How William Shatner Betrayed Autistic People’s Trust

If this were an episode of Star Trek, Kirk would have learned an important lesson by now.

April is Autism Awareness Month, the traditional time for awareness campaigns to go terribly — and painfully — off the rails. Autistic people have learned not to expect much from these efforts on our behalf; often, we dread finding out what well-meaning allistics have cooked up for our benefit. This year, though, the betrayal was especially keen: none other than William Shatner, the original James T. Kirk from the much-beloved-by-autistics Star Trek, has been boldly going where so many backhanded “awareness” advocates have gone before.

It started on April 2, styled as World Autism Awareness Day. Shatner tweeted a graphic that featured a puzzle piece inside of a light bulb on a blue background, along with the caption “#NewProfilePic #lightitupblue #WorldAutismAwarenessDay.” The Light It Up Blue campaign and the puzzle piece image are both the products of Autism Speaks, a charity that is almost universally loathed by actually autistic people. If we’re being polite, we might say that we take issue with the fact that the organization’s name is presumptuous, that they only recently allowed autistic people into positions of any power, that almost none of their operating budget goes to supporting people like us, that they perpetuate narratives that portray us as tragic burdens on those who love us, and that they only recently rejected their anti-vaxx roots. If we’re being real, some of us will say that they promote eugenics and hate speech. They also indirectly harm autistics by ruining certain brands of chocolate and a certain percentage of celebrities for us, because it’s hard to enjoy either of those things when they’re throwing money and publicity at an organization that once funded a video where a mom fantasized about killing her autistic kid in front of her autistic kid.

James T. Kirk has been boldly going where so many backhanded “awareness” advocates have gone before.

A number of autistic people ran down these objections for Shatner, enjoining him to rethink his profile picture. He told them to go start their own charity before blocking them. When he was informed that autistic people had, in fact, started their own organizations, notably the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, he retorted that ASAN’s only agenda was attacking Autism Speaks, repeatedly accused ASAN founder Ari Ne’eman of misrepresenting him, and then blocked Ne’eman, too. He also blocked noted allies David Perry and Steve Silberman, author of Neurotribes, for trying to reason with him. That’s the point at which I realized we were where no man had gone before; abled people are usually much better about shutting up and listening to disability issues when their fellow “normals” get involved. But Shatner wasn’t hearing anything from anyone. As I write this, he’s still blathering on and lashing out, essentially portraying himself as the victim because autistic people dared to demand a say in our own damned awareness.

This particular clash has a unique sting for autistics, because as fellow autistic writer (and fellow Barton Fink referencer) Zack Budryk pointed out in his piece on the Shatner debacle, a lot of us tend to have a special relationship with the Star Trek franchise. When it comes to ’60s cult hits that played a fundamental role in the development of the slash fanfiction community, I’m really more of a Man From UNCLE person, but even I’ve turned to the Trek universe for comfort over the years. Whether it’s the explicit social lessons woven into the worlds, the complex world-building that feels readymade for a population prone to intense and detailed interests, or the fact that logical and occasionally odd characters like Spock and Data are both accepted and celebrated for their differences, Gene Roddenberry’s vision has a lot of powerful things to offer autistic people.

But this kind of online blowup and its fallout are far from just an autism issue. It’s the natural outcome when campaigns that treat awareness as a goal in of itself enlist privileged celebrities with no real stake in the matter. The spokespeople read a simple platitude off a cue card, feel good about themselves, cash their checks — and then get angry and defensive when the people they were supposedly trying to support tell them that the glow of their important three seconds of attention didn’t help anything, and may have genuinely hurt.

This kind of blowup is the natural outcome when campaigns that treat awareness as a goal enlist privileged celebrities with no real stake in the matter.

The majority of my empathy resides with the people who have been hurt by Shatner’s actions (let’s all share memes while reassuring each other that the dearly departed Leonard Nimoy would never have done this to us!). But, being autistic, I have an overabundance of empathy, and I do have a little left over for Shatner himself. I, too, have unintentionally harmed people with less privilege than me when I thought I was helping, and I too had a knee-jerk reaction when I was called out for it. I am, after all, a white woman. I also screwed up in the early days of my self advocacy and hurt my fellow autistic people.

When I first started my now long-neglected blog, Awesometism, not long after my diagnosis, I used labels like “high-functioning.” I was all hopped up on some ridiculous notion that I needed to acknowledge my “high-functioning privilege” because I might have some advantages in life that other people on the spectrum didn’t. I was disastrously and harmfully wrong about that — as many autistic advocates who came long before me have articulated far better than I ever could — and a fellow autistic called me out on it. I reacted shamefully at first. I was doing the right thing for my less fortunate neurosiblings! How dare they question by amazing and benevolent efforts?

Once I calmed down and got over myself, though, I realized two things: 1. That person was right and 2. I was extremely lucky that they’d approached me with their concerns at all.

When someone from a group you’re ostensibly trying to champion reaches out and asks you to reconsider, they’re putting a lot of faith in you.

Here’s the thing Shatner doesn’t get: When someone from a group you’re ostensibly trying to champion reaches out and asks you to reconsider, they’re putting a lot of faith in you. Chances are, they’ve been burned before when asking people who claimed to be on their side to actually be on their side. They’ve probably been accused of being overly negative, of attacking, of not being grateful enough, and just plain not getting it. If you think the experience sucks for you, imagine how much harder it is for the person on the other side of an exchange like that. They’ve been hurt by your original gesture — multiplied by the many, many similar efforts they’ve suffered before yours — and they’re risking further hurt, not to mention the attention of your fans if you have any profile whatsoever, by approaching you. And, through some mix of hope and frustration, they trusted you with their vulnerability and their efforts to help you change and become the person you want to believe that you are. What is your discomfort and embarrassment compared to that? Their actions are such a remarkably powerful gift. The least you can do if someone tries to give it to you is to hear them out.

I wish Shatner would act just a bit more like the captain that he played on screen. So many of my fellow autistics have trusted him with their faith, in the face of all of the twisted “awareness” that we’ve suffered through. And he has paid them back by dismissing their pain, vilifying them and attacking them, and turning into one more person who thinks they know more about us and what’s good for us than we do.

If this were an episode of Star Trek, Kirk would have already learned an important lesson about respecting our “alien” culture by now. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s going to happen in real life. But I hope someone else will learn from his mistakes — and from my own.

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