Jim Sinclair is an autistic professional who worked with autistic people. Xe was born in December of 1961. Jim did not start speaking until xe was 12.
When Jim started speaking, they were very outspoken about not being a girl. Soon after, xyr were sent for intensive psychotherapy. By the time they were 14, they were accepted outside the family as a boy. At age 16, xe was evaluated by intersexuality specialists. The specialists put xym on testosterone injections until xe objected that xe did not want to be a male either.
Sinclair took the name Jim and self identifies as “openly and proud neuter, both physically and socially.” Jim does not reveal xyr genotype as that would identify gender. Xyr chosen pronouns are Xe/xem/xyr.
Education and Accomplishments
They studied at Syracuse University and graduated in 1998. They have a Bachelors in Psychology, graduate studies in development and child psychology. Xe also has a masers degree in rehabilitation counseling. Xe is a certified rehabilitation counselor. They could not find a job in the field. It is thought due to xe bing autistic but that was never proven. Jim Sinclair has worked professionally with autistic children, adolescents and adults. They provide seminars for teachers and therapists of autistic people.
Jim has been a self advocate since the 1980’s. Jim cofounded Autism Network International in 1992. Jim also established Autreat. This was the first annual gathering for autistic people. this started in 1996.
I know I speak for the whole autistic community when I say:
Thank you, Jim. What you started laid down the stones we are building upon to build a better world of autistics everywhere.
Identity First Language
“Being autistic is at least as much a part of someones’ unique personhood as gender, culture and personality. Its not removable and switchable like clothing. If you could take away the autism, you would have a different person, not the same person at all. It cannot be separated from personhood.
“The problem I see is that by trying to make the point by separating out the disability from the person, you end up reinforcing the idea that the disability is so terrible as to be inconsistent with personhood – that the only way to acknowledge that people are human is to separate them from their disabilities.”
Deficit Model VS Cultural Model of Disability
“The traditional deficit model, autism is defined in terms of deficits- the things that are ‘wrong’ with a person. It follows that the way to support a person who has all these deficits is to try to fix things that are wrong, and make the person more like a normal person who doesn’t have those deficits.
“What I mean by a cultural model is not that autism is a culture in the same way we talk about American of Swedish or Mexican culture. Culture is learned; autism is inate. A baby born in America will grow up to be culturally American if raised in America, and culturally Danish if adopted into a Danish family raised in Denmark. If that baby is autistic, he will be autistic no matter where he grows up (Autistic culture does exist, but its not what I’m referring to when I talk about a cultural model.) I developed a concept of a cultural model to describe an approach incorporating the values of multiculturalism and cross-cultural counseling: looking at autistic characteristics as differences, part of human diversity, not necessarily things that are wrong and need to be changed.”
Autistics Having Low Self Esteem
“When people are constantly being treated as if they’re defective, criticized for their natural behavior, and taught that they only earn approval and respect by pretending to be something they’re not, they’re likely to develop low sense of of self esteem. Another contributor to low self esteem is being over protective and ‘taken care of’ too much, which gives the message that we are incapable of doing things for ourselves. It often becomes a self fulfilling prophecy because when autistic people aren’t given opportunities to learn and try new things, we end up truly being less capable, simply because of the lack of opportunity to develop our abilities.”
How Parents and Professionals can Relate to an Autistic Person that Supports a Positive Identity
“The cultural model, as I’ve discussed, provides a framework for relating to autistic people (and any other people who are “different” in some way) in a manner that conveys respect and supports healthy self-esteem. Parents and professionals should also work on their own attitudes, so that they approach autistic people with an expectation of ability, instead of a presumption of inability.
“But no matter how accepting and supportive neurotypical people are, if autistic people are isolated from other autistic people, they are at risk for difficulties with self-esteem and positive identity. There are some benefits that only peers—meaning other autistic people—can provide. So if an autistic person is not already in contact with an Autistic community, it can be very helpful for parents or professionals to offer to help the autistic person make such contacts. I have seen amazing things happen when autistic people find each other for the first time. One person told me, “I’m going home a different person than I was when I came here.” This person later wrote in an article for the ANI newsletter, “I believe all persons with Autism need the opportunity to become friends with other Autistic people. Without this contact we feel alien to this world. We feel lonely.
“Feeling like an alien is a slow death. It’s sadness, self-hate, it’s continuously striving to be someone we’re not. It’s waking up each day and functioning in falsehood.” *French K. (1993) My personal holiday. Our Voice, the newsletter of Autism Network International, 1,(3).]”
What Autistic People can Offer Parents in Terms of How We Communicate
“There is a great deal that parents and professionals can learn from autistic people, but the responsibility is on the parents and professionals to learn. It isn’t the responsibility of children to educate their parents. It isn’t the responsibility of students to educate their teachers. It isn’t the responsibility of clients to educate their therapists. And it isn’t the responsibility of autistic people to educate non-autistic people about autism.
“Some of us are willing to work as educators. Some of us are qualified to do so, meaning we’re knowledgeable about more than just our own personal stories. Non-autistic parents and professionals can seek out autistic professionals and educated, informed autistic lay people who are willing to teach them.
“If you are in any kind of profession that involves working with people, you should be a skilled observer of people. If you are a caring and committed parent, you should be attentive to children and interested in learning about them. You should be willing and able to learn from your observations and interactions. You should seek out opportunities to spend time with autistic people—as many different autistic people as possible, so you get a sense of the great diversity among us, as well as the things we have in common.
“But you should not approach autistic people with the expectation that we’re here just to be resources for you. Many autistic people are already overextended just trying to manage our own lives. If you’re the one who’s supposed to be helping us, it isn’t reasonable to expect us to do more work to teach you. Autistic people who become professionals may choose to spend our time and our energy working directly with other autistic people, who have so very few professionals who can understand and communicate with them. It isn’t right to demand that we take time away from working for our peers in order to educate you.
“I am rather passionate on this point because over the years I have seen so much exploitation of autistic people by parents and professionals who want to learn about autism. Their desire to learn is a good thing. Their desire to learn about autism directly from autistic people, instead of learning only what non-autistic people are saying about autistic people, is very good. I strongly encourage non-autistic people to learn about autism from autistic people. The problem is how people sometimes go about trying to learn. Here are some things that parents and professionals should not ever do:
“Do not ask autistic people personal questions about their lives, unless the purpose is for you, in some helping role, to be able to assist the autistic person, or unless you are in a personal relationship with the autistic person in which you are sharing as much personal information about yourself as you are asking the autistic person to share about himself. If you are asking someone else to share personal information about himself, only for the purpose of educating you and without reciprocal sharing on your part, this is what I have often referred to as a ”self-narrating zoo exhibit.” It can easily become demeaning and exploitative.
“If an autistic person is willing to answer personal questions and share her life story, do not overgeneralize and assume that what this one person reports about her own life is true for all autistic people. People do this a lot, and it causes misunderstandings and difficulties when they encounter other autistic people who don’t meet their preconceptions.
“If an autistic person is willing to answer personal questions and share his life story, be very careful about the person’s dignity and privacy, even if the person himself doesn’t seem to mind. If a person has been rejected and devalued all his life, and then suddenly finds that a lot of people want to listen to his story and ask him for advice, this can be very exciting and seductive, just like any kind of ”celebrity.” People can get caught up in getting all this attention and approval, and allow themselves to be exploited. People can also come to believe themselves to be autism ”experts” solely on the basis of their own personal experience, and make broad pronouncements about autism that really don’t apply to most autistic people.
“Another negative aspect of relying on personal stories is that parents and professionals can lose sight of the fact that autistic people have 7 our own lives and our own priorities, and start treating us as if we are ”free natural resources” for them to take at will. Autistic people who agree to present at conferences have found ourselves pursued by eager audience members beyond the time that we’ve offered to speak. Some autistic conference presenters have had people follow them to their hotel rooms and demand personal consultations. One person even had someone follow her into the toilet and continue asking her questions while she was trying to pee! I have another autistic friend who was participating in an online mailing list while she was a university student trying to complete her degree. At some point she realized she needed to spend less time writing emails responding to parents’ questions, so she could focus on her studies and not flunk out of school. Some parents told her that she did not have the right to make this choice. They said that their need for her to answer their questions, which they hoped would help them with their children, took precedence over her own need to pass her courses and pursue her life goals.
“Even though it can be very interesting and appealing to listen to personal stories about individual autistic lives, it’s necessary to guard against improper uses of people and their stories.”
Problems Autistic People Experience When Trying to Fit into Society
“‘I think the really critical differences between autistic people and neurotypical people have to do with social participation. Autistic people do not “fit in.” The details are different for different autistic individuals. Neurotypical humans have instinctive desires to belong and fit into a group, and instinctive skills for doing that. Of course different cultures have different social norms, and different social contexts call for different kinds of behavior within the same culture. But neurotypical people have an innate ability to notice and imitate and learn these things.
“Autistic people may have less desire to belong and fit in. Some of us don’t care at all about these things. It simply never occurs to us to pay attention to them, or if we do happen to notice other people’s social behavior as interesting phenomena, it doesn’t occur to us that we should do the same things. There’s no motivation to fit in. 8 Some of us have some degree of interest in fitting in, but it’s less important to us than it is to typical people. Other things are more important.
“And then there are autistic people who desperately wish to fit in, but don’t know how. No matter how carefully they study other people and try to imitate them, they stand out and are recognized as being odd and out of step. Also, this kind of constant desperate effort to fit in, and repeated failures to do so, lead to a lot of anxiety, emotional exhaustion, depression, and low self-esteem.
“I think traditional approaches to social skills instruction for autistic people only exacerbate these problems. For autistic people who are not interested in belonging, being pressured to change ourselves, to conform to something we don’t care about, makes the whole concept of being “social” into something aversive. People may be come fearful, resentful, or angry about such experiences, and instead of being merely uninterested in being part of society, may become actively avoidant.
“For autistic people who are very interested in belonging, teaching us to perform imperfect imitations of neurotypical behavior may appear to be successful on the surface, but underneath people are still experiencing all that anxiety and exhaustion and depression and self-hatred. In my experience, the more “successful” an autistic person has become at emulating NT social skills, the more anxious and insecure that person is inside. Long-term effects on mental health can be devastating.
“I’ve developed a functional approach to social skills, which I find much more meaningful and accessible for autistic people. In my workshops on this topic I teach both autistic and neurotypical people to evaluate social skills in terms of logical functions of behavior, personal boundaries, rights and responsibilities. In these terms, autistic social skills can be every bit as adaptive for autistic people as NT social skills are for NT people. People can find ways to “belong” and to participate in society without ever needing to “fit in.'”
Opportunities For Developing Dignified Relationships Between Autistic People and Professionals
“I notice that this question seems to assume that “professionals” and “autistic people” constitute separate and non-overlapping categories. That illustrates the problem: the attitude that autistic people, across the board, are incapable and in need of help and guidance from non-autistic people.
“The best solution I’ve seen is for non-autistic professionals to experience the “reverse inclusion” of attending autistic-run, Autistic-community events such as Autreat and Autscape. When they find themselves in the minority, feeling disoriented and confused because they don’t understand the majority of people around them, and they need to work harder to communicate than they’re used to, but at the same time they see autistic people all around them who are enjoying themselves and reveling in an environment that accommodates their needs, this can have a profound effect on attitudes and perceptions. If they have the courage to come back again and again, and spend enough time immersed in Autistic community and culture, they may be able to form relationships with autistic people that are based in mutual respect and equality. They may become allies to the Autistic community. We have some wonderful allies who are part of the Autreat community.
“It also helps that more autistic people are accessing higher education and are becoming professionals ourselves. I think autistic professionals are able to understand, accept, and respect autistic students and clients in ways that neurotypical professionals have difficulty achieving. And if neurotypical professionals are able to overcome their cognitive dissonance and relate to an autistic professional as their peer—which, in my experience, can be very challenging for professionals who are used to thinking of autistic people only as children or clients in need of their guidance and supervision—if they are able to learn to relate to an autistic fellow professional as an equal, this may influence the way they perceive their own autistic clients or students.”
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