Coined by autistic activist Jim Sinclair, this term made its first Usenet appearance in 1994. It describes the position autistic people find ourselves in within most autism organizations, mailing lists, support groups, and even one-on-one interactions with parents of autistic children or curious professionals.
"We're expected to speak only when spoken to by neurologically typical people, and only for the purpose of providing informative data for others' purposes, like self-narrating zoo exhibits."1
One of the most common reactions to an autistic person is to ask questions about autism, including extremely personal questions. While most of us understand this reaction, we also perceive it as treating an autistic person not as a person but as a dehumanized information source or a "walking autie textbook."2
It is not the curiosity most autistic people object to. It is the expectation that we are obligated to answer, and the constant -- and sometimes impossible -- nature of the questioning.
Autistic people have lamented the tendency for others to interrupt our discussions of human rights or other political topics, in order to ask us about our toilet training or sexual histories. This aspect of the self-narrating zoo exhibit phenomenon has caused many autistics to give up mentioning our autism altogether in some contexts, to avoid the inevitable barrage of questions.
"Why does my son repeat everything I say?" "When did you learn to talk?" "Are you capable of love?" "Do you still wet the bed?" "What does sex feel like?" "Where can I lock my kid up?" "I gave my child a savage beating, can you please, please tell me you'd have liked the same thing so I can quit feeling guilty?"
I shit you not, autistic people have heard some pretty bad ones. Even the questions that do not relate to abuse. Curious neurotypicals often string five or more questions in a row, which feels like the third degree to the person on the receiving end of the questions. Autistic folks can already find information processing difficult, but even most neurotypicals could not handle an onslaught of that nature. Many of the questioners would find someone asking them the same questions to be rude or invasive of their privacy. As a self-narrating zoo exhibit, the autistic person is presumed to have no privacy, no feelings, and no purpose beyond satisfying people's curiosity.
Another aspect of this is our role in autism organizations. Entire conferences have been arranged around autism, with autistic people playing a role only insofar as we can stand up and explain the way our senses and minds work. Veering too far off of this topic -- or even away from the conventional wisdom on this topic -- is a good way to become ostracized. Autistic people have paid heavy prices for becoming politically involved or questioning dubious treatments rather than simply describing ourselves and letting others do the talking. Those who could not praise us more five seconds ago, suddenly tell us we are terrible people who may not even be autistic. Some have gone so far as to publicly slander prominent autistic individuals.
Pressure to become a self-narrating zoo exhibit is not limited to autistic people. Frederick Douglass and other American ex-slaves were told to tell their own stories and leave the theorizing up to the white abolitionists:
"During the first three or four months, my speeches were almost exclusively made up of narrations of my own personal experience as a slave. 'Let us have the facts,' said the people. So also said Friend George Foster, who always wished to pin me down to my simple narrative. 'Give us the facts,' said Collins. 'we will take care of the philosophy.' ... It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs; I felt like denouncing them."3
Some autistic people respond similarly, refusing to write or speak unless they are conveying ideas beyond the mechanics of being autistic. Others opt to educate the neurotypical world about how autism works from the inside, but only how and when they want to.
Still others acquiesce completely to the self-narrating zoo exhibit role, and tell their stories over and over again at the prompting of neurotypical professionals or parents. They receive more praise than other autistic people, and thus have incentive not to speak their mind about anything. They may rise to prominent roles in autism-related organizations, and find it easier to get services and support. Inevitably, they take on some or all of the views of the people providing the praise and support. Those who do eventually speak their minds may face demotion from their positions, harsh criticism, character assassination, and removal of their support system.
Thus, it is an easy position to fall into, especially for autistic people in poverty who may become professional autistics in order to survive without some form of welfare. Even so, many autistic people end up doing this free of charge, which is worse for us in some ways than if we received payment -- people see it as our duty to be eternal free information sources, and become upset when we don't comply.
Usage: Since the original usage of the term, it has spread to general use by autistic people. Some use it to describe their own job or volunteer work, most often giving presentations on "Autism From The Inside" to groups of non-autistic people. Others use it to describe presentations they have refused to give, or roles they have been forced into. Others use it to describe the person who has fallen into that role. It is usually not a positive term, but it can be neutral or darkly humorous. When referring to another person, it can sometimes be an insult, usually indicating spinelessness or a willingness to disregard one's own values in favor of others. Most often, it is more a commentary on neurotypical pressure than the autistic people who succumb to it.
Things to be learned from this term's existence: For neurotypicals, watch out to make sure that you're treating autistic people as equal human beings and not as freak shows or textbooks. For autistic people and others who have to dissect themselves publicly, make sure you're doing it for the right reasons, whatever those reasons may be. Educate people when you feel like it, but don't be afraid to say "Mind your own business!" where appropriate.
"I'm gonna go do my self-narrating zoo exhibit act for the conference, see you later when I get to be human again."
"I tried to go to a support group meeting, but all they wanted was for me to be a self-narrating zoo exhibit and not to get any real support."
"I wish he'd quit being a self-narrating zoo exhibit and get some opinions of his own."
1Sinclair, Jim <firstname.lastname@example.org> Re: Autobiographies <email@example.com> in Usenet newsgroup bit.listserv.autism, Sat, 22 Jan 1994 21:49:09 CST.
2Williams, Donna. Like Color to the Blind. New York: Random House, 1996.
3Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage And My Freedom. New York: Miller, Orton, & Mulligan, 1855.