Who Gets to Join This Fancy Club?

Last night I had the pleasure of dining with an old friend from law school. Our discussion turned to Rachel Dolezal, the woman who resigned as president of Spokane’s NAACP chapter after it became known that she was born white, not black. My old friend is now a law professor; her research includes issues of race. She talked about three ways of identifying with a community (in Dolezal’s case, identifying with the African-American community): documentary, like checking the box that says “Asian-Pacific Islander” or “Hispanic” on a form; biologically, like asserting, “My grandparents came from Ukraine, so I am Ukrainian”; and aesthetically, like adopting traditions, tastes, customs, &c. commonly associated with the group. My friend opined that a person who chooses to claim a social identity, even if s/he does so only aesthetically (say, in hairstyle, language patterns, and manner of dress), should not be rejected if s/he also assumes the burdens associated with that identity: If Dolezal claims blackness, and willingly endures the discrimination that black women in the United States face, then her lack of biological identification does not disqualify her from the African-American community.

My friend the professor owns that theory: Any flaws in articulating it are mine alone.

We also spoke about Martin. I am sometimes asked why Martin—remember, that’s not my son’s real name—has a Spanish name. He is pale and blonde like I am and doesn’t otherwise “look” Latino; moreover, although Adrian, my husband, comes from South America and speaks English with an accent, he does not participate in “Latino culture” as we have (or imagine) it in the United States. (Excuse my sweeping generalizations; a blog post admits only so much depth.) My friend noted that Martin already identifies with the Latino community biologically and documentarily (we check both the “white/Caucasian” and “Hispanic” boxes), and to some extent aesthetically, because he is Spanish-English bilingual and has a Spanish name. Someday, my friend observed, Martin will have to decide for himself how much more he will identify aesthetically with United States Latino culture.

I enjoyed this conversation so much. It was personal, thought-provoking, and invigorating. Even better still, we were discussing Martin, and his future, and the topic was entirely unrelated to autism. I don’t know whether my friend is aware that Martin has autism. Martin was there, present, at my friend’s apartment. As we talked, Martin was playing, awkwardly but more or less appropriately, with my friend’s four-year-old daughter. Adrian and I are not public about Martin’s diagnosis, and I’ve never had occasion to tell this friend. Maybe she knows via the friends-in-common grapevine. Maybe not. Autism isn’t really the elephant in the room when I have Martin with me, not anymore. These days it’s sort of the toy elephant in the room. I can shove it in a pocket or tuck it behind a knickknack and hope no one notices.

That being said, as I sat with my friend and (especially) thereafter, my mind drew connections to autism. Martin has autism. I am part of the autism community. My family is part of the autism community. In terms of biological identification, we did not choose membership. Martin developed autism. It happened. Our entry tickets appeared. In terms of documentary identification, I suppose we do choose to join, out of necessity. If we want special education and other services, we have to check that (sometimes metaphorical) “autism” box.

Yes, I also check the metaphorical box to pre-board airplanes. Guilty.

Which leaves aesthetic identification. As an aesthetic matter, do I identify as a member of the autism community? Yes and no. No, insofar as we are not public about Martin’s diagnosis, insofar as we share on a mostly need-to-know basis. Our primary motivation for keeping Martin’s autism private is that he is getting better, and that one day he will recover, and then we don’t want him seen as “the kid who had autism.” In that regard, we refuse to assume one burden of the autism identity: We try to insulate Martin from the negative stereotypes associated with spectrum disorders.

Yes, however, insofar as autism has worked infiltrated the way I navigate the world, and any insult to the autism community feels like an insult to me personally, and by derivation to Martin. Remember when an ignoramus in an elevator called my friend Natasha’s pre-verbal son a thing? The offense hit me exactly as if he had called my son a thing. Two weeks ago, in a Brooklyn market, a minister—a minister by profession and not, I daresay, by vocation—yelled at my friend Stacey’s sensory-seeking son and then told Stacey to “get [her] son under control before he hurt[] someone.” Though I heard the story only afterward, from Stacey, I felt myself there present, as if the alleged minister had yelled at Martin and said those awful words to me. I identify with every report of a spectrum kid getting bullied, family who can’t afford biomed, or student whose school district denies appropriate special-education services. Regardless of whether we speak out or advocate, I am part of the autism community psychically.

I wonder what will happen when, for the most part, we lose Martin’s biological identification with autism, when he recovers? (I say “for the most part” because I envision him always having some level of immune sensitivity that requires special care.) I remember the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, when Larry David’s Los Angeles character, who’s always believed himself the son of Jewish parents, discovers he’s adopted and was born to Protestants. Immediately he begins doing stereotypical things like wearing a fanny pack, hunting, slamming beers. When we lose Martin’s biological connection to autism, will my aesthetic identification fade too? Will I ask, “Is autism bullying a problem?” or, “They have adequate social services for persons on the spectrum, don’t they?”

I won’t. I think once a person has experienced what it means to reside with autism, that feeling never goes away. Maybe it’s comparable to PTSD; I once saw a report indicating that mothers of adolescents and adults with autism experience chronic stress similar to combat soldiers. Martin is young still, his autism has never been “severe,” and shortly after we started biomed, he started sleeping regularly (other than stress, lack of sleep was the big threat to my own health), so maybe in my case the PTSD comparison is too dramatic.

Does Rachel Dolezel have a place in the black community? Not for me to say, because it’s not my community.

My old friend from law school has me thinking this: I’m really not interested in policing the membership of the autism community, either. If a person who is biologically and documentarily unconnected to autism wants to assume the burdens of autism, wants to internalize every insult the way I do now, then I welcome that person on board. We biomed parents are striving to reduce the biological autism community. Growing the aesthetic autism community can only help those who remain biologically connected to autism to fare better in this world.

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