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How Ableism Affects My Life as a Non-Speaking Autistic

By Benjamin McGann

I am autistic and non-speaking. I spell to communicate. But I am not stupid. I am not in my own world. I am right here with you, listening to everything in my environment.

I enjoy listening to podcasts on my iPad. I enjoy listening to NPR on Alexa. I love watching documentaries and recently appeared in “The Reason I Jump,” which premiered at Sundance in January 2020. The documentary is based on the book of the same name written by Naoki Higashida, a non-speaking autistic like me.

I have participated in several Q&As about the documentary. There is a recurring question: “What do you want people to take away from seeing the film?” My response is essentially the same: “Non-speaking does not mean non-thinking.”

It is a common misconception that if you can’t talk, then you can’t learn and you don’t know anything. This assumption is rooted in ableism, which is discrimination against differently-abled people based on the belief that typical abilities are important and enhance your status in life. In my case, the ability to speak has always influenced my interactions with others.

Ableism is harmful in the academic context and also in social settings.

Because of ableist beliefs, I was placed in segregated classrooms for virtually my entire school life. A segregated classroom is small, consisting solely of children with disabilities. When I say segregated, I mean children with disabilities were not included in the general classroom.

In this classroom, I did not have proper communication support. My aide spoke very little English. It was a sign that my communication needs were not a priority. The aide was primarily there to check the box. She had no capacity to support me and no agency to advocate for me. This was my reality. I learned nothing in the classroom.

It was a challenge managing my behaviors so that I was available to instruction. The behaviors largely reflected my frustration at being unable to express my wants and needs. So the school focused on containment and exclusion.

Luckily, I had a rich learning environment at home. My Mom brought in teachers, grad students, and ABA therapists to teach me after school and in the summer. I had speech therapy and vision therapy.

Because of those supports, I have been communicating by spelling for about seven years now. I have taken high school government and history classes. I passed the National Financial Literacy Certificate course. I have audited several college courses introducing psychology and public health students to autism. I want to get a GED. I cannot make up for lost time but I want to continue learning.

I currently am enrolled in the Smithsonian Associates Art History program and will earn a certificate in World Art History. The program consists of lectures and includes core subjects and electives. I would like to work in a museum. My favorite museum is The Met in NYC. I would love to visit the Louvre and the Prado.

The difference now is that I am able to demonstrate cognition and comprehension. I also have a community of support that presumes competence, which means they don’t make assumptions about someone’s capabilities based solely on observations, expectations, or long-held beliefs. They approach everyone as if they are capable and available to learn and share ideas. Both are important if I am to live my best life.

I am passionate about communication choice. It is important to recognize and respect the voices of those who communicate differently. More importantly, do not mistake our silence for ignorance, disinterest, or inability. Whether teachers or colleagues or complete strangers: presume competence.

A headshot picture of Ben McGann, who is wearing glasses and a dress shirt

Benjamin McGann is 25-years-old and lives in Arlington, VA. He lives independently in an apartment with a roommate and enjoys a community of support that includes family, friends, and allies. He spent his early years in Kenya and teen years in Fiji. Ben has autism and is non-speaking. He spells to communicate using a letter board and is a passionate advocate for inclusion and communication choice. Ben enjoys swimming and art history. He is a former member of the Board of ASAN, a member of I-ASC, and was featured in the award-winning documentary "The Reason I Jump," based on the book of the same name, which premiered at Sundance in January 2020.


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