Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Myth of the Spectrum: Diversity of Autism is Not Diversity of Weakness

Every living thing is a genius; however, if a fish was judged by its ability to climb a tree, it would spend its entire life believing it is stupid.
                                                                                                                                                -Albert Einstein

                A little over a year ago, when I was looking on a page from the Autism Support Network called Top 10 Terrific Traits About Autistic People, I came across a comment by a mother asking if they could say any good things about level five autism (which her son had), which requires twenty-four hour supervision.  At the time I thought, he already cannot live on his own; what’s the point?  Today I realized that was wrong and was very cynical and fatalist. 
                Over the years, I’ve gotten to know people with very diverse abilities with incredible personalities, talents, and who have shaped the way I see the world.  I happened to know of a non-verbal girl with autism who could not speak, but who also sang beautifully and made beautiful pottery.  I know a man with Down syndrome won second place in a pottery contest in high school.  I can barely get my hands the right way on the wheel. 
                What I was fortunate to learn in my first year of university life was that there are many different types of intelligence, besides the predominant one of logical/mathematical intelligence, by which our society judges intelligence.  The other types of intelligence include natural, musical, existential, interpersonal, bodily-kinesthetic, linguistic, intrapersonal, and spatial intelligence.  But in our culture it seems that a person’s level of logical/mathematical intelligence is used to judge the person’s intelligence in every other area.  Unfortunately, the prevailing medical model of autism goes by the traditional model of judging intelligence.  Autistics and other disabled people who cannot live on their own are simply deadweight, burdens on the rest of society.  Of this idea, non-verbal and lower-functioning people with autism are the biggest victims.  However I happened to have met many non-verbal autistics and learned they can communicate and often times live independent or semi-independent lives.  Among the non-verbal community is autistic activist, blogger, writer, and poet Amy Sequinza.  I’ve been in touch with Sequinza through Facebook and happen to know she is a better wordsmith than many verbal neurotypical people I know.  Yet for many parents of non-verbal children with autism, they are feeling, “I wish my son/daughter would say ‘I love you’ or ‘thank you’ for all the work I do for them,” when in fact they are, through the stimming (flapping arms, rocking) that parents like them raise millions of dollars to cure.  The definition of stereotyping or caricaturing is to define a group of people by a single or limited number of traits while ignoring individual differences among them.  When Suzanne Wright, cofounder of the largest medical model think tank on autism, Autism Speaks, spoke at George Washington University, she said that autistic people are people who cannot dress themselves, brush their teeth, or take a shower.  That is what I believe Mrs. Wright was doing, describing certain people with autism yet ignoring differences in their personalities, temperaments, and opinions.  For people with that mindset they are assuming that they could never connect to an autistic of this type, but they do not know because they’ve never communicated with them in a way they can both understand.  They judge them by how their abilities are in one area (independence), and mistakenly believe that it is an indicator of their abilities and potential in every other possible endeavor.  The reality of the idea of autism as a spectrum of abilities is that it is a spectrum of the ability to live independently, not the ability to thrive in any pursuit.  The terms “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” deal mostly with an autistic person’s ability to live independently, not the ability to live fully and dignified.  Autism is different for everyone, but the desire and right for and to respect and access to reach one’s full potential is not.  While independence and self-reliance are gifts that ought to be treasured, we also should value every autistic for what it is they can contribute and realize they have their own gifts to share with the world. 

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