In last month’s column, I attempted to dispel some of the prevailing myths around autism, including the myth of cause (likely genetic) and the myth of epidemic (better diagnostic criteria leading to increased diagnoses). This month, I will focus on the realities of people with autism.
By now, we should have updated our view of autism as the “Rain Man” character with a few mind-boggling savant talents and so many social fears that he cannot function outside an institution. This is a poor example. People with autism are simply people, living with the same dreams, the same variety of talents, the same variety of hang-ups that we all experience.
Millions of autistic Americans are living lives we all would recognize: working, exploring their hobbies and interests, getting married and raising kids (if autism is genetic, it readily follows that people with autism are having kids).
Then what is so different about autism?
Perhaps you have already noticed that no two people are exactly alike. Well, no two brains are alike. There is a wide diversity in the way our brains operate, just as there is a diversity of body types that causes some people to become professional basketball players and others (for instance) nonprofit directors.
The concept of neurodiversity shows us that what we label as a cognitive disability (such as intellectual disabilities or autism) are vast differences in the way the brain operates. If the world is built for people whose brains develop in a similar manner (neurotypical), then anyone whose brain is designed differently would naturally struggle in that world. Someone who is 5-foot, 4-inch would struggle in a world made for NBA players, too.
Unfortunately, rather than appreciating that some people process the world in a different way than the norm we’ve created, we’ve seen those people as the problem. We’ve been terrified at their existence, treating autism as a public health crisis. We’ve mourned for parents when they receive the diagnosis, sometimes as much as if the child had died.
But all around us we have examples of autistic people thriving, embracing their difference and the abilities it gives them. Rather than focusing on how we can change our society to be more welcoming (and in many cases tolerable) to autistics, we’ve focused on how to change them to fit our view of the world. When they don’t change, we exclude and segregate them, often with the rationale that segregation is for their own protection.
For decades, autistic people have witnessed this demonizing conversation that considers their existence a tragedy, a public health crisis and a burden. Autistic people are none of those things. Autistic people are people – people who want careers and relationships and families and to feel accepted and welcomed by a world that often does not talk about them in welcoming and accepting ways.
It is time we changed the conversation from being about people with autism to a conversation with autistics.
Start your conversation with an autistic neighbor or join the conversation with the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network – www.autisticadvocacy.org.
Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.