Driver’s Licenses, Autism, Privilege, and Outing

There’s still a lot of discussion, from people I respect, about driver’s licenses, particularly in the State of Virginia, USA.  I’ve already written a bit about this, but I want to talk about why I’m uneasy about most of the opposition.

Most of the discussion around the VA license has to deal with, essentially, branding a person with a permanent label of autistic, which will impact employment, police officer interaction, and other daily life in negative ways.  When pointed out that the law would require 16 year olds to apply for an ID or license, not their parents (unless they are incompetent legally, which most people aren’t, even severely disabled people, at age 16) or others), and it requires the kid’s signature, a lot of the risk seems to be gone.  It’s a voluntary thing – if you feel the risk is severe, don’t apply for a designation of autistic on your license!  Simple!  If you can serve your needs better with “autism information cards,” that’s awesome.  You should do that instead.  But I’m not pleased when people oppose choice because some people may be hurt by making their own choice.

But the inaccuracies aren’t my only concern with the opposition.  I’m equally concerned that people seem to be speaking about – basically – concerns of those who have privilege, ignoring those who don’t.

Many autistic people, like many LGBT people, would never be “pegged” as part of a stereotyped group, if they chose to live their lives acting as a neurotypical (or a straight person).  Of course acting is hard, but some people find it necessary, because of the prejudice against them.  It’s for this reason we have lots of closeted autistics (and LGBT) people.

But not everyone wants to live in the closet. Nor does everyone have the choice of living in the closet. For some people, being their authentic selves, publicly, is either life-saving or simply unavoidable. For these people, a designation on their license is not going to cause prejudice (and may mitigate it by making the person’s public declaration of self and/or unavoidable expression something that can be validated and not attributed to other things).

There’s a lot about employment, and concerns that my employer will see my license. I’ve never shown a driver’s license to any employer. I’ve used passports, birth certificates, social security cards, and the like, but there are plenty of ways to get jobs without an employer seeing a license – and I’ve never been asked to show identification prior to getting a job. That goes for any job I’ve had, from dish washer, to delivery driver, to IT director (I’ve had about 15 jobs in my life).  So, likely, even this is a non-issue, but if people are concerned about it, simply don’t put it on your license!

That said, again, there are plenty of people who will already be seen as autistic by an employer, with or without it being on their license. Preventing them from using this license to show they are autistic won’t do anything to avoid people seeing them as autistic.

But, there’s an even bigger issue: what right do I have to say, “It’s bad for me to put ‘autism’ on my license, so you shouldn’t be able to do it?”  People should live honest, authentic lives. That includes our autism status being known. Now, like LGBT people, we need to consider disclosure carefully. But as advocates we also need to work not only to make sure people who want privacy can continue to enjoy privacy, but we need to make sure that people who want to live authentic, public, autistic lives can do so.

Should a child be allowed to wear a shirt that says he is autistic? Of course. Just as he should be able to wear a shirt that says he is gay. Should he be able to tell people on Facebook or the local newspaper? Of course. And, equally, of course parents also have the responsibility to make some choices for their kids (such as deciding, “No, this isn’t a good forum to speak your diagnosis” for a very young kid, or, equally, this is a good forum). Parents do this every day with autism diagnosis – they decide who to tell and who not to tell.  They also can and should discuss autism disclosure with their children, both the pros and cons of disclosure.

Those are my concerns with the opposition. You may think it’s a bad idea to publicly disclose autistic status. That’s fine. You may even have the choice for you or your children. That’s also fine. But we shouldn’t assume that our own personal risk analysis is the same as someone else’s risk analysis.

We also shouldn’t assume that others have a choice. No, I’m not talking about being forced to put the word “autistic” on your license. I’m talking about being assumed to be autistic, drunk, drugged, crazy, or whatever other label, no matter what a piece of plastic does or doesn’t say.

I do think there are valid reasons why someone might not want the word autistic (or similar) on their government ID. And I support education efforts that don’t take away choice, but empower people to understand and make their own decisions. Would I put it on my license? Probably not. I have the privilege of passing and would probably seek to keep that privilege as often as I can. But I’m not going to assume everyone else has this privilege.

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