PEOPLE: Why Sharon daVanport built a support network for autistic women and nonbinary people

In 2010, Sharon daVanport founded the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network (AWN) to build a supportive community where autistic women, girls, nonbinary people and people of all marginalised genders could share their experience in an understanding, diverse and inclusive environment.

In this interview, Sharon shares how gender stereotypes can lead to a misdiagnosis, how they are maintaining and building the AWN, and their views on disability justice.

  • How do gender stereotypes impact how autism is assessed among women and girls?

As with all stereotypes, spreading inaccurate beliefs means that any hint of possible truth is lost. After a while, people begin to accept reductive stereotypes as fact, and when this happens in the disability community, it is because of ableism.

Stereotypes about cisgender women vs. cisgender men, like the misogynistic and anti-trans “male brain theory” of autism, have saturated most autism research and diagnostic tools up until just a few years ago. For instance, autistic girls and women who come across as shy and introverted are less likely to be deemed deviant than autistic boys and men who are perceived the same way, since society expects women to be subordinate to men.

The toxic combination of ableist stereotypes along with misogynistic beliefs has led to not only both trans and cis autistic women and girls being misdiagnosed, but all other gender minorities as well.

  • Is there a way to remove gender stereotyping from this process?

All autism research needs to include autistic people of marginalized genders in meaningful ways. This must include leadership and decision-making roles, and real partnerships where autistic oversight as consultants and collaborators on these studies is the norm.

Equally importantly, nonautistic researchers must be sure to cultivate relationships and collaborations with autistic people who experience multiple forms of marginalization, including autistic people of color and autistic queer and trans people.

Fortunately, I’ve seen first-hand the tide turning in the right direction over the past couple of years with research. There are groundbreaking studies currently in full swing where autistic women, nonbinary people, and other people of minoritized genders are in leadership roles and fully informing autism research. Right now, AWN is partnering with researchers at several universities to address reproductive and sexual health, diagnostic disparities, all-inclusive funding for true grassroots efforts, and other cutting-edge issues in autism research.

As an autistic nonbinary femme mother of mixed native/white heritage, it’s even more exciting to me to know that researchers take voices like mine seriously, and that I am also in the room as a researcher and a colleague.

  • Since founding the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network (AWN), what have been the biggest challenges you’ve experienced in maintaining and growing this network?

I love this question because it hits at the heart of why AWN has chosen to keep our growth proportionate to our core values. As a grassroots organization we learned very early on that there’s a trade off to growth and accepting funding opportunities that flies in the face of why we organized our autistic efforts in the first place.

For example, AWN has passed on several large scale grant and partnership funding opportunities that would have provided us with years of guaranteed income for full time salaries, goals, etc.; however, we would have had to  compromise the values that we aspire to uphold, namely, putting autistic and disabled people of color and marginalized genders at the forefront of AWN initiatives.

Instead, we remain confident in our choice to remain true to our grassroots efforts and move our goals, vision and mission forward, at a careful and deliberate pace dedicated to serve with an access-centered vision that follows the lead of those who are most impacted by oppression and marginalization. For instance, we strive to compensate our people for their often underfunded and underpaid work, because we know from our own experience that burden of taking on free labor disproportionately falls on marginalized people.

This has often meant publishing fewer articles or anthologies, policy statements, or other public projects than many other better resourced organizations. We do so because although we do have volunteers, we strongly prefer to make sure we can offer something in recognition of the work done by our community members.

AWN’s answer to paying it forward has been the creation of our fiscal sponsorship program where we mentor, support and provide fiduciary oversight to oftentimes lesser known disability efforts and grassroots organizations who are seeking to change disability activism by addressing racial and gender justice, reproductive justice, disability prisoner justice, and voting access and rights for disabled people as core parts of their mission.

  • What role do you believe support networks like AWN play in enabling disability justice?

Wow, where do I even begin?

Disability justice can seem like such a complex concept because it requires an intersectional approach that includes many movements and communities. If you think about it, what looks like something essential to social justice work to me, might not even be on the radar of another person or organization. I believe this is where we can each find our strength!

But in reality, disability justice is very simple. It’s affirming that each of us has value outside of harmful expectations and assumptions, and that each person deserves access and support no matter who they are or what communities they come from. That also applies to how we each do advocacy, and what we already know about and focus on in our own work. It’s okay for each one of us as disabled people, as well as for disability organizations, to focus our efforts on the areas where we most closely align.

However, the role that organizations like AWN play often lies more with our willingness to support and celebrate each other’s success, as opposed to adopting the capitalist mindset of viewing one another as competition for scarce resources. Sadly, AWN has been on the receiving end of that kind of toxicity from other organizations and individuals before, but we have learned to keep moving forward and stay focused on the end goal – doing our part to contribute to the disability justice movement by giving all we have. We are always thrilled whenever we learn of other people or organizations who are doing the same, and happy to promote their work and develop opportunities for future partnerships.

About the expert

Sharon daVanport is Founder and Executive Director of the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network (AWN). Sharon’s work encompasses several aspects of the wider disability justice movement, including steering committee member of the National Disability Leadership Alliance, represents AWN on the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, serves as treasurer for Crushing Colonialism, and is on the advisory board for Felicity House in NYC. Sharon is co-editor along with Emily Paige Ballou and Kristina Thomas of What Every Autistic Girl Wishes Her Parents Knew, self-published by AWN. They have spoken before the United Nations and the White House and received recognition from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network for their contribution to the self-advocacy movement, and the Autism Society of America for outstanding literary work of the year. Outside of Sharon’s work in autistic advocacy, they have nearly a decade of experience as a social worker, and they are a parent of four diversely neurodivergent adults.

[Photo description: A mixed Native and white person with large square glasses and long, flowing brown hair, looking directly at the camera and smiling widely and warmly. They are wearing a light pink collared shirt.]


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