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The Autism Rights Movement

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The complicating factor here is that personality and illness are not so easy to disentangle, making absolute measures of disability almost impossible. Hyman, the former head of NIMH, says, “Some people with Asperger’s can’t figure out why they’re having so much trouble. Others wonder why anyone considers it a clinical condition.” Some autistic people are shattered by their social deficits, while others are largely uninterested in friendship. Those who are told throughout their lives that they are bizarre and aberrant are less likely to feel good about who they are than those who receive supportive messages. It is not possible to separate the person and the autism and to say that certain things are the “real” person while others are the “disease,” but it is possible to see that there are buoyant and depressed autistic people—the full personality range of the neurotypical population.

Regardless of personality, regardless of social handicaps, some autistics have abilities that elude their non-autistic counterparts—spatial thinking, for example—which challenge the disability model, as with Ne’eman’s conundrum of being both gifted and disabled. “My kid has an ability to focus intently,” Seidel said. “Things can be difficult if the teacher wants you to shift every fifteen minutes. But that’s not stupidity. A Cray supercomputer is used for intense computing that involves the manipulation of massive data. One of the most powerful computers made, it runs so hot it has to be kept in a liquid cooling bath. Is the Cray defective because it requires this kind of nurturing environment for its functioning? No! It kicks ass! That’s what my kid is like. Needs support, needs attention, and is amazing.”

Is this wanting to eat and have your cake? It strikes me that in post-ADA America, it is taboo to say that having disabilities is frequently unpleasant not because of a tyrannical social structure that constructs disability as a negative but because the broad spectrum of normative abilities are in fact useful, while their absence is, for want of a better word, disabling. As Koplewicz, the head of the organization that put out the anti-autism ads, puts it, “If you’re short, you stand on your toes; if you’re a little person, you qualify for accommodation. They can’t have it both ways.” The question is how to afford people the maximum dignity and also give them the maximum ability to function in this majority-defined world.

Can neurodiversity bring about change efficiently enough to supersede the tyranny of typical neurology? Kathleen Seidel says, “The word incurable is quite devastating-sounding, but you can also look at it as being that autism is durable. Looking at this jewel through different facets, I do not trivialize the challenges of people who face tremendous obstacles; I’m trying to look at the whole picture, including the beautiful part of it. Autism is as much a part of our humanity as the capacity to dream. This is one of the possibilities in our world. It’s a part of the human condition—or conditions, as the case may be.”

I came to this assignment with my own smattering of neurodiversities. I was severely dyslexic as a child and suffered acute depression as an adult. My mother devoted a great chunk of her life to eviscerating the dyslexia, but I am almost incapable of writing by hand and wonder whether I could have been a writer in a time before keyboards. I take seven medications to keep my depression at bay; I have been an outspoken critic of people who glamorize the condition. And yet, while I would never have chosen to have dyslexia and would love to be rid of it, I cannot help wondering whether my passion for written expression came in part from the unending praise heaped on me every time I sounded out a word. In my book The Noonday Demon, I wrote about how grappling with depression had given me strength and depth of character and said that while major depression is a horrifying illness that should be erased from human experience, the mood spectrum that includes extreme sadness is essential to our capacity for love. I would not be myself without those diversities.

I started off highly skeptical of the neurodiversity movement, but it turns out that autism is to cognition as depression is to mood and that the same layers of nuance apply to it. Severe autism is a ghastly affliction that should be cured; milder autism may be part of a precious spectrum we wouldn’t want to compromise. As with depression, there can be a tyranny of people focused on a cure who are insensitive to the meaning some people find in their struggles, and there can, likewise, be insensitivity on the part of meaning-finders to the acute suffering experienced by others. The one crucial difference is that depression is now largely treatable (though some illness is intractable) and autism is largely untreatable (despite the partial success of behavioral programs). It is unproductive to rail against the incurable; if you can learn to love it, that’s your best chance of happiness. For some people, the love is self-evident; for others, it is acquired through struggle; others cannot do more than pretend to it. Though neurodiversity activists can get in the way of science and sometimes wrap themselves up in self-important, specious arguments, they also light the way to such love—a model of social acceptance and self-acceptance that has the capacity to redeem whole lives.


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