SPECIALISTERNE NETWORK

International Specialisterne Community

Specialisterne Canada

Specialisterne Canada Inc., a charitable not-for-profit Canadian organization, focused on building a bridge between neurodivergent job seekers and employers. We support employers to tap into the talents of a neurodiverse workforce and build inclusive organizations through education, training, and advisory.

Specialisterne Foundation

Specialisterne Foundation is a non-for-profit organization that works to enable one million jobs for people with autism and similar challenges.

Written by Fabrizio Acanfora and Montse Bizarro

In 1989, in the article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex“[1], Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the term “intersectionality” to describe how multiple identities such as ethnicity, gender, and social class overlap, creating unique experiences of oppression, discrimination, and privilege. Her critique was also directed at the feminist movement, which often ignored the specific issues faced by black women who experience discrimination not only as women but also as black individuals.

This reflection leads us to consider how our minds tend to divide the world into discrete categories. It is a cognitive necessity, essential for understanding reality. However, the categories created by desire or necessity should be distinct from reality, where they constantly intersect, without such clear boundaries, sometimes becoming unrecognizable. We must recognize that categories are artificial constructs and simplifications; ignoring this, prejudices any discussion about diversity, preventing the understanding of a complex reality. Diversity is, by nature, intersectional and fluid, and cannot be fully understood through rigid models that exclude those who do not fit perfectly.

To understand the variability that also characterizes our species, it is essential to avoid moral judgments about human categories and to observe their intersections and overlaps, recognizing that a person can belong to multiple groups simultaneously. For example, a person can be autistic, homosexual, an immigrant, and Black.

Not considering intersectionality means denying the person’s complexity, reducing the human experience to a single dimension, and flattening it. This concept is not exclusive; it does not take anything away from anyone or impose abandoning one’s identity. On the contrary, it is a more precise way of describing reality; it is the search for intersections rather than divisions.

From a social and political standpoint, the concept of intersectionality is a fundamental tool for combating discrimination, reclaiming equality of rights and opportunities, and reducing disadvantages on one side and privileges on the other. It is a tool for understanding the power imbalances underlying exclusion and social injustices and promoting a fairer society for everyone.

Intersectionality is not simply an option but a necessity for understanding and respecting diversity, the richness of human variety. Recognizing and considering the intersections of our identities and the oppressions that often stem from them is the first step toward a world where every person can fully express their being within a community that recognizes the value of difference.

Intersection of Other Oppressions

There are some specific discriminations closely related to being autistic. This does not mean that all autistic people experience them, but there is a higher probability of belonging (temporarily or not) to one of these oppressed categories. This happens because, as the world is currently configured, autistic characteristics constantly clash with demands that do not take into account their processing style, different ways of communicating, divergent learning, or sensitivity.

The most obvious oppression that autistic people face is ableism; this is discrimination against people with disabilities. It is a type of structural, systemic discrimination, much more common than we might think. In fact, we have likely exhibited ableist attitudes on some occasions without being aware of it, for example, treating a disabled adult as if they were a child. Many of these behaviors are carried out with the best intentions, but they contribute paternalistically to undervaluing abilities, relegating people to a position that does not promote autonomy.

Ableist views often consider disability as an “error,” something that the person must repair, hide, or ignore to better integrate into the world, instead of accepting it as a logical consequence of human diversity. Some examples of ableism could be harmful stereotypes, exclusion from employment or education, or architectural or cognitive barriers to accessing certain spaces.

Many autistic people tend to have mental health problems, largely due to this constant interaction with a system perceived as hostile and ableist. The data are striking: seven out of ten autistic people [2] will develop a mental health condition over their lifetime, along with high levels of psychological distress. The most common disorders are mood disorders, with 57%, and anxiety disorders, with 54%, but we can also include a higher prevalence of eating disorders, social phobia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

This leads to a higher probability of experiencing sanism (or mentalism), a type of structural oppression against people with mental health issues. Sanism assumes the superiority of the thoughts, practices, and experiences of “normal” people over those of “mad” people (NOTE: the collective itself uses the term “mad” to subvert the historically derogatory meaning of the word). Some common examples could be invalidating the opinions of “mad” people, associating madness with dangerousness, medical negligence (assuming that any symptom is synonymous with anxiety, without considering other options), trivializing their suffering, etc.

Now let’s take a look at some data on education and employment. The presence of autistic people in “post-compulsory” education is very low [3]; 3% in high school, or 4.57% in vocational training programs. This may reflect situations of “school dropout and failure (…) from middle school onwards or their placement in special education modalities.” In addition to having specific educational needs and requiring certain supports and adaptations, this school dropout may be influenced by “the high rates of bullying reported [by these students].”

As a result, many autistic people have low qualifications due to the numerous barriers they encounter during their educational journey. This can lead some autistics, in adulthood, to accept precarious jobs. Moreover, only between 10% and 24% of autistic individuals have a job [4]. What happens to those who cannot access or maintain a job? Many do not achieve economic independence and/or are at risk of social exclusion. It seems that the system often forgets that autistic children will one day grow up and become adults who will need support, mediation, and accompaniment.

All this can lead to a greater risk of experiencing forms of discrimination such as elitism, classism, and even aporophobia. Elitism implies considering that members of a small elite (e.g., university students) deserve greater influence and consideration than the rest of humanity. Classism consists of oppressing other people who have an educational level, economic position, or social class considered inferior by the dominant class. And, finally, aporophobia is the rejection, aversion, or fear of the poor.

So far, we have examined the discriminations that intersect with being autistic. Additionally, if you are racialized, belong to a minority religion, have a non-normative body, are a woman, or belong to any dissident identity, among many other categories, it is more likely that you will experience various types of discrimination. Finally, we must consider that we can belong to one oppressed group or more than one, but we can also have privileges over other people. We must deconstruct ourselves, constantly examine ourselves, and listen to the experiences of different groups firsthand.

References:

[1] Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics, 1989 U. Chi. Legal F. 139 (1989). https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/3007/

[2] Autismo España. (10 de octubre de 2017). Siete de cada 10 personas con TEA presenta trastornos de salud mental. Confederación Autismo España. https://autismo.org.es/siete-de-cada-10-personas-con-tea-presenta-trastornos-de-salud-mental/

[3] Autismo España. (Agosto de 2020). Situación del alumnado con trastorno del espectro del autismo en Españahttps://autismo.org.es/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/informeeducacion_situaciondelalumnadotea_0.pdf

[4] Autismo España. (27 de abril de 2021). Las personas con autismo son el colectivo de la discapacidad con la tasa más alta de desempleo. https://autismo.org.es/las-personas-con-autismo-son-el-colectivo-de-la-discapacidad-con-la-tasa-mas/