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Review: Loud Hands

Posted on Wednesday, March 20th, 2013 at 7:32 pm

Author: s.e. smith

Loud Hands (The Autistic Press, 2012) is a revolutionary anthology curated by autistic people and filled with autistic voices. It takes narratives back from the neurotypical community and challenges notions about autism, communication, and society. As a project of the larger Loud Hands Project, this book is a much-needed entry in the body of work by and for the disabled community, as well as that intended for nondisabled audiences.

It is simultaneously insightful, challenging, provocative, and stark, and Julia Bascomb’s careful oversight of the project is evident both in the arrangement and selection of essays, blog posts, personal reflections, and reprints of speeches found within. Something for every reader, from the seasoned disability rights activist to someone very new to the autistic community—including newly diagnosed autistics struggling with their identities and sense of selves—can be found within these pages.

The very title of the text puts the reader on notice; ‘Loud Hands’ is a defiant, firm rejection of an admonition many autistics heard in their childhood, when therapists, teachers, and staff stifled their expression with harsh measures to still their hands. Autistics recount having their hands tied or held down to suppress flapping and other self-stimulation behaviours, viewed as inappropriate and undesirable by the people around them, and in Loud Hands, as well as the Loud Hands Project, autistics storm the stage with their own voices.

One common thread throughout the anthology is the deconstruction of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ methods of communication, and the reification of modes of communication (and, through that, the ranking of autistics by the people around them). Spoken verbal communication is considered the peak of accomplishment and achievement, when compared with written communication, the use of picture boards, body language, and other modes of reaching out to the surrounding people and environment. This leads to the rejection and isolation of non-speaking autistics.

While Loud Hands is limited by being presented in a text medium, the authors present in its pages remind readers that spoken verbal communication is not the only way to speak and be heard, and challenge narratives of ‘nonverbal’ or ‘uncommunicative’ autistics; in ‘Non-Speaking, ‘Low Functioning,’’ Amy Sequenzia writes sharply on the subject of ‘fixing’ autistics, of the projection that something must be broken: ‘Most of them never thought about asking us what could make our lives more productive, less anxious; or trying to understand a non-speaking autistic who has not yet found a way to communicate.’

Arranged into several themed sections, Loud Hands explores the history of the autistic community, rhetoric, social attitudes and their consequences, and the forecast for the future. Detailed, thoughtful essays like Jim Sinclair’s ‘Autism Network International: The Development of a Community and Its Culture,’ Shain Neuemeir, JD’s ‘Inhumane Beyond All Reason,’ and Nick Walker’s ‘Throw Away the Master’s Tools: Liberating Ourselves from the Pathology Paradigm’ provide a solid grounding not just in theory but in actuality and history, confronting readers with the realities of life for autistic people.

They contrast sharply and brilliantly with deeply personal pieces like Zoe Gross’ ‘Killing Words,’ which examines the kind of language used in reporting about autistic people killed by their family members, and Julia Bascom’s ‘Quiet Hands,’ on being told to silence your body to fit in. The ‘Voice’ section of Loud Hands specifically explores extensions of voice and identity, with several essays discussing the value of keyboards and communication boards to non-speaking autistics. In these pages, the wealth of connections and the freedom that have been provided through such means are made evident, challenging the attitude that autistics must speak to be heard and to fit in.

Within these essays are a number of essays confronting popular mythologies, beliefs, and attitudes about autism; ‘Don’t Mourn for Us,’ Jim Sinclair says, articulating the damage done to autistics with rhetoric that treats autism as the end of the world, something that steals away a perfectly healthy child. Zoe Gross explores these issues in depth as well in ‘Metaphor Stole My Autism: The Social Construction of Autism as Separable from Personhood, and Its Effect on Policy, Funding, and Perception.’ She takes a particularly close look at the harmful campaigns orchestrated by Autism Speaks, a leading ‘advocacy’ organization heavily criticised in a number of essays in Loud Hands for its eliminationist goals.

There are also some direct challenges to attitudes within the disability community in Loud Hands as well, and many of them are sharp, provocative, and timely. Amanda Baggs in ‘The Meaning of Self-Advocacy’ distinguishes between theory and praxis, pointing out that individuals acting in defense of each other, representing each other, representing themselves, are self-advocates every bit as much as articulate autistics (as Julia Bascomb calls herself in ‘On Being Articulate’) representing the community in hearings on Capitol Hill.

Cal Montgomery, in ‘Critic of the Dawn’ looks at rhetoric employed by the larger disability rights movement and asks whether it truly serves all disabled people, and all autistics; in one section of the essay, for example, she drills down into the idea of ‘independent living’ versus being ‘dependent,’ asking about the arbitrary divisions between ‘dependent’ and ‘independent’—why are you independent if your clothes are made by someone else, but dependent if you need help cooking? Why do some members of the disability rights movement distance themselves from others? I would have loved to see her explore the notions of interdependency arising within some corners of the disability rights movement to challenge the artificial division between dependency and independence.

Numerous essays in the anthology also address functioning labels and the exclusion of ‘low-functioning’ autistics from within the larger disability rights movement as well as, at times, the autistic community. Such labels, Amy Sequenzia writes, are inaccurate and unnecessary, used to divide people arbitrarily. Many are heavily predicated on whether an autistic speaks, and how well she can pass for a neurotypical person, again positioning autism as something wrong that must be fixed, instead of part of the spectrum of human diversity. These essays are a reminder of the huge diversity of experiences along the autism spectrum as well as a challenge to the reader to rethink functioning labels.

Loud Hands is a fantastically well-rounded primer, but more than that, it’s a text I’ll be referencing frequently for the breadth and detail of its content. As I read, I felt autistic pride bubbling up within me, and I thought with eagerness about the ripples of change that will follow the Loud Hands Project, which has many more exciting initiatives planned to break down social and attitudinal barriers when it comes to how neurotypical people relate with autistics on an individual, institutional, and policy level.

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  1. Thanks for the comprehensive review. Some of those essays have been available on the web for a long time, and I am so glad they’ll be available now to people who perceive paper-based information as more valid.

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