Vicious Cycles: The Problems with Color The Spectrum and Autism Advocacy

You may have heard of an event called ‘Color the Spectrum.’ Most have not.

You may know of a famous YouTuber named Mark Rober. Most, also, haven’t.

You may know about “autism.” But unless that’s part of your life, autism probably doesn’t cross your mind that often.

It just doesn’t. That’s OK. I get that it doesn’t cross most people’s minds that often.

But if you’re in the autism advocacy business, do you get that?

Uh oh.

You might be here because you expected an excoriating, tautly-written invective takedown of this Color the Spectrum event.

That is a problem.

While I fully agree the event (I’m not linking it — look up #ActuallyAutistic and do the work, you deserve it) is a problematic exercise in performative “activism” to support a problematic organization, it has quaked the autistic community and surfaced two oppositional pillars:

1: The wrong kind of advocacy is about “feeling good.”

2: The response to this wrong advocacy is “getting mad.”

That is also a problem.

I made a late career change into a data-centric role. I was scared at first, intimidated, worried that I’d be judged – and this feeling lingered months and months into my role.

But I learned that the fears were often unwarranted.

I’d seen others struggle, because I’d had this struggle myself.

The fear was in “asking.”

Asking to learn. To understand. To do it right.

Why would you fear this, Hunter?

Because I was afraid others would judge me, dismiss me, or assume I should have know better when I was earnestly trying to seek help.

My greatest fear?


I was scared that people would be angry at me for not knowing — I was afraid to learn, to know.

Only then would I never bother to ask.

But if I did, I was deliberate in who I would ask.

Autism advocacy is not a monolith.

Now, autism ADVOCATES themselves have been anything but. One of the best wins is taking the stereotype of “precocious, kinda-awkward young white male” and placing that through a prism to show autism’s truer, more beautiful colors.

But those prismatic lights — I worry that they all converge into the same advocating beam.

Judging from the overwhelming, loudest, full-throated response to Color the Spectrum, it seems like the only authentic and actually autistic advocating is ‘MAD.’

If you’re not mad, are you even advocating?

Madness has a useful place, its purpose as a spark — to make our lives devoid of this necessary kick is peril. We’re not built to remain inert and unprovoked forever.

But of the sparks, the fires, the flares: to what end are we setting alight change? Or are these bonfires, rages unbound, cyclical?

Remember All in a Row? You might: it’s a play about an autistic child, who is portrayed by a puppet. Outrage ensued, voices were loud.

Remember Music? Probably: it’s a film about an autistic person, and it’s problematic for many reasons. Outrage ensued, voices were loud.

Now here we are with Color the Spectrum. Outrage ensues, voices are loud.

We were heard.

Why is no one listening?

The problem with autism advocacy is that it all too quickly becomes a monolith of anger.

Anger gets heard. It gets promoted. It riles the base. It builds influencers within a group for a specific charge — wait, this sounds familiar.

Uh oh.

Mind you: It’s not bullying. It’s not intolerance. Autistic people have truly been maligned, punished, scored, and ignored. We have hurled our bricks against the windows of “autism allies” and “neurotypical ignorance.”

But we need a better use for the bricks.

Can I share a secret?

People are listening to people about autism. It’s happening. It’s just that the who is not who we want. Here’s why:

The monolith of madness too often keeps out people who want and need to be enlightened. If you want (anecdotal) proof, ask Twitter about autism and use the phrase “[son/daughter] with autism.” Even the potential acerbic reactions about person-first or identity-first language may be enough to make you wish you’d not asked.

Autism advocacy can “jack up the room temperature.” Most people shy away from the uncomfortable, just as a reflex. So when you have people seeking knowledge about autism organizations, and we start throwing out “eugenics” and “ableist cringe” and “eradicating my right to live” – it’s escalating the emotional temperature of the discourse right away — even when you’re not wrong. But that’s going to drive out many who will recoil when they otherwise need to stop, listen, and learn.

Translating raw emotion to education to elevation. It’s fair to say that many autistic people have endured trauma. But autism is a spectrum of experience — the degree of trauma is not equal. We didn’t choose how much or how little to receive. Where the advocacy breakdown often occurs is when the impetus is often emotion-first — and that is a hard place to start when your aim is to explain and elevate the lives of autistic people.

The real reason?

When people want to learn more about autism, they still want to feel good about it.

They’re listening to the softer, reassuring voices, and it doesn’t matter to them if they’re the right voices.

I won’t say which major news networks they are, but you’ve seen the trend.

It’s all high-temperature stuff. It’s meant to be that way. Loudest = most right.

If it’s what you already believe, you get sucked in. That’s your truth. Then it is THE truth. And everyone should feel that way, at the same intensity.

Ever try winning someone over to your side with that same furious intensity?

What happens?

If you don’t know, host a Thanksgiving dinner.

Enragement is the new engagement.

It is not enlightenment.

Autism advocacy is unlocking limitless potential, awakening, belonging, and help within and among the autism community.

But we already believe.

What of those who don’t?

On Autism Archipelago, I am ‘Hunter Island.’

As a (relatively) older autistic person, I’m more alone when it comes to the advocate world.

I have a spouse and children. Again, that doesn’t seem to be common among us advocates.

I have a house and a steady and fulfilling corporate career. At this point, am I even really autistic?

I don’t really get angry in my old age; my energy goes to my creative efforts, my family, my work, and what I love.

I stand stronger for the things I support, not against the things I oppose.

And I’m not sure what that makes me.

Whatever it is, it’s not common.

My bricks are for bridges.

There’s going to come a day where an autistic job seeker will interview. She’ll be nervous. She’s practiced. Doesn’t matter. This is a major step for her.

She ‘ll tailor her answers, but she’ll use a word:


The interviewer doesn’t know that word.

She, the interviewer, will put the pieces together.

But instead of Thought B:

“She isn’t really looking at me when she talks, and she just used a twenty-six dollar word in this answer. She’s probably too weird and academic for this role. I feel bad, but this is a pass already.”

She’ll think Thought A:

“She might not be making eye contact, but she’s incredibly thoughtful, and that word is really specific. I should look it up. It’s possible she’s neurodivergent, I don’t know, but of what little I know of neurodivergent individuals — she seems comfortable being herself. She’s promising. And I want to learn, to hear more.”

My advocacy is going to help get people from Thought B to Thought A.

Even if I may not be the advocate who joins a vicious cycle.

Even if I may not be a loud voice.

Or as popular a voice.

But I am a voice. Even if it’s quieter, more calm. People have heard, listened.

I hope you do too.

We are already the right voices, the actually autistic voices. We owe it to ourselves to bring about the balance, bringing others from pre-enlightened to enlightened. To go beyond heard and listened. To still reject what people get wrong, but more gracefully project what to get right about autism.

To learn more about autism from an autistic person’s perspective, follow & subscribe to The Life Autistic here and on YouTube — and follow the more whimsical, spontaneous, and amusing content on Instagram as well.

My final thoughts on this event, by the way:


Pretending to Forget (and other autism masking tricks you don’t know)

“And you said you just got a new dog — I forget which breed. How’s she doing?”

No, I remembered.

It was a Blue Heeler. I remembered laughing inside, thinking it was ‘Blue Healer.’ And I also remembered, because I’ve seen them before. Their color isn’t actually blue. It’s like a blue French Bulldog. Or the color ‘merle.’ It’s a pattern. And I remember them (Blue Heelers) as Australian Cattle Dogs. I often think of them as Australian Blue Heelers. On this one, I wasn’t sure whether the full name was used. But people seem to just go with the shorter version.

Point being: I remember.

But see, that could scare people. It often does. People mention these throwaway details, the appurtenances of the story, like they’re the barely noticeable accessories of the narrative. The “big thing” I’m supposed to remember.

And that’s the expectation: when we go through the small-talk dance, I am expected to go through the motions. To remember “new puppy.” No – she was adopted. So, “new to them.” It was important enough to mention, but not critical that I remember.

But I do.

Pretending that I don’t is just autistic masking.

It’s almost like an anti-mask. Either which way, there’s very little room to wear it right.

If you remember too many details, you’re a creep. Too few, you’re a dummy. Too precise, you’re a robot. Too imprecise, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

The Life Autistic is an exercise in finding when to pull back or pull over this mask. And that is a tiring endeavor.

I’m working my way out of that.

The other day, I asked a stakeholder how their newer cat (a Hemingway, which I knew, but didn’t mention) was getting on with Louie (whose name I did mention). Those are specific details. It’s specific enough to be off-putting to most, especially since those two cats don’t come up in every conversation.

But I remembered. And I’m going without that mask more often.

Here’s some of the masks you’ll likely never notice — except now you will.

Feigned imprecision. People ask me about numbers. I’ve learned to be more “round.” It’s 25%, even if in my mind I know it’s actually 24.73% and am thinking that in my head. It comes out as 25%.

Limited depth of interest. You ask about my current favorite artists: I’ll stop at three. If I’m feeling my more autistic self, then I’ll check my list and give a dozen. That’s too many. Then it sounds like I’m just showing off. I’m not. I just listen to a lot of music.

Simplifying. I’ll try to use simpler words. I don’t always say strident or vituperative. Bitter is fine. And, y’know what, no — strident is a good one. I’mma use that.

Unmasking is an ongoing thing for me, for other autistic people. It’s been such a long exercise that it almost feels part of me — too much so. I’ve used the phrase “drill in” and almost forgot that I’d reflexively say “inculcate” instead. My ambient music lists would often once run deeper when compelled; now I’ll usually just say “Steve Roach, and, well, stuff like that.”

This is a process.

The dog’s name was Velvet.

To learn more about autism from an autistic person’s perspective, follow & subscribe to The Life Autistic here and on YouTube — and follow the more whimsical, spontaneous, and amusing content on Instagram as well.

If you want to know more about masking, you’ll enjoy this:

Pause and Affect: Autistic Reflections Away

It was an unannounced break from the blog.

Nothing happened; I was out of state, away vacationing. Months and years ago, I’d have felt guilty for not hanging an out-of-office sign here, but I’ve learned to trust people to be more understanding.

But I still felt a teeny bit uneasy while on vacation.

Vacationing while autistic just isn’t vacationing.

That’s OK.

Many people look for the BREAK in routine as the object, the major events that rakes across their dreadful monotonies, the joyous, carefree lightning locks of freewheeling adventure, perfectly-framed travelogues, and limitless Epicurean delights —

No, that’s not me.

I live in the routine. I glide through the monotony. I rest easiest in the pulses, knowing where the surges and pauses are to come.

This vacation was a better one.

In The Life Autistic, you’re probably not living for the weekend nor readying to plunge headlong into the idyllic charms of beach, amusement park, or [insert stock vacation here]. You’re planning. Preparing. Adapting.

Or in some cases, you’re undoing yourself from the stereotypical notions of what a vacation should be and readying, preparing, smoothing out the folds of dread.

This is also OK.

I’m back now.

But I’m not quite back here.

Vacation was a good break from the creative ventures too, where the pause helped me reassess where I am burning bright or burning out.

It clarified the kind of things that are still burning hot and fueling a lot of joy, despite the expense. Videos (short and long) remain a fruitful endeavor, and I’ve found myself being worked into more speaking and podcast engagements — those are both new, and I enjoy contributing where I can.

But that leaves, yes, my writing.

Despite this being my first autism advocacy venture, it’s veering closer to burnout. Ironic, given my Hephaestean craft, writing as a first love as well. It’s a fickle beast — the fires temperamental.

I won’t be forsaking this in total; I just need to extend the vacation to this domain too. The stories will be told, not forced. For as much as I devote myself to routines, I’ve learned to pinpoint when they’re serving me, and when I’ve veered too far into serving them.

Vacation had a purpose.

I’m glad for the purpose in unplugging, enjoying some sand, enjoying time with my family, seeing my kids enjoy their first visit to the Atlantic Ocean, seeing weird birds, and then following up with a more mellow staycation at home. It was purposeful, and I enjoyed it at my autistic best.

But it served a good creative purpose, helping me see better what I really wanted to come back to and what I felt could wait a little longer.

The words can wait.

They’ll always be there.