By Donna Levin.
There was once an organization called “Cure Autism Now.” About ten years ago it merged with another organization called “Autism Speaks.”
The Autism Speaks website will tell you that it was in the name of efficiency, and I don’t doubt that it is more efficient this way, as the two groups have consolidated resources of people, time and money. But there’s another reason that Cure Autism Now, even with its clever acronym, “CAN,” that doubles as a call to arms, couldn’t endure: Not only does not everyone wanted to be cured, there’s a growing population of those who demand to be who they are.
When I first heard the word “autistic” in regard to my son, who was then three years old, I was too stunned to speak. But inwardly I protested, “That can’t be true! Autistic kids can’t talk. They sit in corners rocking and banging their heads against the wall!”
But I was wrong. Autism is a spectrum condition (note that I did not say “disorder”) and encompasses the slightly nerdy guy in the cubicle next to yours to, alas, some smaller number of children (and adults) who are nonverbal.
When Oliver Sacks first introduced Temple Grandin to the world in The New Yorker in 1993 (and then made her the subject of the title essay in An Anthropologist on Mars) it was the beginning of a change in the public perception of people with autism, a change that continues to evolve. Temple Grandin, a Ph.D. and a professor of animal science at Colorado State University (as well as an innovator in the humane treatment of livestock), is someone whom anyone can look up to, whether on the spectrum or neurotypical.
Then there’s Alex Plank, the millennial filmmaker and actor who founded the website WrongPlanet.net: “a web community designed for individuals (and parents / professionals of those) with Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, PDDs, and other neurological differences.” In an interview, Plank says, “It’s made me a better person, having autism, and I wouldn’t change that if I could.”
This is autism pride.
Stereotypes still abound to an extent surprising to those of us in the community. Autistic people don’t like to be touched. They’re all good with computers and math. They all have some special gift.
No one of those three statements is consistently true, or even often true. (Not one applies to my son.)
What many people do know now is that there has been an explosion in autism spectrum diagnoses. Autism Speaks say that as many as 1 in 59 children are affected. Cut that number in half—no, divide it by four—and you still have an epidemic.
Which means that more people on the spectrum are declaring, “We’re odd, by God. Get used to it.”
Photo by Ravi Roshan. Donna Levin is the author of the novels There’s More Than One Way Home (2017) and the forthcoming He Could Be Another Bill Gates (2018), both published by Chickadee Prince Books.