By Morénike Giwa Onaiwu
It’s hard not to feel a sense of incredulous disbelief as I struggle to put together my words and thoughts for this article as one of several “powerful women” on the autism spectrum. There was a time in my life when I truly never believed that I would be viewed by anyone as even remotely powerful.
For so many years I felt vulnerable, powerless, unseen, and misunderstood.
This was exacerbated by many aspects of my identity: I was an undiagnosed Autistic girl, a person of color, an individual with a “weird” name due to being part of an immigrant family, and someone with limited economic resources. All of these attributes intersected with one another, contributing to silencing and erasure in some instances and discrimination and marginalization in others.
To combat that, I learned early on to resist, even if sometimes resistance was solely internal. I had to believe that there was something more than what I could perceive, and that things wouldn’t remain the way that they were for me, and for people like me, forever. Even though I had no indication that there was any reason to hope for change, for better, subconsciously I think I did anyway. Because the alternative was to accept the status quo – something I just couldn’t do.
When you feel like there’s nothing to lose, it can embolden you in ways that are difficult to describe.
I remember my initial foray into advocacy years ago. I was angry and bruised, and I wanted to DO something. I didn’t yet know enough to be intimidated by what I was up against nor by the systemic nature of the issues that I bristled against. Maybe that’s a good thing – and I can credit my neurology for that; being able to hone in and hyperfocus on certain inequities rather than be overwhelmed by the totality (and seemingly hopeless nature) of the overall problem(s) prevented inertia. In fact, it propelled me even more to act, to move, to try. In retrospect, I can understand how to some it makes no sense, but logic isn’t the sole factor which drives our actions; justice and emotions (as well as other things) do as well.
I knew so little; yet I felt so deeply. I had few resources, but I was overflowing with sincerity and purpose. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I brought my flawed but genuine contribution forth regardless, uniting what I had with others’ efforts to amplify our impact. I made countless mistakes, and still do, but even in that I have seen change. I have experienced some hard-earned victories. I began to cultivate a begrudging yet undeniable bit of hope. Not enough to become complacent, but enough to dream of a better tomorrow. It will not come easily, but I think – I hope – that it will have a chance to exist.
Black. Autistic. A woman. An Autistic parent. An abuse survivor. An educator. A writer. An advocate.
When I think about myself and my life, it’s almost like residing atop a pendulum. Ceaselessly swinging from one extreme to another, but not haphazardly. I embody oppression and privilege simultaneously and it’s important for me to be cognizant of that. It’s even more important to utilize any platform that I am granted effectively. Because it’s about all of us, and if one of us rises, we all rise.
We – as we are right now – are powerful. And strong. That power is real and exists within all of us, individually. It’s there. However, our power is magnified exponentially when we join together, so that’s what I encourage us all to do.
The work that I do isn’t easy.
There is so much ableism in our society, both overt and covert. The predominant view of autism and of Autistics in general remains a one-sided and skewed deficit-based perspective drawn primarily from the opinions of those who do not share our diagnosis. Their myopic, eugenic demands drown out our voices, and when our declarations of our inherent value and personhood as well as our right to exist and our pleas to be presumed as competent beings actually slice through the chaos momentarily, we are immediately disregarded and dismissed as “not like” their child and therefore irrelevant. Yet as it is our numbers that are misappropriated to justify their cries for a cure, why are we “autistic enough” to be included in your statistics as evidence of the “autism epidemic” but not autistic enough to have a voice at our own table?
Not that there is total harmony within our heterogeneous autistic community either.
The same power structures that exist in most larger groups are present in ours as well. Individuals from certain racial, gender, socioeconomic, and other groups still face marginalization and microaggressions in neurodiverse settings. For me personally, when that happens, it hurts even more because it is coming from one of “my own” rather than from an outsider. It is an ugly, yet truthful reality, and it complicates things. It also dilutes our effectiveness, because it’s challenging to bring one’s best to the battle when internal dynamics and infighting have usurped a significant amount of your strength and confidence. We have to do better, and I know we can. And I hope that we will. I believe in us.
So, let’s build one another up.
I need you, and you need me, and they need us, and we need them. Let’s encourage one another; let’s lift one another; let’s empower one another. After all, powerful women (and please note that my definition of women is an inclusive one that encompasses all who identify as women) exist because when we are drained, when we are weakened, when we are low, we are able to be renewed by a powerful community. Let’s strive to be that for one another – not just now, but until we usher in that future. The one that’s not perfect, but is better. The one I dream of. It’s coming.
Morénike Giwa Onaiwu is an Autistic woman of color, educator, writer, public speaker, parent, and global advocate. A proactive, resourceful professional, Morénike, whose undergraduate and graduate degrees are in International Relations and Education, is passionate about human rights, justice, and inclusion. She is a contributing author/editor of several publications, abstracts, and books focusing on community engagement, HIV research, disability, diversity, and nontraditional leadership. Morénike has been an invited speaker in the White House, at the UN, and numerous national disability, advocacy, and research conferences. You can follow her work online via her website MorenikeGO.com and/or her handle @MorenikeGO on social media.
READ MORE ARTICLES:
Editor’s Letter: In this Issue: Fierce Advocates for Women and Autistic Rights
Powerful Women Cover Story Interviews
- Alyssa Milano Speaks Out for a Better World for All Women
- Julia Bascom on the Amazing, Vibrant and Resilient Autistic Community
- Sharon daVanport Finds Power in Her Joy
- Mia Ives-Rublee: Stop Listening to the Naysayers & Fight for What You Believe
- Hala Ayala: Seeking Out and Learning from Diverse Voices
- Senator Duckworth: A Lifelong Mission of Supporting, Protecting and Keeping Promises
- Advocating for Others by Advocating for Myself by Chana Bennett-Rumley
- Facing the Music and Changing My Life by Michelle DeVos, Esq.
- The Three Amigas: An Unexpected Friendship by Dani Bowman
In Every Issue
- Cummings and Goings: Finding Power in Who You Are by Conner Cummings
- #AskingAutistics: Have You Ever Been Accused of Acting MORE Autistic? by Christa Holmans
- Don’t Get Me Down: Fighting Autistic Inertia by Becca Lory Hector
- The View from Here: Starring in the Real-Life Drama as “The Good Anesthetist” by Anita Lesko
With Updates from Jacob Fuentes and Carly Fulgham at end of article
Big Question: What Advice Would You Give to Your Younger Self?
Discover more Zoom Issues:
- Issue 13: Family
- Issue 14: Trailblazers
- Issue 15: Powerful Women
- Archived issues on the Zoom Home Page