A Q&A with Sharon daVanport
Most resources available for parents come from psychologists, educators, and doctors, offering parents a narrow and technical approach to autism. Sincerely, Your Autistic Child, edited by Emily Paige Ballou, Sharon daVanport, and Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, represents an authentic resource for parents written by autistic people themselves. From childhood and education to culture, gender identity, and sexuality, this anthology tackles the everyday joys and challenges of growing up while honestly addressing the emotional needs, sensitivity, and vibrancy of autistic kids, youth, and young adults.
In this blog series, our editorial intern, Evangelyn Beltran, introduces you to each of the editors to talk about the book and about how parents can avoid common mistakes and misconceptions, and make their child feel truly accepted, valued, and celebrated for who they are. Next up this Autism Acceptance Month is Sharon daVanport!
Evangelyn Beltran: Tell me about your experience founding Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network (AWN).
Sharon daVanport: AWN finds our history deeply rooted in the need to find community and shared-lived experiences.
At the time AWN entered the autism community, the narrative centered mostly around young white boys and men. In those early days, we discovered quickly that AWN was an initiative that was desperately needed.
AWN also recognized early on the importance of engaging researchers in order to address the underrepresentation of all marginalized genders within autism research. Autism studies have been historically dominated by young school-aged boys, and it became obvious to AWN’s founders how disproportionately distorted the autism diagnostic criteria is due to gender and racial bias.
It was also during those early days when parents to autistic children held the microphone, and too often they didn’t see the benefit of sharing the conversation with autistic people; and as difficult as those formative years were on our community, it was those very same experiences which encouraged us to keep moving forward with purpose.
Today, we find a much different autism community where Autistic adults are loudly and proudly holding the microphone, and the majority of parents are more cognizant of the benefits of Autistic adults being front and center while leading the conversation as the experts in our own lives.
Of course, like most organizations, there are many layers to our history as well as the many ways by which we have implemented our own needed changes in order to be equitably representative of our community members. You can read more about Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network’s history and progress over the years in Steven Kapp’s book, Autistic Community and the Neurodiversity Movement: Stories from the Frontline.
EB: When did you first start becoming involved in disability justice?
SD: My start in disability justice evolved gradually over time and after having been in the online autism community for several years. As AWN grew, we realized the importance of building relationships with cross disability coalitions and we made deliberate choices to engage other activists and organizations within the greater disability community. There’s always power and strength when those of us with like-minded goals join forces. I guess you can say that the rest is history.
EB: What are the biggest issues regarding disability justice in your view?
SD: The disability community is not unlike all other communities which make up society as a whole. This means that we face the same disparities that all marginalized people face. These include, to name a few: racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and oppression against all marginalized genders. More often than not, when these subjugations are inflicted upon disabled people, there’s an extra layer for which our community is forced to fight against. Internalized ableism IS a thing and it’s a constant battle for most of us who have grown up in a world that tries to tell us we are not enough.
EB: What is it like being a parent to neurodiverse children, being neurodiverse yourself?
SD: This is always one of my favorite interview questions, because being a parent continues to be the most meaningful experience of my life. It is through observing my children’s diverse expressions of individuality that I have learned to accept my whole self without exception.
In our family, we have regularly contended with an array of competing access needs. Most of these are specific to communication and sensory sensitivities. And though we are never perfect, we somehow manage to come out the other side with a determination to keep loving and appreciating one another for being faithful and true to our individual selves.
EB: What advice would you give young autistic people who are interested in advocacy and want to get started?
SD: I’d say, first and foremost, be kind to yourself; and as cliché as it may sound, never have these words been truer as it applies to self-advocacy and activism.
Understand and accept that you will make mistakes. We are an ever-evolving community, and you can expect that the strategies which worked in the disability advocacy community fifteen years ago might not work to our community’s benefit now.
Be ready and willing to accept the mistakes you’ll make from time to time. Allow yourself to be called in (or even called out) when need be. Remember that it’s not the mistakes we make that count but rather our willingness to correct and commit to do better as we learn.
Don’t try to be perfect. In fact, it’s our human imperfections that give us the ability to be empathetic and understanding to our fellow disabled advocates. The universe is wise and continues to teach us lessons. Speak out when you’re able and take a seat when necessary, but never ever forget to be kind to yourself.
About Sharon daVanport
Sharon daVanport lives in the Midwest by way of their home state of Texas where they spent young adulthood writing short stories, poetry and serving as co-editor of their academic newspaper. After nearly a decade in social work, Sharon founded the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network (AWN). Appointed by their state’s board of education, Sharon served a full term on the SILC board of directors. Publications include co-authoring a paper in Sage Pub Autism Journal, a chapter in Autistic Community and the Neurodiversity Movement: Stories from the Front Line, and pieces in Welcome to the Autistic Community, and Disability Visibility Project.