Neurodiversity and Me at William & Mary
|The College of William & Mary contains the oldest academic buildings in America|
Some of us - those at the upper end of the Asperger's spectrum, for example - are functional but eccentric, and gainfully employed. Others - some Fragile X people being an example - are very severely disabled and live in group homes. "Naturally occurring" does not mean gentle or easy; it can be anything at all. The point of "naturally occurring" is this: We are not freaks. We are not "injured and in need of healing." We are not artifacts of modern chemistry. We just are. We want to make our best lives, and move on without blame, shame, or recrimination.
That does not mean neurodiverse people are smarter as a group - we are not - but it does mean the smartest neurodiverse people will have peak intelligences (in our narrow bands of interest) at the very top of the human range. The price for that, of course, is the offsetting group at the very bottom of the functional intelligence range. They too are neurodiverse, but there intellectual limitations render them invisible much of the time.
The kind of autism I am touched by has been constant my whole life, and it has a consistent presentation in three generations of my family. I see other families where there is no history of autism, and a child who is developing normally regresses into a state of total disability in late toddlerhood. How does that happen? It's a big concern to me, and it makes me wonder how many different conditions we are dealing with under the ASD umbrella. Clearly, a family with a child who regressed would see things very differently from a family like mine.
Wherever your connection to the autism spectrum lies I urge you to respect other points of view even when they differ greatly from your own, as experiences differ too. That' to me is the heart of neurodiversity and acceptance.
If autism is a natural variation, is it Humanity 2.0?
Attractive as that idea sounds to some, it's not what the science is showing us. Instead, science is suggesting that some level of autism has always existed in our population. It's a stable genetic variation. That does not mean it's better; just different. It suggests that autism serves some evolutionary purpose whose meaning may not be fully understood.
Some people with autism are uniquely skilled at solving certain problems. That makes us different, not better. We complement neurotypical humanity. We are probably not destined to replace it. It my opinion, being equal is OK. We don't have to be better.
Consider this: For every person like me - who lives independently with autism, there are several more my age who struggle to stay afloat. The hard truth is, most people with autism and other neurodiverse conditions are more disabled than gifted in modern society. It's great to embrace our gifts but we have a duty to also recognize how difference limits us as we work to relieve those burdens.
The points I make above were all supported by the Brugha study which examined 7,500 adult heads of household in England last year. You can find a summary and link in the IACC 2012 Strategic Plan for Autism.
One more thing - Remember that evolution has no heart. A trait that causes tremendous suffering may persist in our genome if it helps perpetrate the species in some way. Recognition that a trait is part of us does not mean we should passively accept any suffering it causes.
John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences. He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia and a visiting professor of practice at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.