf culture.
Interestingly enough, Autistic culture actually started out based on Deaf culture, and as such is very similar. Although Autistic culture is about a century behind Deaf culture in terms of movements and recognition, it is still a culture very much alike Deaf culture. The largest starting point behind why Autistics decided to get together and start their own culture and community was for rights and to combat ableism.
To start that discussion about ableism I would like to mention that both deaf and autistic people prefer identity first language. That is, being called an autistic person or a deaf person, not a ‘person with autism.’ While I could not seem to find a written reasoning behind the Deaf community using identity first instead, I would assume it is similar to the reasoning behind the Autistic community. Our (the Autistic community) reasoning is a few thing, the biggest of which being that we have no reason to be ashamed of something that makes up so much of who we are. The other biggest reason is that the people that say we need to use person first language are not us, and say we should use that because we are ‘a person first before our ____.’ The Autistic community is of the mindset that if you need to remind yourself that we are people first, that that is your problem, not ours.
Identity first language leads into Cure-culture. Cure-culture, or the people that want to “fix” or “cure,” are the ones that want everybody to be like everybody else. They are the proponents for conformity and the same people that aim to make people no longer be deaf or autistic, or to at least not appear as such until they can find a “cure” that really is not needed. Oralism, Applied Behavior Analysis ‘therapy’, suppressing “odd” movements or other ways of communication are all parts of cure-culture which both the Autistic and Deaf communities are fighting against. A big part of Autistic culture is taking pride in yourself and your autism, as I know Deaf culture is too.
Another big similarity is feelings and opinions towards family. Family being hearing parents of deaf children or allistic parents of autistic children. It is well known that within both the Autistic and Deaf communities that autistic or deaf kids should be around other children like them, and that if parents have a question about deafness or autism they should ask a deaf or autistic adult, as they personally know what their child is going through. No hearing person can be an expert on deafness just as no allistic person can be an expert on autism, because they do not know what it is like to live with. Deaf children of Deaf parents are in the same boat as Autistic children of Autistic parents in that they both get to grow up in an environment with like individuals that accept them for who they are. They are the lucky ones. A child growing up in a cultural environment of their own will grow up to have better self-esteem and be more successful than a child that feels ostracized.
The Autistic community right now is fighting for their right to be heard and respected, as well as fighting for the right to simply exist. Like the early Deaf culture movements, Autistic people right now are fighting for the right to be seen as whole, valuable people worthy of respect, acceptance, safety and an education. Autistic people also tend to lean more towards the same sort of social ideals as the Deaf community. Autistic people value helping each other more than ourselves, meaning that a triumph for the community as a whole is valued more than a success for an individual. This isn’t to mean that an individual triumph is not important, but simply that the good of the whole is held to a higher standing. We also have similar views on rights for communication. I touched on this slightly before with oralism, but it goes further than that. Both communities are subjected to oralism, as in larger society thinks that everyone must speak spoken languages to be accepted or respected. Similar to how the Deaf community had to fight to be recognized as people that can learn and be successful, right now the Autistic community is fighting to get our people the rights to their own bodies and to be assumed competent, even if it appears we don’t understand or communicate. Like the Deaf community, the Autistic community advocates for communication in a way that come most naturally for a specific person. Whether that be sign language, typing, picture boards, a talker (ipad that talks for you using prompts), or talking, there should not be pressure to only learn a language that does not work for you. Politically, both groups tend to stick up for other marginalized groups as well.
This paper barely touches on all the topics that are similar between the two groups, and I feel like a larger amount of research on both communities and cultures as well as research into disability studies as a whole would result in a massively long paper. It is my hope that this research will show how many similarities there are between Autistic people and Deaf people in the ways we create a community and culture amongst ourselves where we feel more comfortable, stand up for ourselves and our beliefs, and most importantly back each other up if need be. Since there are Deaf Autistic people I hope that maybe the Deaf and Autistic communities can join up in the future to fight for equality (and subtitles for all).
- “Understanding Deafness: Not Everyone Wants to Be Fixed.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2016. <http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/08/understanding-deafness-not-everyone-wants-to-be-fixed/278527/>.
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