Progress is something I’ve contemplated for quite a while now, especially since I started producing the autism documentaries. The idea itself is abstract, everyone can have a different intepretation and guidelines about what progress means. My parents talk about how I’ve done that in my life because I can integrate in many social environments. As I get older (I turn 22 this year), the notion of progression is making less sense to me. While my social awareness and communication abilites have developed to the point where I can adapt in multiple environments, I wonder if this idea of progress is really a mask to quarantine the oddities of the autistic spectrum so the neurotypical community doesn’t have to worry about it.
Autism is growing, but still amounts to less than one percent of the country’s population, and it doesn’t help that there are no common physical characteristics. The lack of physical symptoms results in the autistic community blending in with everyone else and can confuse those who aren’t aware of autism (although that number will continue to decline).
Don’t get me wrong, there are people who need help. Parents worry that their children won’t function because their quirks are noticeable and spend much time and money for therapy sessions in an attempt to unlock their children’s abilities. Anecdotal and empirical evidence support the need for early intervention. It certainly helped me interact with everyone else in ways they “normally” do.
Still, I’m not sure if learning to act like everyone else is necessarily true progress. That’s why I put “normally” in quotation marks. In the end, people like me are seen as just that: a normal, everyday kind of person that is no different than anyone else. I believe progress goes much deeper than the objective set by the neurotypical majority in order to prevent a chaotic or taxing situation (there are some autistics who can’t function independently). Even though I can adapt, there are still traits that separate me from others. Of course, if everyone was autistic, this would never be a problem.
My thoughts are dominated by logic. Yes, I have emotions and can reflect sympathy or empathy, but I’m aware acting on instinct and emotion rather than knowledge can cloud a person’s judgment and make him or her do things that make no sense. Take our family cat for example. My parents weren’t able to handle my logical analysis of our cat’s future, because they spent so long and developed an attachment to it, like they do for me and my siblings. Still, I know all living things must come to an end, and there was a risk of permanent damage to our carpet as long as our cat remained in our house because she was unable to control her digestive system, to put it lightly. They finally made the decision the day after Christmas, and I went with my dad because my mom and I knew I would be the “last resort.”
Years earlier, my dad commented on my lack of emotional expression at my maternal grandfather’s funeral. Again, I knew death was part of the life cycle and I had no control over the outcome, but I knew it would be inappropriate to present the logical explanation to a family that was grieving. Does that make me an outsider?
I know my thought process isn’t shared by many people, but to remove that in order to be more like everyone else would only help the perceived notion of progress at the cost of my character. To any autistic reading this: don’t sacrifice everything about yourself just to fit in with the cool kids, learn to utilize the traits that separate you and turn them into an advantage. There’s a reason why so many “normal” people are fascinated by us, because even if we make progress in communicating like they do, there will still be characteristics that make us stand out. In my case, it’s my memorization skills.
I also want to reiterate that no one should discard services for autistic people in order to prevent them from being “homogenized,” which is a concern I have that led me to this idea of what progress actually is regarding the autistic spectrum. Allowing people to explore our minds will help them understand, but people also need to know that autism will not be a death knell for anyone if handled properly. I believe true progress in accepting the autism community will only be made if people acknowledge that we will be different no matter how hard they try to make us as normal as possible. I can adapt, but I ask that you embrace my differences, don’t fear them.
You can’t see us, but we’re out there. We’re not going anywhere. And you want to know something? People just might learn something from us.