The Autistic Journalist

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Alpha and Omega

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Photo by Justin Stephens, Syfy

Before I analyze my next story, I want to inform you that this blog is a finalist for Twin Cities CBS affiliate WCCO’s Most Valuable Blogger competition in the health/fitness/medical category. Click here to view all the entries in the category. Voters can select their favorite blog in each category once per day. The winner receives a $50 Amazon gift card.

Speaking of value, Jean Winegardner of The Washington Times explores the usefulness of an autistic character on Syfy’s new series, Alphas. The series focuses on people whose neurological anomalies give them special powers while simultaneously dealing deficits and difficulties brought on by their differences. One of the five main characters, Gary Bell, is a high-functioning autistic adult who can read a wide range of electromagnetic frequencies, including television, radio and cell phone signals.

Actor Ryan Cartwright, who portrays Bell, enjoys the complexity of the character that he believes extends beyond the autism diagnosis. Naturally, Gary makes little eye contact, his speech patterns are stilted and echolalic, he relies on rules learned by rote and carries a strict adherence to routines. All are common traits of autism spectrum disorder. However, the kicker is Gary’s sense of humor, giving him an extra personality to challenge mainstream notions that autistic people are humorless (an idea promoted in the days of Rain Man).

Much detail and care was included in the science portion of the science fiction show. Dr. Susan Bookheimer, a faculty member of UCLA’s neuroscience program, is a consultant for Alphas who reviewed each script for the show’s inaugural season while offering on advice on aspects of Gary’s presentation and symptoms. Cartwright’s research included consulting with people who work with autistic individuals, reading books by autistic authors Temple Grandin and Daniel Tammet along with blog sites created by autistic people (I wonder if he came across this one :-p) and watching documentaries on the subject. Cartwright credits this research for helping him understand the reasoning behind the attributes and difficulties of autistic people to create and not imitate the physicality of Gary. Cartwright’s biggest goal? Playing the person and not the disorder

With the story part reporting and part editorial, Winegarden expresses approval for the show introducing a complex character with autism as opposed to stereotypical characters that permeated mainstream media in the early days of autism exposure. Bookheimer concurs, as the show seeks to examine themes of neurodiversity as the topic itself becomes more embroiled in public dissemination.

Science fiction itself has always opened doors to addressing ideas and topics among current events that could never be extrapolated by media set in the present because of raw, impulsive emotional responses from segments of the viewing audience. Star Trek and its spin-offs before the 2009 reboot contained many allegories among its episodes and races, including Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, with a 23rd century version of Chernobyl and the end of the Soviet Union. Alphas may not be as futuristic, but the science fiction elements of neurological conditions leading to superhuman powers does communicate to viewers that disabled people aren’t so simplistic in real life. Several examples of autism in mainstream media used to place autistic individuals as “out there,” separated from the public domain. Recent portrayals, including a young boy with Asperger’s on the second version of NBC’s Parenthood and now Alphas, approach the condition with a mission to deconstruct what the public erected years ago about the condition.

Credit must also be given for Winegardner’s approach to the story. There are few indications of the article presenting itself as a column until the end of the story, when Winegardner analyzes the character of Gary Bell and the effort from Cartwright and the show’s production staff. While I doubt anyone would be critical of a column praising a television show for avoiding stereotypes, columns and editorials can sometimes fall into traps created by the writers (or pundits on television shows), where the writer eschews fact and reasoning for an egotistical nature. Winegardner’s structure is very similar to what a straight-up reporter would write, and prefaces her sense of encouragement with a behind-the-scenes look for a rookie series seeking to establish itself in the Syfy lineup, using both the actor and a consultant whose expertise is the science of the brain as sources for her analysis.

While an opinion is more blatantly expressed, opinion articles sometimes employ the tactics of more neutral stories that make up the front page of newspapers, as such work can carry the same effect in both instances. Thanks to Winegardner’s interviewing, she doesn’t have to rely solely on her own word even in a news environment where someone’s word is sometimes given more credence than traditional reporting. A positive side effect is the illustration of commitment from Alphas to accurate portrayals within its neuroscience surroundings.

As with any art form, television isn’t immune to subjectivity from the viewing audience, critics and advertisers, but even if Alphas joins the long list of “one-and-done” programs, expect future shows that tackle neurodiversity to draw inspiration from the latest work of science fiction.

Autism “thunderstruck” by new controversy

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Think the vaccine debate is the only hot topic brewing in autism’s domain? If vaccinations were, they’re not alone anymore. Another lightning rod has surfaced in the form of 22-year-old Ari Ne’eman, who was nominated to the National Council on Disability by President Obama. Ne’eman’s nomination is currently on hold. If confirmed by the Senate, Ne’eman would be the first autistic person to serve on the council.

Sounds like a benchmark, right? Why Ne’eman was placed on hold may not be determined since holds can be issued anonymously (Obama’s seven other nominees to the council were confirmed earlier this month). What isn’t helping his situation is criticism he’s received by some autism advocates for his belief that autistic people should be accepted as a form of neurodiversity instead of being cured.

If you’re new to autism, it’s often referred to as a spectrum disorder because symptoms and severity can range. The common thread is impaired social interaction, but they could have anything from no verbal language to savant skills in communication. Ne’eman himself has Asperger’s, considered a high-functioning form but now a candidate for possible removal from the autism spectrum. Ne’eman is the founder of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and his belief mirrors a  growing movement that autism should be accommodated and not eradicated, citing the steps taken for people with physical disabilities, including ramps and bathroom stalls.

Ne’eman has spoken with the New York Times before, suggesting that pursuit of a cure, instead of improving quality of life, will provide few benefits to severely afflicted autistic people. Critics argue his philosophy only represents people who can communicate and take care of themselves. Autism Speaks, whose mission is to finance research for a cure, says Ne’eman fails to understand or sympathize those affected more severely than he is.

Autism Speaks’ rebuttal is hardly a surprise since Ne’eman himself criticized Autism Speaks over a fund-raising video last year. While Autism Speaks is the largest advocacy group in the country, their views are rarely met without criticism that began with the release of the Autism Every Day documentary 4 years ago. Critics accused the film of depicting autism as a disease that doomed the inflicted and anyone surrounding him or her. It’s worth noting that Autism Speaks doesn’t have anyone on their board with autism spectrum disorder.

I mentioned in my post about Wakefield’s ruling from the General Medical Council that the story crossed one controversy off a very long list, and the biggest squashing of the vaccine-autism link would open the door for another hot topic to swoop in. The vaccine debate still lingers, but a cure/no cure rivalry could be a candidate to take over the hot seat. The size of Autism Speaks allowed them to take the first swing at addressing the topic to a national audience when mainstream reports finally made the airwaves and newspapers about 5 years ago. After reading this article, I’m almost certain that journalists have gone away from the overview and moved to the more complex controversies surrounding it. I produced a documentary series on autism a few years ago as I was unsatisfied with the lack of digging from mainstream media, and it appears I won’t be digging alone anymore.

Regarding the story itself, Obama may have nominated him as a reflection of his attitude toward the treatment of different communities. Instead of a hard-line strategy that many consider a benchmark of the Bush years, Ne’eman’s beliefs and accomplishments in his own right could have persuaded the president to recruit someone who could speak for a group that rarely gets a chance to do so. Although a stretch, Ne’eman may mirror Obama himself: both have advocated for topics that aren’t necessarily popular or understood because they believe it’s the best way to make progress in the country. Whether they’re right or wrong is not my place to decide, I’m just discussing a theory on why Ne’eman was given the nomination.

The controversy of responding to a growing autistic population carries a few parallels with the hot buttons surrounding the gay/lesbian/bisexual community. In fact, you could replace autistic with gay in articles and chances are the story would still make sense. While I doubt we’ll see autistic marriage bans, the sense of panic over difference definitely carries over.

If Ne’eman is confirmed, and there’s nothing to suggest that won’t happen, pay attention to any statements released by him or his critics (primarily Autism Speaks). If both sides get big enough to dominate air time on cable news or print space on newspapers, the nomination could serve as an origin. Controversies are ugly, but Ne’eman could potentially be the springboard for other high-functioning autistic people to not only advocate their own stories, but perhaps pursue their dreams knowing that it’s truly possible for them to contribute to society in a meaningful way. I’m still waiting and attempting to create my chance 😛

The autistic journalist reports its 1,000th visit

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1,000 with autism ribbonMy several freelance gigs delayed my celebratory post as this blog got its 1,000th hit in September. For a blog that I update sporadically (usually when a new article is published), I’m surprised at the amount of attention I’ve attracted. I’m sure the view count is a drop in the bucket compared to other blogs from the start of the year, but I thank you for taking time out of your day to get a glimpse of mine.

As a bonus for your stay, I decided to publish an article I wrote for my magazine writing class at the University of Minnesota in the fall of my senior year. The story examines autism’s hidden growing demographic and the influence this increasing group will hold on the rest of society.

“Unsolved Mystery”

Most autism awareness efforts focus on diagnosing children at an early age. For autistic adults, there are many questions about how to treat them.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated one out of every 150 American children was autistic. More than 25,000 new children will be diagnosed with autism in 2008.

For people who know what autism is, those numbers would trigger an alarm. Autism impairs a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others by causing delays in language and cognitive development. There is no cure, but the effects can be reduced if there is early intervention.

This knowledge is the basis for most autism awareness efforts, but not many know that adults can be diagnosed with autism as well. In fact, estimates suggest there will be 1.5 million adults living with autism in the United States by 2016.

Some who specialize in autism treatment and research say that number could be even higher.

“There’s an increasing number of adults who recognize they’re on the spectrum and realize this is what was going on all along,” says Dr. Thomsen F. Davis, a pediatric psychologist working in the Twin Cities area.

Davis believes the core issue with autistic adults is understanding why they and other people in their lives behave the way they do in social situations.

“They live with a lot of self-criticism and doubt,” he says.

A lifetime of figuring himself out

Paul Johnson remembers going to high school in Brooklyn in the 1970s. The 49-year-old African-American considers himself fortunate that he was close with his brother who was popular at school because the environment presented risks. Johnson couldn’t figure out what was causing issues while he was growing up until two years ago, when he was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome.

“It really caused me to look back at the course of my life and notice all the Aspie moments,” he says.

Asperger Syndrome is a high-functioning form of autism and one of many disorders on the autism spectrum.

People with Asperger Syndrome don’t suffer language or cognitive delays compared to people with more severe autism, but often struggle with social interaction and may have restricted behaviors and interests.

Johnson frequently stops at Dunn Bros Coffee in uptown Minneapolis, but even that doesn’t signal his disability. There are no physical characteristics for people on the autism spectrum. Not having a clear sign can make understanding autism difficult for people who aren’t affected and communicate normally. The autism community generally refers to them as neurotypicals.

“There are a lot of expectations that a neurotypical shouldn’t be struggling with and I do struggle at work or at certain social events,” Johnson says.

Johnson, a psychotherapist, says a colleague mentioned the possibility of Asperger’s after making many bad choices when working with clients. The diagnosis was the start of Johnson’s path towards understanding, but he questioned whether or not he was on the spectrum early on.

Complicating the discovery was the fact that Johnson was born with a birth defect that put him in a wheelchair or on crutches until he was 11. Johnson remembers how relatives and peers associated his quirky behaviors with his physical condition.

“That really shrouded a bunch of stuff,” he says.

His wife of 19 years thought Johnson’s behavioral quirks is what Johnson refers as “Paul being Paul” before Johnson was diagnosed. Once she found out he was on the spectrum, she strongly resisted the idea, placing Johnson’s relationship with himself in a flux. Depression soon followed.

“The alternative was if I don’t have a legitimate diagnosis to describe and to give me an understanding of why I act this way, then I’m just an a–hole,” he says. “I had to, for my own piece of mind, get an understanding.”

People with Asperger’s sometimes boast superior memory skills than normal adults. As a child, Johnson was fanatical about sports. He could often be seen watching numerous sports featured on ABC’s Wide World of Sports and would immerse himself with statistics of many professional sports teams in the New York area.

Because of the large sports market in New York, Johnson could recite the numbers and not even get as much as a glare.

“It was ‘He’s just really into his sports’ and I would just talk about what somebody batted in 1969,” he says.

Johnson’s thirst for knowledge carried with him as he became an adult when his focus shifted from sports to psychology. Publications from people who study the autism spectrum are no challenge for him.

“Any book that’s written by a scientist or psychologist from their end, I can read it and pick it apart,” he says.

He auditioned for Jeopardy! three years ago, although he didn’t get past the second round.

“I get between 20-30 questions right when I’m watching Jeopardy!” he says.

While Johnson’s ability to make connections between what people say and do faster than most people gives him many advantages as a psychotherapist, his intellectual curiosity also creates obstacles when he tries to communicate with others.

“You can say Yao Ming is tall and that’s OK. You can say a sumo wrestler is fat. It’s not OK for somebody to go around and talk about how intelligent they are,” he says. “My problem is that if I see something and talk on it, about three-quarters of the time, people don’t know what I’m talking about. When they see it weeks or months later, they’ll be pushing into me ‘Wow, you should have told me that!'”

After Johnson was diagnosed, he began attending adult group meetings at the Autism Society of Minnesota to find answers about the previously unknown disability that affected him throughout his life. He is one of many adult members now, and he learned early on that he wasn’t the only person trying to understand himself.

“I was asking so many questions, I had to bite my tongue,” he says.

Johnson recalled a chat he had with another member about a Thanksgiving dinner conversation two years ago that helped him comprehend that the quirks he had growing up was not pure coincidence.

“He said he learned that it’s not OK to talk about dead animals at the dinner table. And I’m like, oh wow! Finally somebody who’s more screwed up than I am!” he says.

Johnson doesn’t compare himself to others on the spectrum or judge anyone based on where they fit on the spectrum, but that early Thanksgiving talk, among other things at the Society, served as an important catalyst.

“That was very instrumental in affirming me,” he says.

The other side

Jamie Clifton, a 30-year-old originally from Burnsville, Minnesota, considers herself a very outgoing, animated woman. Six years ago, she met a man who would become her husband four years later. While she says the opposite personalities between herself and her husband bring them together, Clifton believed something was off.

“He was very mannequin-like,” she says. “No expression of emotion, no eye contact, no voice expression, no facial expression. I was a little intrigued because I never met a person that was like a mannequin.”

While Clifton’s work in occupational therapy helped her become a patient person outside the work environment, she found herself frustrated with what seemed to be a lack of involvement from her husband about their relationship.

“I had to initiate everything. I don’t want to say I’m a control freak, but sometimes it’s kind of like that where I’m definitely the more dominant one. I’m the one that makes all the decisions. I was the one that approached him. I was the one that initiated our first date, our second date, being serious, moving in, being engaged,” she says.

She was even the one who persuaded her husband to be evaluated after they married, and that’s when they both found out that he had Asperger Syndrome. The idea of her husband on the spectrum didn’t occur until Clifton visited her husband’s mother to discuss his behaviors.

“I was like ‘This is what I’m noticing, do you notice the same things?’ and she said yes,” she says.

There was another problem. Clifton had very little knowledge of Asperger’s and the autism spectrum. Her only significant experience before meeting her husband was watching Rain Man, the Academy Award-winning film about the bond between a car salesman and his brother Raymond Babbitt, an autistic savant. While the film brought autism to the mainstream public for the first time, people like Clifton quickly assumed that every person with autism was similar to Babbitt’s character, who was based on an intellectual savant who was never diagnosed with autism.

“I started researching on the Internet and that’s when the whole autism/Asperger thing came up,” she says.

But the questions didn’t stop there. Clifton’s husband was originally diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and took Ritalin for eight years, his parents and Clifton thinking he would outgrow it. His parents initially viewed his conduct as stubborn. He grew up in with a family that never talked about feelings or emotions.

The environment Clifton’s husband was used to, combined with Clifton’s personality, originally caused an overwhelming feeling when the two were first dating. Clifton wanted to connect, but her husband wasn’t warm to the idea.

“He actually broke up with me, because he (said) you just want too much,” Clifton says.

Clifton went through several bad relationships before and says her husband was the first person she met that treated her fairly.

“Here’s a guy who’s never been given a chance,” she says. “I know there’s something inside because there’s no person that’s a mannequin.”

Clifton says her husband is still apprehensive to communicating his disability with other people, but his communication skills grew with age and continuous interaction with her. She is also fascinated by her husband’s skills, as he works as an auto mechanic.

“He’s really good at working with his hands. He can sequence, he can problem solve, do all of these things he can’t do in everyday life and I just don’t get it. I don’t know if I would be with him if it wasn’t for that strength,” she says.

Clifton’s marriage is still no fairy tale though. She handles all the finances between the two after her husband lost his check book four times and was unable to grasp the concept of online banking.

“Everything is just always a process with him,” she says. “He would do something and then I would have to go and fix it.”

Clifton is hoping to meet another young couple also affected by the autism spectrum.

“I always think of the analogy where if you’re married to someone on the spectrum, it’s like you’re two wires that are wrapped around each other. You’re never actually intertwined,” Clifton says.

Some are less fortunate

The Autism Society of America says the average lifetime cost of caring for an autistic person ranges from $3.5 million to $5 million. The United States spends nearly $90 billion annually on autism costs, including research, treatment and educational spending, according to the Society.

While people like Johnson and Clifton live independently, the price tag worries some about the ability to care for adults who can’t take care of themselves.

“I’m not sure if we are ready,” says Robin Gurley, who works at the Autism Society of America and is the managing editor of their publication, Autism Advocate. “As a country, we tend to be a little short-sighted. The focus is on early intervention and that’s great, but kids will grow into adults.”

“A lot of parents feel lost when their kids hit 21,” Gurley says. “People want their kids to be happy and productive.”

Aggravating this problem are mysteries of autism itself. There are no scans, imaging or blood tests that can identify autism.

“We live in such a cold, cruel world,” Clifton says. “I always stand up for my husband. His parents think he’s retarded, like he’s the dumb one.”

“Some people are accepting, but others treat them like aliens,” Davis says.

Johnson says his study of psychology helped train him to do something that many autistic adults aren’t expected to do, but he still can’t escape the stereotypes of being associated with the autism spectrum. Johnson was interviewed by a student working on her dissertation and helped her in more ways than she anticipated.

“The topic of her paper was on special interests. She had portrayed us as having special interests because we were obsessive, compulsive. I checked her on that and said ‘No, it’s not true,'” he says. “You do this because it is a coping mechanism. She was blown away.”

Forecast calls for optimism

Gurley says one of the most popular issues of Autism Advocate, released last year, offered stories of autistic adults successfully integrating in a public work environment.

“We wanted to produce an issue that was hopeful and positive,” she says.

The stories included programs designed to help autistic adults adapt with other people’s communication levels while incorporating their personal strengths. In Minnesota, autistic adults were hired to government offices where they scanned paper records to be digitally stored.

Gurley discovered through her reporting that adults with autism are most successful with jobs that involve systematic and logical work.

“It may be dull and routine for neurotypical people but works great for autistic people,” she says. “They don’t mind the repetition, plus they’re in a professional work environment.”

Gurley says she tries to publish a few articles about adults in every issue.

Although Gurley knows many signs indicating that people not directly affected by autism are more willing to accept the autistic adult community, she says nationwide acknowledgment is one of the ASA’s top priorities.

“Many states don’t have programs in place. Some companies aren’t sure what to think,” she says.

For Davis, acknowledgment means a recognition of individual differences and a continued education of inclusiveness.

“No one should even say you can’t do this job because you have autism,” he says.

Johnson wrote an essay titled The Mirror Theory: Towards an Understanding of Neurodiversity in the General Population, and will present a lecture on the essay next year.

“I want everybody to understand that there’s a diversity in the way people think,” he says.

Johnson says a revolution in the way people perceive the autism spectrum will defeat the obstacles creating confusion for people trying to get a grasp of what to expect in the coming years.

Two years after his diagnosis, Johnson doesn’t see himself or others with autism as a handicapped population anymore.

“It just means that they were born to learn differently,” he says. “There’s a segment of the population now that is born to absorb information differently. That’s why I wrote the essay. You can’t assume that everybody’s going to learn (the same) way.”

Johnson is able to examine how his life is affected by Asperger’s through his work with clients and his journals. The experience is rather unique for an adult on the spectrum, but he developed a philosophy that expands to a broad segment of the ever-growing adult population.

“It’s all about identity. If you’re struggling with anxiety or depression, it can be remedied by having a good understanding of who you are. Period,” he says.

Davis remembers the social climate surrounding autism 50 years ago. Back then, people didn’t know what to do with autistic people, if they even knew about autism at all. He points out that most autistics at the time were highly unlikely to get a healthy social education experience.

Now, he sees others more open to learn about autism and its community.

“There’s reason to be optimistic,” he says.

To boldly go where no one has gone before

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Courtesy Paramount Pictures/Bad Robot Films. Spock is on the left.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures/Bad Robot Films. Spock is on the left.

This was the last line of the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, spoken by Leonard Nimoy. Nimoy, of course, is famous for his portrayal of Spock starting from the 1960s TV series to the current film. Nimoy reflected on how Spock developed his mind in ways he thought would be impossible had he not played Spock for so many years. Zachary Quinto may have inherited the role (which he did very well), but whoever dons the pointy ears, of all the fictional characters I’ve encountered, I’d most resemble Spock.

Others might argue my personality is more closely associated with Sheldon Cooper from the CBS hit, The Big Bang Theory. They’d have a solid argument. Sheldon’s character displays many traits often associated with autism spectrum disorder, but the difference between Sheldon and I is my awareness of my fallacies and knowledge that successful integration into a culture or community requires interpersonal communication and a balance between your needs and the needs of everyone else. Spock logically deduced this, quoting the line “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one,” to his friend, Captain James T. Kirk, as he sacrificed himself to save the Enterprise in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

It’s that kind of logic that dominates my thought process. While I don’t disregard emotional input, I’m aware of how feelings can work against you rather than with you. If people allow themselves to be controlled by their emotions, it can lead to a destructive lifestyle. This is why I always back off if I develop a rage of emotional sensations and always ask for details when someone asks about my availability for work or something that requires my services. Doing so allows me time to process the situation and develop an effective strategy to response to handle what comes my way.

Conversely, I’m also aware that pure logic is not necessarily the best option. I find myself attempting to achieve the balance the elder Spock was able to find as he got older, knowing when to portray human fallacies in the interest of the crew’s safety. Nimoy’s Spock summarized the balance of logic and instinct in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, “Logic is the beginning of wisdom…not the end.” I can also rattle off a lot of trivial information, and while my brain can’t process information as quickly as Spock’s, I do find myself playing dumb intentionally to avoid accusations of being a know-it-all when trivial matters are discussed.

Zachary Quinto’s Spock brought out the other reason why I most resemble Spock. Quinto’s Spock finds himself torn between two worlds with his half-human/half-Vulcan heritage, which is often an allegory for mixed race individuals who have trouble finding balance between their two cultures. However, I often find myself in limbo as a bridge between the neurotypical and autism communities. It was mentioned during Nimoy’s run as Spock, but Quinto brought out Spock’s human qualities to full effect, sometimes struggling in handling human emotions. I find many parallels with Quinto’s Spock. While handling emotional expressions is relatively easy now, I did have problems as a child. Instead, I find myself in limbo over how to respond and anticipate to behaviors from others. Despite many patterns I’ve observed in my friendships, there’s still a level of unpredictability that makes me question my decisions when a conflice arises. It’s not the question of whether I made the right decision (ethics is always a gray area), but if my logic can work in situations where people become influenced by impulsiveness.

Despite my concerns, as I mentioned before, I enjoy a liberation from the implied obligation to always follow your feelings. Cooling off and assessing the situation from multiple sides plays a role in solving problems too. Knowing you matter, but aren’t the center of the universe, helps empathize and determine how others could play an influence in self-esteem and social life in general. This mindset helps create a thirst for knowledge, to understand as many different emotional reactions as possible so I can factor them into my own decisions. As Quinto’s Spock noted as he applied to Starfleet and the Vulcan Science Academy, it’s logical to consider multiple options. That idea works well beyond applying for schools, but in studying human behavior as well.

I have no plans to become a psychologist, but as a journalist, I’ll be working with many people whose egos, reputations, interpretations and ability to separate impulse from logic will determine their reactions. A lack of preparation would be unwise. Spock displayed an ability to anticipate actions. I hope to one day master this, so that nothing can aggravate my emotional expressions.

Until next time, live long and prosper.

Written by TheSportsBrain

May 27, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Define progress

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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.

Written by TheSportsBrain

January 22, 2009 at 11:35 pm