For Lydia Brown, autism is not a deficiency to be cured — it is a concrete part of her identity.
Brown, who is an autistic and multiply-disabled disability rights activist, as well as a student at Georgetown University, spoke to roughly 20 students and community members at a Saybrook Master’s Tea on Monday afternoon.
She shared her experiences as a project assistant for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and explained why she believes people should view autism and other disabilities as an individual’s traits rather than deficits. Brown emphasized that the social view of autism as an abnormality should be changed, in order to create a more inclusive social community for autistic individuals.
“When I was diagnosed with autism, my immediate response was ‘Oh, that means there is something wrong with me,’” Brown said in her talk. “I didn’t have any other way to conceptualize myself.”
There is a common view of autism as a pathology even amongst people who are trying to raise general awareness about autism, Brown said. But she added that this should not be the dominant narrative. Rather than associating a disability like autism with a medical diagnosis or a “deviance from the normal template,” she said people should have a more open-minded sense of diversity and simply view a disability as an atypical way that a certain person processes thoughts or actions.
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the organization for which Brown works, seeks to fight against restraint or seclusion of autistic individuals and to effect policy changes that advocate the rights of those with autism. After being founded in 2006, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network played a major role in shutting down a series of advertisements from New York Children’s Hospital in 2007 that portrayed autism as an undesirable pathology that should be eradicated. Though the hospital intended to raise awareness of autism, she said, the advertisements were an example of a dehumanizing attack on autistic individuals.
Brown added that advocacy for disabled people should not only try to create a more inclusive environment, but that it should also aim to bring about the institutional changes that would support those with disabilities.
“Achieving justice in the way that we [deal with] medicine and health care is critical to achieving justice for disabled people,” she said.
Currently, Brown is a student of Arabic and psychology at Georgetown, planning to pursue a law degree to further carry out her advocacy activity. She hopes to ultimately found an organization that represents disabled people who have been accused of crimes and provides policy recommendations that justly represent the rights of the disabled, she said.
Students interviewed after the talk said that they found Brown an inspiring speaker, especially because she addressed autism in the context of her personal experience as well as her activism around the issue.
Christina Kim ’16 said that although she had understood the importance of social inclusion for disabled people before the talk, she found it refreshing that Brown stressed the importance of changing public policy and social perception, rather than focusing solely on the medical research aspect of autism.
“Although I think complete dependence on the diversity paradigm may be problematic, I was impressed by her activism to bring legitimate accommodations for disabled people,” said Jacob Bennett ’16.
Brown has served on the Adult Services Subcommittee of the Massachusetts Special Commission Relative to Autism, in addition to drafting legislation on autism awareness amongst law enforcement officials. She has also been named a White House Champion of Change.