DAISY: Do you even hear what you’re saying? You sound like one of those hate groups that’s been trolling the Internet—the, the Watchdogs or whatever they’re calling themselves. ‘Kill the aliens and take back the planet.’
LINCOLN: That’s not what this is about. It’s about giving people a choice.
DAISY: It’s a birthright. It is not a choice.
We’ve had a feminist post this month, siding with a story and its portrayal of a heroine. One touchy subject talked, let’s hit another before April finishes out: autism. You may know that April is Autism Awareness—or, as many autistics prefer to call it, Autism Acceptance—Month. Autistics use this month to educate other about autism. They speak out against Autism Speaks (which is a whole separate issue in itself). They talk about their favorite autistic characters—headcanons or otherwise. Of course, these activities aren’t limited to April. But I’ve seen an increase in these efforts in the past month among my autistic friends.
By now, I’m sure you’re wondering what place Autism Acceptance Month has on a blog about literature, and what Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has to do with it. After all, none of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. characters is autistic, right? Perhaps not, though there’s a solid case to be made for at least one character. But that’s not where I’m going with this. I want to talk about Inhumans. For the sake of clarity, here’s where I’m headed: I think there is a remarkable parallel between autistics and Inhumans (particularly pre-Hive).
Remember, if you will, that Inhumans are born Inhuman. Without exposure to a Terrigen crystal, they don’t show their unique DNA, but Inhumans always have that DNA. They are Inhuman from birth and will be until death. Here is a subset of the Earth’s human population made distinct from birth. They are human, but something sets them apart. Something makes Inhumans special, and it’s in their very DNA.
So it is with autistics. There is almost certainly a genetic component to autism. People are born autistic and will remain autistic until they die. However, some—due to social conditioning, behavioral therapy, and the like—learn to mask their autism. In this way, there are thousands of autistics hidden among the general population, denied of their birthright. They hide their stims. They learn to mimic eye contact by looking at a person’s shoulder or lips or nose. They stifle their special interests and participate in small talk. They stamp out meltdowns, believing this loss of control is like a toddler’s temper tantrum. They push through shutdowns, not understanding what makes life suddenly so distant and yet weighty.
And then comes Terragenesis. The Inhuman is reborn. With the right support, a new Inhuman can master their powers and become comfortable with this new understanding of themselves. They have not changed who they are; they have merely reached a new stage in their existence. They burst from the chrysalis, literally, and are renewed. Think about Skye. After she went through Terragenesis, she became Daisy. Not immediately, but definitively. At first, she was terrified and dangerous. But the more she learned, the more her transformation gave her a place in this new world. She has changed a great deal, but she changed in accordance with who she has always been.
Autistics don’t enter a chrysalis and emerge with powers. Yet, they have a powerful tool in the form of diagnosis, whether a careful self-diagnosis or an expensive medical one. Either way there is security in knowing who you are, who you have always been. Like an Inhuman learning their new powers, autistics—particularly teens and adults who recognize their autistic traits later in life—discover or rediscover the joy of stimming, the fulfillment of special interests, the reduced stress of atypical socializing, and the release of a meltdown or shutdown when they’re overwhelmed. They are reborn, living an emotionally healthier life as they grow to understand and accept themselves.
There is a societal suspicion against both Inhumans and autistics, as humanity decided long ago that different always means wrong or evil or broken. Groups like the ATCU seem decent enough, right? They protect Inhumans, keeping them in suspended animation, searching for a cure. Never mind that they’re not really asking if the Inhumans want a cure. Regardless, they view Inhumans as a contagion to be quarantined and ended. And truly, how bad can they be? Even Lincoln—himself an Inhuman—sees their point. Later in the argument quoted above, Lincoln and Daisy address the issue of Simmons’ vaccine and a cure for Inhumans in general:
DAISY: All I know is that if the government got their hands on a vaccine, it won’t be a choice. They will wipe us out. We do not have a disease, Lincoln.
LINCOLN: Technically, it is a disease. I studied this. Any disturbance of structure of function of the body—
And there Daisy cuts him off. Here’s why: Lincoln has bought into the millennia-old propaganda that different is bad. He hasn’t bought in entirely. In fact, Lincoln’s position seems to be a complicated mix of disease rhetoric and an exclusivity complex. That is, not every Inhuman should have access to the latent powers they’re born with. But even with that attitude, Lincoln clings to a version of the contagion argument. I maintain that this is a form of, in the context of autistics, what is called ableism. If the word humanism didn’t already have cultural significance, it would work rather nicely to express this sentiment: the ideology that to be human is good/right/normal and to be Inhuman is bad/wrong/deformed. Daisy is fighting that mentality. She never denies the difference between her people and the rest of humanity. What she opposes is the assumption that such a difference damages, that it is a disease.
Surely this drama is purely the stuff of fiction. There couldn’t be a group that parallels the ATCU for autistics, right? Yet there is. This is where Autism Speaks comes in. Autism Speaks is a cure-based organization that, in the meantime, endorses the normalization of autistics and therapies related to that goal. Like the ATCU, Autism Speaks pays little attention to the opinions of autistic individuals. They support the epidemic theory of autism and portray autism itself as something like a malevolent spirit that possesses children and destroys families. (Think I’m exaggerating? Check out Autism Speaks’ “I am Autism” video, which I won’t link for the sake of any autistics reading this. It’s easy enough to find). Suffice it to say, Autism Speaks claims to be on the side of autistics, but they’ve never stopped to question whether a cure is the solution or how the therapies they support affect autistics enduring them. As Daisy said about Simmons’ vaccine, so many autistics feel about a cure for autism. An Inhuman without their powers, stripped of even the possibility of their powers returning, is no longer the same person. Even if the vaccine were successful and didn’t kill (which with Simmons on the job is a fair assumption), it would destroy. It would wipe out the Inhumans and all they are. Likewise, curing autism isn’t like removing a tumor. To cure autism is to excise a portion, however large or small, of an autistic’s identity. And don’t be fooled. For many autistics, there would be no choice. If a cure is found, children will be screened and rid of their differences. If a genetic marker is found, there will be in utero testing and subsequent abortions. Difference will not be permitted. This has nothing whatsoever to do with quality of life.
I could keep going, exploring the parallels between Inhumans and autistics. But as this is already rather long, I’ll leave you all with one more thought, something that we often miss in the jumble of medical terms and differing opinions. People fear Inhumans because they see the reports of what evil Inhumans have done, the destruction they have caused. People fear autistics (and more broadly, neurodivergence, which includes but is not limited to mental illness) because many mass shooters have been identified as autistic (or rather, as “having Asperger’s,” which is the same thing but perpetuates the elitist myth between Asperger’s and autism and denies the identity-first language many autistics prefer). When bad things happen, it’s easier to blame a thing—Terragenesis, superpowers, autism—than a person. Instead, we ought to focus on the truth: there are good people and bad people. People choose their actions and bear responsibility for those choices. As with the whole of humanity, there are good Inhumans and bad Inhumans. There are good autistics and bad autistics—and a whole world in between. And who are we to deny anyone their birthright?