Saturday, April 24, 2004
Morton Ann Gernsbacher
This month, which is Autism Awareness Month, I'm hiding my eyes and
those of my autistic 8-year old son from the media.
National headlines that describe autism as an epidemic, or pandemic.
Public service announcements liken autism to being kidnapped.
autism "expert" decrees that autism is worse "than Sept. 11 and
combined." An Autism
Society Canada board member proclaims that autism is worse than cancer
— because people with autism have normal lifespans.
Have you — like my son and me — ever heard parents say how learning that
their child was autistic was like experiencing a death in their family?
Have you ever been at the playground when a mother classifies her
children, standing right there beside her, as this one who is autistic
but these other two who are — thank goodness — perfectly normal?
They say that autism entails difficulty taking another person's
perspective, appreciating how another person might feel. But when I read
or hear such hate
speech I wonder: Exactly who has a problem taking another person's
perspective? Who can't appreciate the feelings of others?
autism "advocates" who despise autism, who march thousand-fold against
it with placards calling for its defeat, its demise. His demise.
Oh, you say, those people don't want to get rid of my son, they just
want to get rid of that part of him that's autistic. But research
demonstrates that autistic traits are distributed into the non-autistic
population; some people have more of them, some have fewer. History
suggests that many individuals
whom we would today diagnose as autistic — some severely so —
contributed profoundly to our art, our math, our science, and our
Most poignantly, many autistics affirm that it would be impossible to
segregate the part of them that is autistic. To take away their autism
is to take away their personhood. Despite our politically correct
labeling, they are autistic; they don't "have" autism any more than
homosexuals have gayness or lesbianism. Like their predecessors in human
rights, many autistics don't want to be cured; they want to be accepted.
And like other predecessors in civil rights, many autistics don't want
to be required to imitate the majority
just to earn their rightful place in society.
I'm a middle-aged psychology professor who holds an endowed chair at a
major research university. But my son has taught me far more than I ever
learned in my lab. Every time he walks by a poster avowing that autism
must be eradicated, he teaches me grace. Every time he ignores one of
the countless scholarly
articles that tower above my desk, asserting he is disordered, he
teaches me tolerance. Every time he embraces a world that so frequently
rebuffs him, he teaches me unconditional love.
What if next year we celebrate the diversity of social interaction
observed within and across all cultures? What if this "awareness" month
marked a time
to appreciate the variation that all humans demonstrate in their style
and competence in communication? What if it heralded an era during which
at the determined focus that in my occupation often wins indefinite
tenure but in a precocious child gets labeled as diseased?
Then, neither my son nor I would feel compelled to hide.