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?

Anger.

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:

Vituperative.

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:

4 thoughts on “Vicious Cycles: The Problems with Color The Spectrum and Autism Advocacy

  1. Of course I agree. Wholeheartedly.

    It does perhaps do well with the context of Advocates or just Neurodivergent folks railing against the machine.
    “Catching flies with honey” is a completely valid advocacy mantra. But who is an advocate and does that label really mean anything to the receiver in the digital space.

    (I’m going to sound like an apologist now for a bit so apologies in advance). There is a tricky space, occupied by battered and abused autistic and neurodivergent folks that are in a rolling meltdown from micro (and macro) agressions. The ones that are hurt from being told by professionals that they shouldn’t use identity first language, that they are rude for being the “well actually” person who would like to correct an incorrect assumption, that are told by established “support” charities that it would be better off if they were cured or not here at all. It’s hard being the good little autistic (corrected to ‘person with autism’) and asking “Can I have an accommodation – maybe like raising my hand in a meeting when it’s my turn to talk” and being told “No, you are being difficult.” Being mocked or left out of crucial decisions because you’re “just too difficult.” Being shut out enough that exiting society completely seems like the only valid option.

    I have to commend you on your balanced and helpful advocacy. I think that indeed comes with experience and wisdom (is that reverse ageism?). I think that you’ll get some flack for it from the folks I’ve just mentioned. I know Pete Wharmby et al have received flaming invective from parts of the community when offering support to autistic parents. The positivity and hope are important for people new to the community and those established in it as it’s a hard road even with examples of success. And although we don’t feel like success at times, showing that we can get out of bed and try again is a revolutionary and supportive act.

    I think that the vitriol has it’s place. Spouting eugenics deserves to be met with a firm and decisive “NO”. But as you well say it cannot and will not get us over the line that is appreciation and welcome.

    Once again, thank you for your incredible content. It’s kept me away from the edge and been a light in the dark places on more than one occasion. You are appreciated.

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