the downfall of paige layle: no, being disabled won’t exempt you from being racist

CW: discussions of racism and harassment, brief suicide mention

*paige uses she/they pronouns, so i have used them both interchangeably throughout this piece.

in paige* hennekam’s most well-known video, the 20-year-old lash tech-slash-tiktok-influencer sat on her bed, bare-faced in an oversized red hoodie. “you know what’s a really cool thing about having autism? i’m not good with faces at all…” she explained, blue eyes wide open with their characteristic intensity, which has a tendency to make them appear both much younger and much older than she actually is. “but for myself, every time i look at a face, i’m like, that’s a good face. like that is a beautiful face…your faces are so pretty. there’s nothing wrong with your face. it’s so nice. it’s such a good face!” currently, the video has 6.8 million likes on tiktok, and countless comments, most of which praise her for being “precious” or “sweet” or demand that she be “PROTECTED AT ALL COSTS,” in the way that people on the internet tend to lionize total strangers. the video made the rounds (i think i first saw it on twitter?), and paige’s popularity as a content creator soared.

paige, who uses the handle @paigelayle on their social media, is a bit of an anomaly in the realm of super-popular tiktok users. the majority of their content was actually about their experiences as an autistic person. she called out ableism, explained autism in a way a lot of neurotypical people can understand, was outspoken about stereotypes and functioning labels. most of all, she seemed genuine, a little bit shocked by the fervid stan culture she was beginning to attract. in a follow-up video to the one that made them famous, they reminded their audience that they were a person. “i am not this little smol bean who needs to be protected all the time.” she seemed socially responsible, too, releasing multiple tiktoks speaking out against homophobia and transphobia. during the black lives matter protests of 2020, she released an impassioned plea to her followers to watch the content of black autistic creators. “if you’re only listening to me,” they said, “you’re not listening.” i liked her, a lot. she was easy to like, and easy to listen to. i would check her page obsessively, waiting for every new video.

if you’ve been on autistikok for a while, this might not seem particularly revolutionary to you, but the popularity of paige and other, young, afab autistic people on a platform like tiktok as the “voice” of the autistic community is quite impressive. autism has historically been a “male” disorder, specifically, a cis white male disorder. the media portrayal of autistic people hasn’t helped with this either-people seem to assume we’re all like rain man (a movie which you are no longer allowed to reference in your psychology classes-the next time someone brings up rain man in class with me i want MONEY.). while people who share some characteristics of the titular character of the film do exist, assuming that all autistic people share that exact same pattern of traits erases a lot of the diversity present on the spectrum. paige and their compatriots on autistiktok were unmaking many harmful stereotypes about the disorder, simply by existing. my god, i thought, if people like this had been around when i was younger, i would never have been as ashamed of my own autism as i am. they’re so cool. they’re doing so much that i’ve wanted to do my whole life. little did i know that my illusions about autistic solidarity would be soon shattered, and within a month of my discovering this community, it would soon be torn apart by racist infighting, with paige at the epicenter of the problem.

the beginning of the end started when youtuber mark rober announced his “color the spectrum” livestream event in april, also known as autism acceptance month. rober’s son is autistic, and along with celebrities like jimmy kimmel, he wanted to raise money for the organization next for autism, which nominally pushes for a more inclusive world for autistics, specifically in the workplace. however, next for autism, like many autism “awareness” organizations, is actually pretty terrible at addressing the needs of autistic people. they work with autism speaks (which i think we can just say is a hate group at this point), want to develop in utero screenings for autism, and seem to be pro-curing autism, all goals which the larger neurodiversity movement is strongly against. unsurprisingly, autistic creators on tiktok rallied against the livestream, which was scheduled for April 30th of 2021. they proposed their own livestream, autism now, with profits going to the autistic self-advocacy network (asan), an organization that seemed committed to working with actually autistic people, with paige, rebecca (@reberrabon_bon), beck (@beckspectrum), evelyn (@evelynjeans) and a few others as key speakers.

if this lineup makes you uncomfortable, that’s because it should. while it is true that none of these creators-queer, gender minorities-fit the stereotype of what “autism” or “autistic people” look like, they are all still white. and this became an issue when it was revealed that asan, the organization the autism now livestream had been intended to benefit, had plagiarized the work of an indigenous autistic activist on facebook known as autistic, typing. (you can support her work here.) autistic creators of color who had attended the livestream stated multiple times that they were uncomfortable supporting an organization who had used a bipoc activist’s content without permission or proper credit, but were dismissed because “asan was the lesser of two evils,” an argument that historically has never been used to support anything objectively awful (nudge nudge wink wink). and this doesn’t even touch on the blatant tokenization of bipoc creators, specifically black creators. both jack from @resident_cryptid and tim from @blackautisticking mentioned feeling as though they had only been sought out for the event because they were black, and had less speaking time than any of the white creators. long story short, it was a terrible event, ended up creating a lot of bad blood between various people in the community, and did a lot more harm than good.

the aftermath followed the predictable pattern when any online public figure is accused of racism. there was a lot of talk about “doing the work,” “taking accountability,” a lot of account takeovers, promises to do better. some of the accounts involved seemed to be genuinely contrite. notably absent from this outpouring of support was paige, who instead released a video about how she “didn’t have the spoons” to talk about the failed livestream. (for those of you who are unfamiliar with this language, “spoons” came from a common metaphor used to explain the limited energy resources of disabled people.) which would have been understandable, had she not proceeded to release a sponsored youtube video prior to releasing any type of apology statement. when an apology video was eventually released, gone was the conscientious tiktok creator who had pleaded for people to diversify their for you page. instead, they were “sorry that you [bipoc creators] were uncomfortable in a space that i was in”. unsurprisingly, she was met with a lot of backlash, and released a much more in depth series of videos. but the damage had been done. now you can find a lot of paige-critical videos if you search her account on tiktok, including some that go so far as to call for her to be deplatformed.

let me preface this by saying that i believe people can grow and change, and blanket “cancelling” someone for an offense like this one usually just feeds the trolls. i am also aware that while paige handled this situation poorly, other creators involved had even worse reactions (beckspectrum deleted their entire account rather than apologize, and rebecca at one point threatened suicide in jack’s dms). but i think that paige’s reaction upon being called out for their behaviors is pretty revealing of the overwhelming whiteness within the autism community (and the larger neurodiverse/disabled community). let’s face it, tiktok’s most popular creators who speak about these issues are all white. it’s not enough to be happy that these disabilities are being spoken about. the voices we give platforms to matter. if the main faces that people are being presented with are white, that matters, especially when bipoc autistic people face unique challenges that these people are not qualified to speak on.

a lot of paige’s popularity can be chalked up to her ability to explain the struggles we face as autistics clearly in a way that neurotypicals can understand. but some of what helped her meteoric rise is her seeming “normalness.” paige is thin, white, blond-haired and blue-eyed. even though she lives in canada, her instagram reminds me of that of the neurotypical southern sorority girls that i went to high school with, except for a fact that she makes posts about autism. (this is not a diss! they are lovely people!) but we would be remiss to deny that whiteness colors her experience with the disorder. the fact that her “low spoons” alternative to a proper apology or explanation of the events was defended and tolerated by so many people is evidence enough of this. the distress of a white woman is much more palatable than the anger of a woman of color. if paige had not been white, they would not have been treated as though they were a fragile smol bean after making such a move.

we can see this whiteness imbedded in some of the causes paige is most passionate about, many of them things that i, an autistic poc, don’t particularly worry about-for example, the language differences between calling someone “an autistic person” versus “person with autism”. and i understand why these things would matter to someone, because autism is a disorder that colors every aspect of your personality no matter how you try to hide it. but for myself, even though i am half white, i am almost always seen as a person of color first, which means i already have to remind people that i am a human being. autism doesn’t even enter the picture, because i know that white people do not always consider my humanity when dealing with me. referring to myself as a “person with autism” might actually help, rather than hurt me, in that situation. also, for those of us who have heard “autistic” thrown around as an insult, it might be comforting to find an alternative way to define our disability that’s free of stigma or pejorative. while it’s absolutely true that paige has the right to choose what labels they use and want others to use when referring to them, they cannot and should not try to tell autistic bipoc how to identify and then go on to accuse those who disagree of being ableist. or the outrage over the sia movie. while much of it was legitimate, paige and other white autistic creators focused on how offensive it was to not cast an autistic actor, when the real crime is that disability-inspiration-porn like that (which never stars people of color, by the way) is even still being made.

and, to be honest, this issue goes beyond paige. white marginalized people, i have noticed, have a hard time differentiating their struggles from the struggles of people of color, especially if those poc are affected by the same marginalizations as themselves. they often seem to think that that because they have experienced one type of oppression that they understand what it is like to experience another, and are therefore, exempt from being racist. paige refused to name herself as a racist in either of the apology videos. that, to me, is pretty telling. and while i don’t think they’re responsible for all of the things that happened with the autism now livestream, or even the hate directed at the black tiktokkers who called them out coming from their fans, i also don’t know how much we can expect them to genuinely reckon with their actions or take accountability. i do know this much, though: if we let white people dominate the discussions around our disability, we will get a view of autism just as narrow as that of the “boys’ disorder” put forth so many years ago. and if it makes white autistic people uncomfortable?

good. they just might learn something.