The transgender ‘proud Autistic’ psychologist who believes we have Autism all wrong
On the Shelf
By Devon Price
Harmony: 304 pages, $27
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When Devon Price, social psychologist and professor at Loyola University of Chicago, first started writing about Autism online in 2018, he received countless 5,000-plus-word emails from adults asking him, “Am I Autistic?” For adults, there are no diagnostic criteria for Autism. “Not only adults,” Price says, “but especially for someone who’s not an upper-middle-class, cis white guy.” Price knows a little about that, being both Autistic and transgender. “I thought to myself, ‘We need a foundational document for this.’”
Price’s work on Autism has appeared on NPR and PBS, in Slate and Psychology Today as well as a variety of academic journals. (He also wrote a Medium post explaining his capitalization of Autism as “an identifier I am proud of, a mark of community membership rather than a condition I have been saddled with.”)
This week he shares the results of his research in “Unmasking Autism,” a book that presents a clear definition of Autism and the anatomy of masking, which in Price’s formulation is the suppression of Autistic behaviors out of desperation to conform to neurotypical society.
Price’s book excoriates the accepted “therapies” for Autism, especially ABA, or Applied Behavioral Analysis. “ABA is focused on training Autistic kids to fake a neurotypical personality,” Price writes. Most disturbing are its “aversion” tactics. “ABA patients get sprayed in the face with water (or on the tongue with vinegar) for failing to make eye contact,” Price writes. The treatment can also incorporate electroshock — a treatment briefly banned by the Food and Drug Administration before being reinstated last year.
“Unmasking Autism” is written explicitly for adults with Autism, many of whom received ABA therapy as children. Its central idea is that being Autistic is not a bad thing. Price’s encouragement to “unmask” is also a call for neurotypical society to drop ableist assumptions and to listen to Autistics about their needs. His powerful argument for radical self-acceptance is applicable to all readers. Price spoke to The Times about why his ideas shouldn’t be “radical,” how Autism and being transgender are “inseparable” for him and other topics via phone from his home in Chicago.
Not only is the book a guide to understanding masking and why it’s so harmful, it also challenges current classifications such as “severe Autism,” “atypical vs. typical,” and “low- or high-functioning.”
I keep coming back to the parallels to queer acceptance and neurodiversity. When people say “This person is highly functioning,” it’s almost like saying, “He’s gay, but he doesn’t act gay.” Using language like that reinforces old stereotypes. If that person didn’t have that support, maybe “high-functioning” might look pretty “low-functioning.” There’s obviously privilege at work there too.
I was shocked to learn that there are no diagnostic criteria for Autism in adults. Why is this the case?
We have to look at who has been the face of Autism advocacy. Many of these organizations are not led by Autistic people; they are mostly nondisabled parents of disabled children. It’s hard to find a therapist who works with Autistic adults. In terms of the research and funding, everything is for making life easier for the nondisabled people in the disabled person’s life.
There are many comorbidities with Autism — eating disorders, substance abuse, self-harm and more. Your opinion is that these come from the stress of constantly masking, not necessarily from Autism itself?
We plainly can’t talk about these issues without putting masking in the calculus. With substance abuse, it’s so strongly correlated with Autism because of the sensory issues. If the world is too bright, too loud, you need to lower your agitation. Pain and sensory issues are made worse by masking. Not being able to ask for the lights to be turned down or to work from home, it makes perfect sense that you’d need a coping mechanism.
You draw a parallel between being trans and being Autistic. How are the experiences similar?
Until pretty recently being trans was considered a mental illness. This has changed, public opinion has changed, and we’ve stopped thinking of transness as a mental illness. Of course, a lot of society is clearly not there, looking at the laws passing all over the country. I think we’re on the brink of a similar movement with Autism too. The diagnosis rate keeps going up even with the tools being limited. More and more people are getting on top of this idea of “Autism acceptance.”
The experience of being closeted, or masked, is the other major similarity. There is a person that you are, and society says, “No, you have to be this way.” If you aren’t that person, you have to pretend to be someone you’re not. For me, it’s the same story being Autistic and trans. Those can’t be separated for me. You’re closeted in your own mind. This is a story queer people have been living for centuries — and Autistic people have too.
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You do give a major disclaimer to your encouragement of unmasking — for Autistics of color.
Black Autistic organizer Timotheus Gordon, Jr., who appears in the book, says, “If I’m flapping my hands or stimming, I could have the cops called on me for acting suspicious, depending on what neighborhood I’m in.” Fifty percent of all people shot by the police in this country have some disability. It would be irresponsible of me not to mention this. People give me the benefit of the doubt if I’m wearing something comfortable that doesn’t scream “university professor,” because I’m a man and I’m white. Even as a person who is trans. But if you’re Black and you wear the wrong thing, or show too much emotion, people will say you’re hostile.
Many of the changes as a result of the pandemic, most notably the option to work remotely, seem to benefit not only Autistics but all working people.
My last book, “Laziness Does Not Exist,” was all about productivity and work. We’ve all been raised on this capitalistic bootstraps mentality — your worth is determined by your productivity and anything that affects that is a threat. The reality is this is not sustainable. The pandemic has raised people’s consciousness about this. It’s also difficult to be chipper when there’s a mass death event. This has been a big unmasking moment. People can say, “I can’t pretend to be happy.”
In moving toward unmasking, are we moving toward Autism being seen less as a disability and more as a matter of diversity?
We are definitely moving towards seeing it less as a disorder even to diagnose — just like transness and homosexuality. One day, Autism may just be identified as a community. It’s likely that Autism will always be a disability because it is a community that is marginalized, like the Deaf community.
Why might unmasking be seen as controversial?
The entire psychiatric paradigm for identifying Autism is to view it as a pervasive defect. ABA therapy was founded by Ivar Lovaas, the same person who created anti-gay conversion therapy, and both therapies were designed with the same goal in mind: to help kids who were different appear more “normal.” [That] is still the predominant approach today, the only one health insurance will pay for in the United States. So to argue in favor of unmasking is quite radical, even though it’s really just advocating that people be allowed to be themselves.
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For neurotypicals who have family members with Autism or educators with Autistic students, what is one major thing they can do to support unmasking?
If you care about someone who is Autistic, put your judgment to the side. “It’s not that loud in here, you’re overthinking it, etc.” We get so many invalidating comments over the course of our lives, even from people who are really trying. With these biases, notice them when they’re happening and think, “What if I believed them when they said ‘I’m in pain’?”
Ferri’s most recent book is “Silent Cities: New York.”
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