Autistics Speaking Day 2021: A challenge for Academics

Leeanne Marshall

Well, it is the 1st of November 2021. Hence, Autistics Speaking Day 2021. A day in which autistic people (and some allies) all over the world will be posting blog posts, uploading videos and circulating other content about whatever we think is important. In some of my previous posts, I have challenged myself, disability service providers and teachers to do better in specific areas. This one is a challenge to academics, specifically academics that teach autism related university/college courses.

A colleague of mine in the disability sector is doing a Master of Education degree in Inclusive Education. Of particular interest, she did a topic specifically about autism spectrum earlier this year. She found the topic interesting and informative. This is great and I am not disputing that she gained a lot from the topic. However, we had conversations about it that I found ….. discouraging. For example, the topic did not mention neurodiversity, the neurodiversity paradigm or the neurodiversity movement at all. A problem in my opinion given these terms are so often discussed among autistic people both online and in person. Similarly, the topic made no mention of the double-empathy problem but did discuss theory of mind/autistic people having difficulty with theory of mind. Again, I see this as problematic given that the double-empathy problem is often discussed among autistic people.

At the same time this was going on, I had been asked to record a lecture for a new topic at the university I work for. The topic title included the term neurodiversity and the lecture I was asked to present introduced students to neurodiversity (and related terms) as well as autism spectrum. This topic had a medical textbook we were referring to (and critiquing) each week. It was so easy for me to critique the textbook! Like the topic my colleague was doing at another university, the textbook mentioned theory of mind but not the double-empathy problem and there was no mention of neurodiversity. In addition, the textbook went through potential causes of autism spectrum based on research but made no mention of the fact that a significant number of autistic individuals do not want the cause of autism to be found. Dates and symbols that are important to the autistic community, such as the rainbow infinity symbol and autistic pride day (18th June) were also missing.

Basically, what was missing from both the topic that my colleague did and the textbook used for my topic was autistic viewpoints and research. The double-empathy problem is something that autistic researcher Dr. Damian Milton, an autistic researcher proposed. Neurodiversity and the neurodiversity movement as phrases were thought up by Judy Singer, an autistic sociologist. That said, ideas regarding the neurodiversity paradigm and movement started much earlier and are thought to originate with Jim Sinclair, an autistic advocate. Recently, current definitions of neurodiversity and related terms come from a blog post by Dr. Nick Walker, an autistic researcher.

Why is this missing from university/college autism spectrum topics?

As mentioned above, because this is mainly discussed among autistic people and academics have largely not engaged with autistic people when designing autism spectrum topics. If they have engaged with autistic people, it is usually to give a one-off lecture about their personal perspective/experience. I do not deny that this is important (my students at the university say that it is) but we can go further. Autistic people around the world are writing/videoing about whatever we see as important today, some of those autistic people (along with other autistic people that have not contributed to this day) are willing to engage with universities/colleges, to bring the knowledge and perspectives that are currently missing. It is up to academics to engage with these people.

Why is it important for universities/colleges to include this content in autism spectrum topics?

There are many answers to this question but I will go with my favourite answer. For the students. This semester at the university I work for, I had postgraduate university students. Many of whom had some experience learning about autism spectrum before. Some of these students were learning about the double-empathy problem for the first time. Paraphrased versions of their comments include “very valid way of looking at it in my opinion” and “makes perfect sense.” Why should students miss out on certain perspectives like what is currently happening?

Another answer is for autistic people (and it seems fairly likely that students in an autism spectrum topic will end up working with autistic people). One student in my class just last week had a rant about the state of language used in research articles related to autism spectrum. She was annoyed that the language was very negative for most articles, the language being very deficit-based and terms such as “high-functioning autism” used. I was quite happy this occurred. It gives me hope that my students will not use such language in the future. That maybe the language used to discuss autistic people will change for the better.

The two reasons above are why I challenge academics to find autistic people that are willing to share knowledge/perspectives from the autistic community and researchers. To engage with these autistic people about what content should be included in autism spectrum topics that is currently missing. To include this content and invite autistic people to present said content.

We can do better. For autistic people and for our students.

I have another challenge for readers of this blog post that may not have heard some of the terms used in this blog post before. I challenge you to do some reading.

To read about:

The double-empathy problem (Milton, 2012):

The possible origins of the neurodiversity movement “don’t mourn for us” (Sinclair, 2012 [but first given in 1993]):

Neurodiversity current terms and definitions (Walker, 2014):

Thoughts from the person who coined neurodiversity “what is neurodiversity?” (Singer, n.d.):

Written by oneautisticperson aka Leeanne Marshall.
Originally published at:

Thank you to Leeanne for sharing her 2021 International Autistics Speaking Day blog post with us. Every year, Leanne contributes to International Autistics Speaking Day. You can find her previous writing at her blog, One Autistic Person.