After a very much needed period of reflection and detoxification from social networks that was necessary to establish a new routine, this morning a friend had me read an article advertising a beach for autistic children(you can read it here, in Italian: https://tinyurl.com/yc4cpbze).
My stomach-ache started when I read about “children suffering from these ailments”. Nothing has changed, I said to myself, we Autistics must continue to “suffer” in order to be who we are; those differences in the configuration of our nervous system, that make us experience and process reality differently from the majority, MUST necessarily be seen by others as “suffering”.
But the problem lies not in this detail — though I believe it’s important, since it conveys an image of me and people like me as constantly linked to suffering — because it’s the least annoying aspect of the matter. The real problem lies in the initiative itself — which, for the umpteenth time, addresses inclusion and diversity through a completely wrongheaded approach that insists on institutionalizing differences by segregating minorities (Autistics included).
Carmen de Monteflores explains very clearly what “institutionalizing differences” means in the introduction to one of her articles: “When a majority group assumes the power of instituting norms from which minority groups are seen to deviate, differences between these groups become institutionalized. Difference is then perceived as a deficit, or as a failure to meet the standards of the majority. The institutionalization of differences between individuals and between groups creates stereotypes which reduce the full humanity of the individual to a few selected deviant traits. The stereotyping of minority individuals and groups often leads to severe social limitations and to considerable psychological disempowerment.”
I think this “Autistic-kids-only” beach initiative resonates with Monteflores’s description by creating a ghetto in which to lock autistic children. Obviously I don’t question people’s good intentions but, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, so even if the point is to try to help those whom we think are struggling, we risk making things worse. I’ll explain why.
It’s certainly true that we Autistics (not only children but also adults, who tend to disappear from the radar of public interest perhaps because they elicit less tenderness) in most cases need tranquility, silence, and to have few people around in order to relax, and a beach where all this is possible would help us go to the seaside without experiencing sensory and emotional overload. The problem here is the idea that a quieter stretch of beach should be reserved only for Autistic children and not for really anyone who wants to be at peace by the sea.
Initiatives such as this contribute to conveying the time-worn message that a minority, characterized by some differences that are sometimes difficult to manage, and in any case impossible to be folded into that fictitious and absurd idea of normality that the majority likes so much, must be excluded from social life in order to be able to live the way they truly are.
To all who will say that this is better than nothing, I answer yes, perhaps it is, I’m not so superficial as to not understand how many difficulties some families encounter when it comes to going to the beach with children who behave in a way that is clearly different from others, and I know that for many it will also be useful. What discourages me is the establishment of this ghetto, the offer of a solution that is only a tiny band-aid to try to stop the bleeding, and that it’s even seen as a victory. Because it’s not — in fact, it’s a defeat.
A victory would have been an attempt to educate people who consider themselves “normal” to live with differences, to understand them, to consider them without pity or annoyance, perhaps wanting to know more about those individuals who cannot bear confusion and who sometimes have unusual behaviors. Because the only way to make inclusion, the only way to welcome, is not to grant beach corners where autistic people can be themselves without disturbing anyone (and yes, even without being disturbed by those people who are often noisy and intrusive). The only way to include is to realize that differences are everywhere, that normality, understood as social and cultural leveling, is an invention that goes against the reality of things because the human being manifests different characteristics, and these must not be included : they are already present in society.
Initiatives such as this, although they can temporarily alleviate some people’s difficulties, don’t positively affect the social fabric because they don’t push towards change. All individuals who are part of a minority live daily in a world that pushes them to be different from who they really are, a world that observes their behaviors and labels them as right or wrong, as adequate or problematic based on behavioral models that have as sole merit that of being expressions of a numerical majority. But being many doesn’t necessarily mean being right, and history is full of examples in which majorities have transformed a simple numerical advantage into a moral value or a positive quality, crushing differences in part by force.
In addition, for the umpteenth time we missed the opportunity to have Autistics exercise those fundamental rights that others, those who are “normal”, take for granted on a daily basis: the right of self-representation and self-determination. These aren’t big words devoid of substance, but rather refer to the opportunity to decide for oneself and speak in one’s own name and on behalf of one’s own group, concepts that nobody would dream of questioning when referring to non-autistic individuals.
It would have been enough, for once, to involve the primary stakeholders in the creation of the project: to have Autistic folks decide — or at least ask them — what they would like. Instead, as always, concession comes from above, throwing us a little bone, and by the way advertised using inappropriate expressions such as “suffering” from autism or even applying specifically medical terminology, as at the end of the article where it says that “this will allow volunteers to carry out triage easily”. Triage! As if it were an emergency room, a place where one has to evaluate whether the people who go swimming in the ghetto are truly “sick” with autism.
Maybe it was too hard to think about dedicating a stretch of beach to ALL those who want peace and tranquility. Would have it been too much to create a place where anyone — whether Autistic, neurotypical, blond, tall, thin, Down’s Syndrome, gay, heterosexual, anxious, Swedish, Chinese, Italian — could go and relax, avoiding the chaos that predictably reigns on summer beaches?
I’m sorry, but this is not inclusion, that’s something else. Including does not mean hiding differences, relegating them to places where they don’t challenge normality; to include is not to grant little things, which bear no lasting and positive effect on society, but rather increase Autistic people’s feelings of being wrong, unwanted, not created to belong in the world. To include is to look at differences for what they are: differences. To include is to protect, recognize, and enhance the characteristics of each person, to eliminate those physical and social barriers that create disability and exclusion, not to create new ones.
 de Monteflores, C. (1986). Notes on the management of differences. In T. S. Stein & C. J. Cohen (Eds.), Contemporary perspectives on psychotherapy with lesbians and gay men (pp. 73-101). New York: Plenum.
Kindly translated from the Italian by Andrew Dell’Antonio