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Note: for readers unfamiliar with Canadian constitutional law, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is notorious for having the "Notwithstanding" clause,  a loophole whereby guaranteed rights and freedoms can be unguaranteed.  For the full text of the charter, click here.

The Unusual Status of Autistic Canadians

by Michelle Dawson

There's a big group of Canadian citizens who don't qualify for the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We are autistics. 

You may have heard people talking about us. 

We are baffling, mysterious, a puzzle. We are tragic, condemned, soulless hollow shells. We are devastating, horrifying, a nightmare. Our numbers are exploding, there is a dramatic and staggering increase. We are an epidemic, a crisis, a plague. The destruction we wreak exceeds that of Aids, of 9/11. We are a source of unimaginable suffering, sorrow, and grief; we are worse than cancer because unlike cancer, autism is not fatal. The nightmare is 24/7 and never ends. 

You may have heard people arguing about us. 

For years now, our parents have gone to court to force their governments to pay to save those of us who can be saved, before it's too late. Unlike non-autistic children who need only care and education suited to themselves, everyone agrees that autistics need transformation by heroic and very expensive interventions or else we are doomed. Everyone agrees autistics are unable to communicate, or to learn from the environment; and we're preoccupied by repetitive movements and interests that everyone agrees are useless and worthless--never mind bizarre, and repugnant. This doesn't sound like an argument, so why all the court cases? These cases are serious: one has been fought all the way to the Supreme Court. 

The opponents in these fiercely-contested legal battles have agreed throughout that autistics have no place in these proceedings, and no interests, except in no longer being or at least acting like ourselves. Unreconstructed autistics are assumed to contribute nothing to society; we have no abilities and no strengths, no characteristics and no achievements worthy of consideration or protection. So we are excluded from these cases. We are neither invited nor consulted, and everyone agrees on this also.

The Charter has been busy in these cases. For example, Section 7 has been used to argue that who we are, unless irrevocably altered via intensive behavioural interventions, is an offence to the inherent dignity of our persons. We were also deemed an affront to the inherent dignity of our parents' persons. The judge in this case seriously considered these arguments, but decided they could be incorporated into Section 15, the one about equality, regardless of many things, including disability. 

Usually equality is not contingent on the citizen resembling all the other citizens. People with Down syndrome are not required to be or look like people without it in order to have rights, dignity, and freedoms. Jewish people are not required to be less Jewish, nor homosexuals less homosexual. In their own time, both these groups were vilified and considered plagues, and there have been aggressive treatments for homosexuality. Equality rights for autistics, in contrast to all other Canadians, amount to an obligation to be or act less autistic or not autistic at all. Remarkably, everyone agrees to this also. 

So what are they fighting over, these parents and governments who speak for and represent autistics and ensure we cannot identify ourselves, proudly, as autistics without putting our liberty and employment at risk? 

They aren't fighting, or even arguing, over legal rights for autistics. Their actions consistently indicate that on all fronts they agree we shouldn't have any. There is real complicity between the supposed opponents wherein they both agree to denigrate and exclude autistics in whichever ways are expedient to achieve their respective financial goals. They, the parents on one side and the governments on the other, are merely haggling over whose burden we are. In Canada, where the possibility that autistics contribute to society--because of, not in spite of, being who we are--does not exist, this haggling is given the extreme privilege of status as a Charter issue. 

It then becomes easier for me to understand why an eminent physician, Chairman of the Board of my Regional Health Board, can call who I am a plague--prominently, in writing--in the context of an as-described important international autism conference. 

He will be defended on the grounds that there is, it has been decided, a phenomenon going on with autism. With us. And it is appropriate and even helpful to call this phenomenon a plague. He is also tacitly supported by the Provincial Health Minister. 

When an official naively asked me about seeking support from an autism society, I had to explain that adjacent to the eminent physician's plague remark, the president of the local autism society (and vice president and spokesperson for the provincial federation) also writes that who I am is a plague, a plague which must be eradicated once and for all. In addition, she writes that I can't speak for myself, I simply suffer, and must be spoken for by people like herself and her collaborator, the eminent physician. She equally merits the tacit support of the Provincial Health Minister. 

None of these statements or actions would be considered human rights violations; in Canada they are considered true and proper and no objections are raised. 

I am autistic and, because I am excluded from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, I am not a Canadian. Now I am not even sure I am human.

This article, in a slightly edited version, originally appeared in the 12 December 2003 New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal (Guest Commentaries), page 9, under the headline, Autistic Canadians have to deal with their "unusual" status

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