Gatekeeping actually makes the autism community less of a safe place

autism community gatekeeping Essy Knopf
Reading time: 5 minutes

Living within an ableist society, autistic folk often experienced marginalization. But to experience it within the autism community is not something most of us would expect.

Consider the many young autistic individuals who go in search of others like themselves on social media.

Some reach out in the hopes of finding community, only to have a total stranger blast them for using terminology some have deemed inappropriate.

Any sense of belonging and acceptance this young person might have found is suddenly withdrawn the moment they express themselves.

This was my experience, and one I believe is shared by many. The policing of the autistic identity is a very real phenomenon, and one I think requires further discussion.

The people responsible for this behavior—I’m going to call them “gatekeepers”—have a tendency to treat our community as monolithic.

According to these gatekeepers, only their worldview is endorsed, while all others are incorrect and subject to harsh criticism.

Knowing that one could be punished by such folk for speaking “out of turn” creates a chilling effect in online discussions. And so it’s the voices of the gatekeepers that usually end up being the loudest—to the exclusion of all others.

Some disclaimers

I want to make it clear that many advocates within the autism community do important work. And I’d like to believe that most of them are motivated by genuine compassion. 

Yet the gatekeeping approach to advocacy raises a number of concerns, some of which I’ll touch upon shortly.

Full disclosure: I am speaking today as someone who is autistic. Any opinions I share here are entirely my own.

I acknowledge that my ability to speak out in the first place is a privilege. Not everyone in our community enjoys this privilege, for reasons I’ll go into later.

I also want to acknowledge that autistic folk as a group have been marginalized and oppressed throughout history.

Widespread ableism means that the status quo largely exists to serve the interests of neurotypicals. This is why challenging the status quo and fighting for autistic empowerment are so important. 

Gatekeeping in the autism community feeds toxic shame

That said, I believe gatekeepers often challenge for the sake of challenging in and of itself. What doesn’t help is that the manner in which such challenges are performed is usually dogmatic, if not militant

Gatekeepers thus appoint themselves the authority, defining what is “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong” for everyone else.

Typically, they take a very strong stand on hot-button topics, like the use of person-first language, the term “Asperger”, or the pathologizing of autism as a disorder.

Yes, these are important topics worthy of discussion. And yet discussion can’t happen so long as one party feels they have a monopoly on the truth, as gatekeepers so often do.

Believing in their own righteousness, many gatekeepers will label those who disagree with them as ignorant, ableist, and oppressive.

Demonizing people in this fashion creates shame. In the words of Brené Brown:

Shame is the fear of disconnection—it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging, or connection.

Nobody likes to feel this way. Everyone—and I mean everyone—wants to feel worthy of love and belonging. 

Worse still, if the intention of gatekeepers is to create shape, when they shame others, they undermine their capacity for change. As Brown goes on to explain:

“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we can change and do better… In fact, shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructive and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.”

There is a history of neurotypicals weaponizing shame against autistic folk. So when autistic folk neurotypicals and other autistics, it is—to say the very least—problematic.

Gatekeeping drowns out other voices

Gatekeepers claim there is a consensus within the autism community, one again that usually aligns with their own personal beliefs. 

But in fact, no such consensus exists. The community comprises diverse individuals who identify and express themselves in a variety of ways.

No one has the right to speak for every member, just as no one has the right to silence those who don’t agree with their points of view.

One example of this is when gatekeepers whitewash autism, painting it exclusively as a positive while failing to acknowledge that it may be experienced by others with mixed feelings, or as a negative.

Similarly, many gatekeepers frame autism as a mere social challenge caused by systemic ableism. This social model of autism has been adopted as an alternative to the medical model, which has sometimes been used to oppress autistic folk.

But romanticizing autism in this fashion dismisses the reality of those individuals who experience autism as a debilitating disability. 

Likewise, gatekeepers who insist that autism is an intrinsic part of our identity fail to admit that this isn’t the case for everyone.

By dominating discussions about autism, gatekeepers fail to hold a space for other community members, and even compromise their right to self-expression.

Gatekeeping ignores privilege

What a lot of gatekeepers don’t realize is the ability to advocate is a privilege not all autistic folk get to enjoy.

For example, many individuals on the spectrum experience some form of intellectual disability and/or are nonspeaking. 

These individuals may not have the opportunity to express how they feel. And so, their wishes go unheard, and their needs unmet. 

If the inclusion of all autistic individuals is our priority as a community, why then are so many of us assuming the right to speak for others? 

Again, by virtue of being the loudest, gatekeepers get to decide what issues receive the most attention.

Their advantages allow them to privilege their own voices, rather than elevating those of the underprivileged.

Gatekeeping undermines coalition-building

The final issue I want to address is the “us vs. them” attitude gatekeepers take towards the medical community and parents of autistic folk.

The history of autism at the hands of the establishment is a dark one indeed. One only needs to look at how horrifically neurodiverse individuals were treated during the Nazi regime to understand why suspicion of medical authorities endures even today.

Still, the sweeping narrative by gatekeepers claiming all researchers want to “cure” autism—an action compared to eugenics—is a smear campaign.

Consider those autistic individuals living in full-time care who are prone to frequent seizures, meltdowns, self-injury, and violence. They undoubtedly experience autism in a way that differs vastly from that of privileged gatekeepers.

Many researchers are working to enhance quality of life for such individuals, and yet gatekeepers continue to accuse these professionals of endorsing ableism.

Similarly, when desperate parents of autistic folk reach out to the community seeking understanding, insight, and support, often they are shut down and declared the enemy.

Instead of building coalitions with community allies, gatekeepers sideline them.

Gatekeeping is not social justice

Gatekeepers believe themselves to be part of a social justice movement. But there can be no justice so long as one party assumes the moral high ground, dominates the discourse, and bullies both allies and autistics alike.

I gave up my previous career to enter social work with the hope of serving my community. 

Yet I’m troubled by the knowledge that should I ever fail to measure up to the demands made by autism gatekeepers, I’ll be treated to judgment and shaming. 

This leads me to wonder, are these individuals truly invested in serving the autism community? Or are they just perpetuating the trauma that was done to them?

Yes, words such as those gatekeepers often take issue with can be oppressive. But when they themselves use words in oppressive ways, there is no mutual understanding, no dialogue, no positive change.

There is only a Twitter argument. And what, really, have we then accomplished?

Wrap up

Have you experienced some form of autism gatekeeping? Or do you completely disagree with my argument? Let me know in the comments.

Be kind. Stop the oppressive cycle of internalized gay shame.

Essy Knopf gay men masking shame with contempt
Reading time: 6 minutes

My lack of body coordination has always been a painful fact, evoking a gay shame that stems from my school years. 

Raised in the stoic, sports-oriented culture of Australia, I often felt that my value as a male – at least in the eyes of my peers – was ultimately tied to my athletic prowess and sexuality.

It was not until my diagnosis with Asperger syndrome (autism) at age 26 that I found myself able to shrug off the feelings of masculine “inferiority” that had dogged me for so long.

Where previously I’d treated sports as a high-risk arena for failure, I now decided to turn this arena into a sandpit of experimentation.

After dabbling in cycling ended with me lodged in a stranger’s windshield, I turned to kickboxing instead.

While waiting for classes to begin, I’d watch the invite-only advanced members amble out of the ring, self-assured in a way I could never hope to be. 

Coveting the brass ring corroded my enthusiasm. All it took was one badly aimed kick landing in a stranger’s family jewels for me to decide to pack it in.

Judgment and toxic masculinity

My next stop was an LGBTQ+ recreational dodgeball league. Despite being a lousy aim and an easy mark, I was determined to commit to at least one season of play.

My team members proved for the most part friendly. Longtime players seemed unsparing in their support of newcomers, doling out praise and tips. 

But what had begun as something casual very quickly into an exercise in extreme competitiveness, as gay judgmentalism – normally grounded in the assessment of other’s physicality – now found focus in player’s on-court capabilities.

It was present in how some league members ignored friendly overtures, in the way cliques closed ranks upon approach.

I witnessed team captains actively scouting games and handpicking members, choosing some while excluding others. Never mind that this was a recreational league.

Worse still, players would yell at one another for failing to catch balls. While dodging one ball, I found myself on the receiving end of a rude shove from another team member.

Then there were the players who strutted about with an air of superiority, engaging in dizzying displays of skill and berating first-time players for not knowing the rules. 

The behavior grew more ugly from there. Some players flagrantly defied the rules while the coaches weren’t watching, refusing to take their “outs” as if it were a matter of survival.

This inevitably led to verbal clashes, taunting, and the exchange of obscenities. Par for the course with any competitive sport – and yet an LGBTQ+ league was the last place I’d ever hoped to endure toxic masculinity.

Some people, it seemed, were replaying far older battles, where the stakes weren’t so much team ranking, as they were self-worth

essy knopf gay shame self compassion

A secret legacy of gay shame

In any LGBTQ+ sports league, there’s always an argument to be made for the commonality of our struggles.

As many of us have endured exclusion and bullying over our sexuality in the past, this is probably the last thing any of us would want to inflict upon others. So why does it continue to happen?

Society historically has regarded gay men with contempt, constructing our sexuality as either a despicable choice, a weakness of character, or a moral flaw.

Our way of coping with this atmosphere of psychological, social, and even physical danger according to The Velvet Rage author Alan Downs is by adapting, chameleon-like, to our surroundings.

We conceal visible expressions of our gay identity, such as our interest in members of the same sex. And we suppress expressions of traditionally “feminine” traits, such as emotional vulnerability, while muting our authentic selves.

In short, we make ourselves more acceptable to others, at the expense of our own wholeness. And in so doing, we internalize others’ judgment.

Being told our “perversity” is a choice, and believing this not to be the case, we are faced with an internal dispute. We find ourselves harboring what feels like a terrible secret. Other’s contempt thus becomes our shame.

As young adults emerging from the repressive social environments of our childhood, we may leap headlong into expressions and declarations of self-acceptance; “wrapping ourselves in the gay flag”, as it were.

Such expressions and declarations however represent a destination that can only be reached after a certain internal journey requiring some degree of excavation, examination, and healing.

As Brené Brown explains in The Gifts of Imperfection, “Shame needs three things to grow out of control in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment. When something shaming happens and we keep it locked up, it festers and grows. It consumes us”.

Gay shame, when left unaddressed, may even find expression, contrarily, in the form of more contempt.

essy knopf gay shape self-compassion

Calling out shame

The behavior I witnessed – the exclusion, the general disrespect towards others, and the desire to win at all costs – meant that old traumas were being exhumed.

It also meant that players who had once themselves been oppressed were now unwittingly assuming the role of the oppressor, perpetuating a cycle of gay shame.

It’s possible in saying this, I may be projecting my own internalized gay shame. As someone who was usually the last to be picked for any school team, I’ve grown especially sensitive to situations that drive home old beliefs in my being deficient in “masculinity”.

But even if I wasn’t merely indulging my insecurities, I was certainly within my rights to be hurt by how I was treated, and how I saw others being treated.

This left me with two choices: either remain in the league and try to ignore the toxicity or quit a potentially shame-triggering situation. 

Then again, quitting hardly guaranteed complete freedom from the contempt of other gay men.

Self-compassion heals gay shame

When faced with feelings of shame, inadequacy, and inferiority, we adopt one of three tactics: we don the armor of grandiosity as compensation, we crumple, or we employ self-compassion.

To quote eighth century Indian Buddhist monk Shantideva:

Where would there be leather enough to cover the entire world? With just the leather of my sandals, it is as if the whole world were covered. Likewise, I am unable to restrain external phenomena, but I shall restrain my own mind. What need is there to restrain anything else?

Thus, rather than attempting to soften all the world’s painful surfaces, we would be better served by accepting the sensitivity of our figurative feet and finding more practical ways of protecting them.

We do this firstly through self-compassionate inquiry. In the words of Buddhist Pema Chödrön, if we are to attain a new, more empowering view of our suffering, we must embark upon “a process of acknowledging our aversions and our cravings”,

(becoming) familiar with the strategies and beliefs we use to build the walls: What are the stories I tell myself? What repels me and what attracts me? … We can observe ourselves with humor, not getting overly serious, moralistic, or uptight about this investigation.

Having put a name to what I was feeling in the dodgeball league, I was now able to pay attention to the script it was activating and to query its accuracy. 

Hardening into anger, or adopting rigid convictions about other people would not serve me. What then was the alternative?

By abandoning my fixed conception of reality, of right and wrong, by leaning into the discomfort, I could learn to be truly present with my own feelings about the situation.

Being present enabled me in turn to self-soothe, an action Self-Compassion author Kristin Neff says is crucial to the process of healing.

The peace of mind ultimately arrived at was a natural outgrowth of such self-compassion. In my case, that transition was facilitated with the guidance and insights of a therapist.

essy knopf inner critic victor frankl

Using kindness and humor to defeat shame

Pema Chödrön’s suggestion of employing humor when investigating your own patterns of thinking can be particularly helpful, at least where shame is concerned. 

Humor can help dissolve armor and deflate puffed-up defenses. But humor is only possible once we learn to recognize our cognitive and behavioral scripts as they are being activated.

Confronted by subtle and oftentimes not-so-subtle expressions of contempt from other dodgeball players, my instinct was either flee or fight.

On one hand, they could be viewed as reasonable coping strategies. But on the other, they offered no true grounding against these perceived threats. What was required here was the development of resiliency: the ability to tolerate, rather than avoid, adversity.

So I began to actively laugh off my own mistakes, gently poking fun at other’s egotism or aggression, while striving to show others the generosity of spirit I’d witnessed in the more seasoned players.

In cultivating inward and outward kindness, I found myself forging friendships with other players that served as a bulwark against the toxicity surrounding us.

When I eventually decided to quit the league six months later, it was motivated not by anger or hurt over the conduct of others, but by an on-court injury.

This accident aside, looking back, I realized my decision to remain in the league was a kind of victory. No – I hadn’t mastered the game. And no – the demons of childhood past remained.

Rather, what I had achieved was the greatest freedom that a person can desire. Namely, the freedom of learning to let go.

Takeaways

  • Identify “shame scripts”.
  • Practice self-compassion.
  • Use kindness and humor.