Making Headlines

For World Autism Awareness Week, we are amplifying the voices of autistic survivors on our blog. This post has been submitted by Alanna Rose Whitney.

Content note: abuse (including, but not limited to, gaslighting) and disordered eating

It’s hard for me to talk about the abusive situations I faced as a child, both because I know so many other people who have been subjected to so much worse than I have that I feel guilty for taking attention away from their stories, and also because it re-opens old wounds that will never fully heal due to persistent gaslighting and denial of my perception of those events by perpetrators and witnesses alike.

I did just that though, almost two years ago now. I talked about an incident that still makes me gasp and recoil in the retelling nearly two decades after it happened. And doesn’t it figure that I was met with more erasure and compounded abuse as a result?

In the summer of 2015 I spoke with a journalist from the Washington Post who had been flown out to interview me for an upcoming piece on Autistic acceptance. I was followed around and photographed and throughout the day answered questions about neurodiversity and aspects of the activism I was involved with. And I thought I was being listened to. I thought that this article could help to highlight the difference between fearmongering “awareness” and the counter-movement to promote acceptance and love. But I was wrong.

Besides the complete exclusion of at least one other more prominent activist with far more experience and insight than myself, the final product was all incoherent fluff intercut with giving a platform to parents who hope to erase autistics from existence. It was not well-recieved by the Autistic community.

However that wasn’t the part that hurt the most. Neither was the way they portrayed me as “quirky” or the stream of online comments about how I wasn’t really autistic enough or completely off-topic, how I could be pretty if I lost some weight. What really hurt was the opening line, which made light of a seriously traumatic experience that I had never opened up about before, which failed to even address the commonality of the issue – let alone confront the gravity of it’s impact.

The third line of the article reads: “Anchovies on pizza could send her cowering under a table.” That reference is never elaborated upon and I’m actually crying re-typing it. The whole first paragraph reeks of condescension, but the dismissive and derisive tone of that one sentence really stings.

Here’s why…The story is all-too-familar to most autistic people; we frequently experience physical violence (usually accompanied by verbal/emotional abuse) due to what is often referred to as “picky eating.”

When I was seven, my father took me to visit some family friends who had rented a trailer up in cottage country somewhere in rural Ontario, Canada. In fact, their daughter, who was my age and non-autistic, just recently passed away from a drug over-dose, found in a bus station all alone – but that’s another sad story entirely… This story begins with a group of happy “campers” gathered around a picnic table, laughing and drinking and deciding it would be easier to order pizza and direct the delivery slightly off the beaten path than it would be to fire up the barbecue and cook something. The toppings were picked and when asked, I reminded my dad that I could not eat anchovies, that I had never been able to handle the taste, texture or smell of any fish or seafood (nevermind my aversion to all meat and eggs, which I usually choked down anyway for fear of repercussions). I was told, in an angry tone, that I could just pick them off the pizza when it came. I responded to explain that I would still taste and smell the oily residue and that I would not be able to make myself swallow even that. I was scoffed at, laughed at and called a brat – so I meekly excused myself and said it would be okay to go to bed without dinner, that I would just retreat to the trailer to read.

But I had barely opened the first page of my book when my father burst in, fuming with rage and growling about how I had made him look bad. In the midst of this he had grabbed a large metal spoon from the kitchen and the moment I tried to speak he whacked me sharply in the kneecap with it. Of course then I started crying from the pain, which only made him angrier, but he set the spoon down and said he was sorry. He tried to convince me to come back out and eat the pizza, tried to explain that he had overreacted because he was hungry and tired and buzzed from a few beers. But I was scared and hurt so I started edging away, scooting backwards until I was pressed into the far corner under the table. And when I refused to come out from under there, seeing through his feigned gentle coaxing, he got mad again. He reached forward and pulled me out by the shoulders and then grasped me by the throat and lifted me about two feet off the ground. He didn’t quite shake me, but squeezed my neck for more than a minute before he set me back down and after realizing the line he had crossed I was left on my own to cry myself to sleep without being forced to go back outside to eat. It didn’t end there though, because upon arriving home I told my mother and begged her not to make me visit him again – but she refused to believe me because my dad had “beat me to the punch” by telling her I had exaggerated “like always.”

It was not the first or the last time that I got attacked for being unable to conform to expectations of my eating habits and it was not the first or the last time that I had sought refuge by hiding under a table.

Even that sentence of the aforementioned article was not the first or the last time that I have had my words ignored, or twisted. Being familiar with the term “gaslighting” hasn’t stopped me from being subjected to it. Being articulate and labelled “high-functioning” hasn’t stopped me from having my voice stolen or spoken over. Being aware of how wrong it was for adults in my life to have violated my bodily autonomy and sense of self in a great variety of ways hasn’t lessened my struggle with disordered eating (orthorexia, bulimia, etc) or made it easier to trust or to be touched.

This story doesn’t have a happy ending, but the closest thing to it is the #ActuallyAutistic community full of other highly sensitive people who have been treated the same way and who are all working together to change the conversation about us – about autism – to include us and to prevent the same kind of destructive, abusive behaviour from damaging the next generation of autistic kids.

Every April, we go #REDinstead to promote #lovenotfear and if you’re reading this, I hope you will consider joining us <3

If you have been affected by this post, or would like help to find accessible services in your area, please visit our support page by clicking here.

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Ashley Stephen

Ashley co-founded Disabled Survivors Unite and is the head of social media. They are a disability rights activist and keen campaigner for social justice issues. They are interested in diversity in media, volunteering, and human rights. Originally from California, Ashley now lives in Leeds, West Yorkshire.

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