When Ari Ne’eman walked onstage at a college campus in Pennsylvania in June, he looked like a handsome young rabbi presiding over the bar mitzvah of a young Talmudic scholar.
In truth, Ne’eman was facilitating a different kind of coming-of-age ceremony. Beckoning a group of teenagers to walk through a gateway symbolizing their transition into adult life, he said, “I welcome you as members of the autistic community.” The setting was an annual gathering called Autreat, organized by an autistic self-help group called Autism Network International.
Ne’eman’s deliberate use of the phrase “the autistic community” was more subversive than it sounds. The notion that autistic people — often portrayed in the media as pitiable loners — would not only wear their diagnosis proudly, but want to make common cause with other autistic people, is still a radical one. Imagine a world in which most public discussion of homosexuality was devoted to finding a cure for it, rather than on the need to address the social injustices that prevent gay people from living happier lives. Though the metaphor is far from exact (for example, gay people obviously don’t face the impairments that many autistic people do), that’s the kind of world that autistic people live in.
Now, as the first openly autistic White House appointee in history — and one of the youngest at age 22 — Ne’eman is determined to change that.