Singapore is far from ready for Inclusive Equality despite efforts to engage with various stakeholders, including publishing this alternative autism masterplan and a proposal for an autistic-focused non-profit.
Most autism organisations and social media influencers remain unwilling to engage with autistic advocates, ignoring the emails of autistics asking to work with them. The rest often engage in “exploitative inclusion“, portraying autistic people as damsels in distress to be rescued by knights in shining armour in the form of caregivers, professionals and organisations.
Autistics are invited on stage to speak about autism awareness and perform for events, then ignored until the need for positive publicity from them is required again. Autistics may be invited to participate in media interviews, but any resulting misleading portrayals damaging their employment prospects will be met with silence. Most of the community thinks there is nothing wrong with such portrayals.
Autistics may be invited to act as consultants or advisors who have no power to formulate policies and veto decisions; only their endorsement of prepared statements and plans are sought. During feedback sessions, the focus seems to be ensuring that autistics with higher support needs get enough time to express themselves rather than to collect quality ideas and opinions from autistics who have the capacity to contribute. No autistic has also ever been invited to sit on the board of autism organisations or government policy-making committees or be paid professional rates to engage in consulting work. These imply that autistic participation is merely a symbolic show of inclusion.
There are also a minority of people who volunteer and befriend autistics to get opportunities to exploit, bully or abuse them. Here are a few instances of “wolves in sheep’s clothing” that I have encountered:
- A lady who wanted to write a book about my story was highly disrespectful and condescending while I shared about my life story. She also expected me to answer detailed questions about things that I had previously written about because she was “too busy to read everything”.
- A founder of an autism startup was very persistent on getting me to set up a booth at her event. When I was there, she refused to talk to me about collaboration and instead asked me to speak to another person. After the event was over, I told her that the sales was very poor and it was a waste of time. She replied condescendingly I should thank her because those the few books I sold would have been collecting dust at home. She did not seem to understand that I could have easily earned more money if I did freelance computer work instead.
- A caregiver invited me to watch a movie. She insisted on putting her fingers in front of my eyes to get my attention rather than calling my name. She also subtly attacked the work I do while pretending to praise me. She was about to do the same to another autistic when I exposed her.
- An experienced executive at a charity volunteered to spearhead an important autism initiative, but used this as an opportunity to verbally abuse me and another volunteer for hours. I made it clear the next day that she was unsuitable to lead and she left abruptly.
- A reporter rushed through an interview and ended up portraying me in a defamatory manner. He was also disrespectful in his tone of speech, body language and his decision to include my age even though he previously agreed not to do so. The newspaper did not respond to my email. The organisation who invited and facilitated me to participate in the interview refused to take any action to remedy the situation.
- A man pretending to be autistic joined an online autism community and then contacted community members privately to promote suspicious business opportunities to them.
- A male autistic who actively befriended and provided emotional support to male autistics was found to be working with a non-autistic man to send sexually inappropriate private messages to highly vulnerable autistics and manipulating the community administrators with advanced social strategies. Both the police and a large autism organisation (whose clientele was among his friends) chose to take no action despite being aware of his past unwholesome history.
What passes off as inclusion is often “unconditional acceptance”, where society maintains low expectations of autistic people and perpetuating the belief that autism is a “lifelong condition” with no hope of change. Efforts to encourage autistic people to take personal responsibility and make efforts to better their lives are often dismissed as ableism, conspiring to ensure that the autistic adults never develop the habits and skills to thrive.
Autistic people who show some talent in arts and sports, as well as those who organise typical awareness/inclusion events (that results in no lasting or strategic change for the community), receive official recognition and awards.
Meanwhile, those who break stereotypes of autism’s limitations and those engaged in serving the real-life needs of fellow autistic people continue to be ignored. There remains no interest and effort to cultivate competitively employed autistic autism professionals.
These imply that society still sees autistic people as exhibits that showcase the inclusive effort of non-autistic people, rather than as competitive, competent partners. In addition, autism is always considered to be a disability or special need rather than an identity. Autistic people are seen as dependent and subservient to the non-autistic people “helping” them. Inclusive Equality remains elusive.
Meanwhile, the Singapore government continues to endorse open discrimination by insurance companies and schools providing early childhood education courses.
As a result of all these discrimination, autistic people who do well in mainstream society refuse to reveal their diagnosis and participate in the autism community, resulting in a “brain drain” where the most adapted and brightest leave the autism community as soon as they are able to. Even parents claimed that disclosing an autism diagnosis in mainstream school usually leads to teachers putting less effort and attention into supporting their autistic children.
Autistic people who do less well in mainstream society often engage in counterproductive behaviours that damage their reputation and divide the community, making it difficult for them to be taken seriously and mature advocates reluctant to participate to avoid being tainted by the bad reputation.
- Superficial advocates repeat the “exploitative inclusion” narrative with their low-quality work while getting cheered on by the autism community.
- Buoyed by the success of a highly controversial role model, vocal advocates destroy stakeholder relationships with emotionally immature responses.
- Autistic advocates (including a highly experienced PhD holder) create opposing factions, attacking the efforts of other stakeholders (including fellow autistic advocates) rather than reconcile differences and work together as allies for the same cause.
- Some autistics even use their autism diagnosis as an excuse to deflect blame or partner non-autistic predators to target naïve autistics.
- Meanwhile, no one is speaking out about the dangers of personality disorders being misdiagnosed as autism.
Inclusion has become trendy. Many people are taking advantage of government grants to create charities disguised as “social enterprises” that close shop as soon as funding runs out while having only a superficial understanding of autism disability issues. They tend to engage in activities (e.g. sports/arts activities, awareness campaigns, providing low paying work) with limited impact on autistic people’s upwards social mobility.
Many organisations that openly employ autistics tend to consider such employment as an act of charity rather than investment. Beyond providing a symbolic number of jobs that are less demanding than those given to non-autistic workers, they have no intention of supporting autistic staff to be more competitive or further their career development. The problems that autistics people face outside their work environment (such as family conflicts, exploitation by ‘friends’, mental health struggles) that resulted in them becoming difficult to employ are also not among the employers’ concern.
Meanwhile, decision-makers persistently and intentionally choose to ignore the issues faced by adult autistics with low support needs, focusing the bulk of their efforts solely on caregivers and autistics with high support needs.
Those who are genuine in creating change find it frustrating to work in such a situation. The natural result is a severe brain drain where sincere autistic advocates burn out and resign, while highly capable autistics who can overturn stereotypes choose to stay low to protect their personal interests.