A while ago I wrote a book (Learning to Live with High Functioning Autism. Jessica Kingsley Publishers 1999) about autism in which I said,
“The third thing that I have noticed is how diverse the personalities of adults with Autism are. Abrasive, apologetic, sympathetic to others, self centred, shy, confident. Just like the rest of us, with strengths and weaknesses. Each personality emerges unique, often after immense struggles. And, when you read the life stories there is often very little clue in a person’s childhood about the way they will turn out.
One young woman with Autism described two children, identical in every respect. They have the same problems. They inhabit the same environment. But they react in different ways and their conditions are interpreted differently. One is labelled autistic, the other is gifted but odd. In other words, there is no point in trying to pick the winners or match services to projected outcomes. The only way to pick a winner is to back them all. “
I was quite pleased with this passage from my book when I wrote it back in 1998. Now I am not so sure. I thought I was advocating equal rights for all autistics but the justification for this was the questionable premise that this was the only way to discover all the gifted and talented autistics who would benefit society. Once we have identified the “winners” what happens to the “losers” after that?
That thought never occurred to me when I wrote the passage above. I was arguing for services for all autistic children and had not thought really about the situation for autistic adults apart from arguing that,
“any adult services that are put in place need long term planning and adult services do need to be put in place. As I mentioned earlier, parents should not be expected to assume the burden of adult care. And the more independence the adult with Autism can achieve the easier the transition that will have to be made after the parents have died.”
In retrospect this looks quite horrible: glittering prizes for the few and the “burden” of community services for the rest, apart from those who will need even more burdensome insitutional care. That was not my conscious intention. I was writing from a parent’s point of view, a poor put upon parent who was forced to fill the gaps in a creaking system that was failing to provide the services that I wanted to meet my agenda for my child. My agenda at that time was to teach my son how to please other people, fit in at school and stay out of trouble so he could join the priveleged few who made it through the system. It was only much later that I learned to listen to my son. As I pointed out in another book (Asperger Syndrome in Adolescence edited by Liane Holliday Willey, Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2003)
“The best advice that Mattie got was from Dave, a clinical psychologist, who asked him to think about what he wanted. Prior to this Mattie had always been encouraged “ [by me as much as any teacher or other professional] “to meet other people’s demands and expectations. Dave was the first person to give Mattie permission to put his desires before our expectations.”
So, if I am anything to go by, even well intentioned parents who think they respect autistic culture and have some understanding of autism can get it wrong. It is easy to beome entrenched in our thinking when taking up cudgels on behalf of our children. The danger is that we define our ideas in terms of what we are fighting against. But sometimes we need to reflect on and modify our thinking about what we are fighting for.