Systemic silencing mechanisms in autism/autistic advocacy in Ontario, Canada



The fight for inclusion and representation is a constant struggle for many marginalized groups. The autistic community in Ontario, Canada, is no exception. While strides have been made in recent years towards autism awareness and acceptance, a new study published in March 2024 by Cheuk Ming Tsang exposes a concerning reality: the silencing of autistic voices within the very advocacy circles that aim to support them. Titled “Systemic Silencing Mechanisms in Autism/Autistic Advocacy in Ontario, Canada,” Tsang’s research delves into the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which power dynamics and ingrained biases create barriers for autistic individuals to meaningfully participate in shaping their own narrative.


Beyond Interviews: A Holistic Look at the Landscape


Tsang’s research goes beyond simply collecting opinions. The study employs a robust mixed-methods approach to gather comprehensive data. Over a two-year period (2021-2022), the researcher conducted in-depth interviews with a diverse group of 50 participants. This rich tapestry of voices included autistic adults, parents of autistic individuals, disability advocates from various backgrounds, organizers of grassroots autism advocacy groups, social workers who navigate the complexities of the system, policy insiders with a finger on the pulse of current legislation, and academics who contribute valuable research and analysis.


In addition to the interview data, Tsang conducted a thorough document analysis of relevant materials from 2018 to 2022. This triangulation of data sources – interviews, lived experiences, and official documents – provides a nuanced and multi-faceted understanding of the challenges faced by autistic individuals within the Ontario autism advocacy landscape.


The Dichotomy Trap: Choosing Sides in a Divided Landscape


One of the most concerning findings of Tsang’s research is the pressure placed on autistic adults to choose sides within the advocacy community. Many autistic individuals feel forced to align themselves with either parent-led or expert-led advocacy groups. This creates a false dichotomy, presenting a limited view of the needs and experiences within the autistic community.


The pressure to conform doesn’t stop there. Tsang’s research explores how the “pro/anti-ABA” stance of some prominent grassroots organizations further fragments the advocacy landscape and creates a form of identity politics. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a therapy approach that has been met with mixed reactions from the autistic community, with some individuals finding it helpful and others reporting negative experiences. This value-based division excludes autistic individuals who may have nuanced perspectives on ABA or whose experiences don’t neatly fit into one camp or the other.


The Power of Definition: Ableism and Symbolic Power


Tsang’s research draws upon the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to explain how ableism operates within advocacy groups. Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic power refers to the ability to define norms and shape cultural understanding. The study argues that by excluding voices that don’t conform to dominant narratives within the advocacy community, these groups perpetuate a narrow definition of what it means to be autistic. This marginalizes autistic individuals who may not fit the stereotypical mold or who challenge prevailing assumptions about autism.


The research emphasizes the need to move beyond a binary view of autism and autistic experiences. Tsang proposes the concept of a “grey area” to acknowledge the spectrum of identities and perspectives within the autistic community. This reframing could foster a more inclusive and representative advocacy landscape that embraces the diversity of the autistic experience.


Building Bridges: Towards a More Inclusive Future


Tsang’s research offers a starting point for dismantling the silencing mechanisms within Ontario’s autism advocacy. By acknowledging the power dynamics at play and embracing the full spectrum of autistic experiences, advocacy groups can begin to create a more inclusive space where all voices are heard and valued. This collaborative approach is essential for ensuring that advocacy efforts truly reflect the needs and aspirations of the autistic community.


The road to a more inclusive future requires ongoing dialogue, a willingness to learn from diverse perspectives, and a commitment to dismantling the structures that perpetuate ableism. Tsang’s research serves as a crucial call to action for all stakeholders involved in autism advocacy: parents, autistic individuals themselves, professionals, and policymakers. By working together to create a space where all voices are valued, the path can be paved for a future where the fight for inclusion is not just for some, but for all.



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top