The Autism “Campus” and the Ableist Potential of “Potential”

Filed Under (Ableism, Activism, Institutions) by Estee on 17-06-2013

Part of writing a blog and writing at all is the responsibility I tend to feel for supporting myself and others. Yet I have to tell you, since Adam was diagnosed with this ambiguous “autism” nearly 11 years ago now, anger and frustration and my love for him fuels writing and work – as it does for so many. Let me start here: we have a deeply engrained prejudice towards non-verbal people in our society, and towards those whose bodies don’t conform.

The reality is, this is not a black and white issue so if one says one thing, it gets reified (e.g. autism is x or he does this because of autism). The complexity of human BEING is ignored, especially for autistic people. As I watch Adam’s body tense and react to even the slightest pain (yesterday he hurt himself in a rose bush), these days with a bite, I am caught between feeling grateful for support but also upset that I have to be careful in how I question this support (for fear of losing it entirely… a crappy position many of us are forced into). Alas, we have to question it and everything that happens in an autistic person’s life to fill out the picture and to support and autistic person well. We need to do this all together – to look at the whole person and not the label and not all behaviours as the result of autism or as, well, just a behaviour. Adam’s body is intensely aroused and as this is happening at the beginning of puberty, I’m very worried about how long kids are asked to sit and comply. We must reconsider physical and behavioural compliance in the name of boys needing to be boys. This is recently called the “feminization of boys” and although gender-blame is problematic, it does point to an issue in how we approach education overall. Autistic boys should be considered in this respect as well. You can’t remediate before you respect. You’ve got to respect and include autistic kids from the beginning. Differential treatment also can lead to equality and respect. Differential treatment need not be remediation; it is the form of accommodation, acceptance and respecting sensory and other differences and needs.

This leads to another concern I have – so-called “autism campuses” being created. How does that serve the rights of autistic people to be included in society? Back in the day, an asylum was considered a wonderful refuge where disabled people could learn life skills, do work in “sheltered workshops,” be “educated” to their potential. It was a hopeful place where people would be treated “with respect.” Does this sound familiar? I don’t know about how you feel about it, but it reminds me of just how close we are again to re-institutionalization and the issue we have with notions of “potential” and “remediation.” There comes a point when educating to potential can turn into another form of ableism because it asks that a person become a normate. Potential doesn’t necessarily mean “as close to normalcy as possible.” Now that Adam is experiencing this intense arousal (and he has been already redirecting himself to an object to bite, without my telling him to do it), how will “the system” view him as a (non) person? Will our only choice be an autism campus? A thorny issue.


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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (, and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.