Think about it: What IS so great about "being like everyone else"?
Think about it: Why do we find it so annoying when people behave "differently" from us?
Think about it: Does what we say (or not say) always reflect who we are, what we think, and how we feel?
Think about it: No one can change other people, only themselves. SHOULD we be trying to change people who are happy with who they are?
TERMINOLOGY USED IN THIS BLOG
I will be using the identify-first terminology when talking about the autistic perspective since most autistic people I know prefer this way of identifying themselves. The people-first approach that most non-autistics prefer to use is intended to be respectful. I get that. For most people who view themselves as "like everyone else" except for their disability, such as a chronic disease or physical limitation or mental illness, it is more respectful to refer to them as people first and their disability second. However, some disabilities, such as blindness, deafness, autism, etc., are so much a part of who they are, they cannot separate themselves from the challenges they face 100% of the time. They identify with their disability as part of who they are and how they experience life. They do not experience life "like" other people. They still have feelings and needs like all other humans, but they also see themselves as different, much like people brought up in different cultures do. In this blog I will, and expect others who may contribute to it, to respect everyone as human, but with cultural preferences for how they prefer to be addressed. Thus, I may use people-first terminology when referring to non-identity-first groups of people.
I will be presenting first and foremost from the neurodiverse (ND) perspective, simply because that is what I know best. I am not sure that there is such a thing as neurotypical (NT), but as the "For Better or For Worse" comic strip points out, most people consider themselves part of the majority considered "normal." After all, they have been tested using standardized forms of measurement, medically and educationally, and have been found to fall within standardized "norms." That leaves those that test outside of the "norm" as…well, different. Labels have been given to those who fall outside the "norm," such as abnormal, deficient, deviant, defective, etc. Labeling people is never helpful and usually hurtful. The neurodiversity movement started as an uprising against this form of labeling. I do not agree with the claim that neurodiverse people are better in any way than neurotypical. Everyone has strengths and limitations. Because neurodiverse folks often must work harder to achieve what others accomplish so much easier, it is not surprising that they sometimes develop compensatory strengths that far exceed that of others. Not all ND people have medical, intellectual, or mental health challenges in addition to their neurological differences. Those that do are likely to need additional supports that other ND people do not. Therefore, the DSM-V has identified autism as a spectrum disorder and categorized the severity of the disorder based simply on the amount of support they need at that time. Thus, it has been said, "If you’ve met one individual with autism, you have met one individual with autism." My goal is to respect, and to the extent possible represent, the entire spectrum in my blogs. Please do not hesitate to let me know if I fall short of this goal.
Many in the autistic community object to the use of terms such as "high functioning", "low functioning", "mild" and "severe" to describe how others perceived them on the spectrum. I will therefore not be using these terms. Autistic individuals who have managed to accomplish as much as they have without supports have likely done so at an extreme cost. "Mild" or "high functioning" does not describe how hard they have had to struggle and what they have had to give up to "appear" this way to others. Those that "appear" "severe" or "low functioning" may be experiencing significant medical, physical, or other challenges in addition to their autism that makes it impossible for them to compensate for or hide their differences. Neither wants to be judged based on how others perceive them. They want to be recognized for who they perceive themselves to be and what they know they can do or not do.
THE PURPOSE OF THIS BLOG
Growing up on the autism spectrum, undiagnosed and unsupported, I thought I had no choice but to learn what everyone else seemed to know, but I did not. It became my obsession to learn facial expressions by watching Shirley Temple movies and spending time practicing her expressions in front of a mirror, reading novels to glean knowledge about how people think and the things they do socially, and playing with my two clothespins to practice expressing emotions via tone of voice conversations (no words since I did not understand words all that well).
In college, I was driven to learn everything I could about the psychology, neurology, and biology of human beings. I even joined a sorority so that I could learn about women, since I was one, but had no clue what women thought about or were expected to do. I gave up any sense of self to devote myself to understanding others. All so that I could "fit in." It was not until my diagnosis in my early 50's that I learned that there was any other option of how to think and behave. By this time, I was already married for 25 years. Marriage was not an emotional decision. It was a logical one. I was terrified of trying to navigate a world I did not understand, despite my methodical approach to learning everything I could about other people. I still desperately needed support.
This blog is an attempt to share what I have learned over the now 74 years of my life, growing up trying to be "like everyone else" and as the self I finally discovered I was born to be and am happy being. Thus, it is important to me to look at myself and others, both neurotypical and neurodiverse, from both perspectives. I do not claim to understand other than my own perspective, but I have spent a lot of time trying to view things from other than my own perspective. I am therefore challenging readers of this blog, both NT and ND, to think about what I present from both perspectives. My goal is to bridge the gap and meet somewhere in the middle. I am hoping that the following stories illustrate this point.
As a contract OT, shortly after I was officially diagnosed on the autism spectrum, I had an 18 year-old autistic non-speaking student assigned to me. His mother brought him to our therapy sessions. I was stunned when the mother explained to me that, despite his years of therapy, he did not have a communication system. He could type but outside of using a computer, she spoke for him. As an OT, it was not my role to work on goals that related to speech or communication, but the need was obvious. I wrote a goal to further his computer skills and gave him a software program for creating greeting cards. I explained to him the value of communication and how he might use this program to express his thoughts and feelings to friends and family members by creating and sending them greeting cards. After each session, his mother and I would talk. She would ask questions and seek advice about his life at home. He was present and listened as we spoke. I did my best to explain to her the autistic perspective, hoping that I was speaking for him since he couldn't speak for himself. I always ended our conversation with "Think about it."
Several sessions after I gave him the greeting card software, his mother came in to tell me that her son worked with his sister and created several cards that together they addressed and sent to friends and out-of-state family members. She told me that he also created a card for me, which she then gave to me. She made a point to say that her son created this one on his own, after his sister left the room. I opened it. On the front were the words "Think about it." On the inside it simply stated "Thank you." I have it to this day. That's how highly I value his words.
This story summarizes my purpose of writing this blog. I want to talk about the autistic perspective. I would love to have those who listen simply "Think about it." I am not going to say everything right. Nor am I going to speak for every autistic. I only asking that people think about the fact that autistics do have a perspective. It is often quite different from most non-autistics. It is definitely worth listening to.
Years later, when I was involved in giving presentations at Autism conferences, I often used comic strips taken from the newspaper to illustrate the point I was trying to make. I reasoned that if neurotypical readers of the comic strip could recognize the content as something they could relate to in their life, AND I could relate to it as well, then this could be a bridge to understanding each other's perspective. The comic strips to the left are the ones I often used to challenge those attending the presentation to consider looking at social situations from both their perspective and the autistic perspective.
While I was a co-host of a support group for autistic adults, I created a booklet, using similar comic strips, called "These Strange Neurotypical Ways" as a tool to discuss differences in perspectives, and foster greater understanding, within the support group. One of members asked if she could share it with her college professor. I told her "Sure." I was curious, as was she, to get feedback from someone non-autistic. Her professor's response was "I didn't think autistics had a perspective." I later shared it with the leader of a support group for spouses and partners of autistic adults. Again, I hoped it might start a conversation about perspective-taking. The reaction was overt hostility. I apologize in advance if anything I post on this blog is taken as offensive. It is not my intent. Nor is it my intent to claim that the autistic way of thinking, feeling, and responding is in any way better than the way that non-autistics think, feel, or respond! It is purely my intent to stimulate a perspective-taking dialogue, and maybe even see the humor in how we perceive our differences.