My daughter has an autism spectrum disorder.
That's a mouthful, and though I'd rather she have no autism or disorder at all, things could be much more challenging. She could have grown up when I did, when she would have been called "retarded", which does not come close to describing her or anyone else like her. I like to think that "spectrum" is a most humane way of looking at it; it suggests wavelength, and so instead of being looked at as defective or broken, she is just like other kids in most ways, except she is on a different wavelength, a bit of infrared or ultraviolet. She is a sweet, smart, funny kid who sees and experiences things a bit differently.
Speaking of how things have changed since I grew up, the evolution of the acceptance of people with developmental challenges seems to be following a similar path as another group that, to me, are just like most everyone else, except they experience things on a little bit different wavelength - gays and lesbians.
Now, I'm not equating a developmental disorder with what is, in my view, a natural human expression of love and affection. Rather, I am comparing the similarities in the way we work through our collective neurosis about each.
For Gen Xers, our great societal changes were not executed by marching in the streets, sit-ins, or protests, but through the media -- from cable, to MTV, through movies and music. What we watched and listened to not only captured, but influenced, cultural change -- setting the stage for the online revolution.
From the 70's onward, from David Bowie and "Soap" and Boy George, to "Ellen" and "Will & Grace", in media we saw gays and lesbians morph from curiosities, to mavericks, to conspicuously unattached sassy, witty and worldly wise neighbors, to a cosmopolitan "in-joke" ( "Not that there's anything wrong with that!") to cowboys ("Brokeback Mountain") and finally, the middle class suburban couple in "Modern Family". In short, the sign that a group was moving toward greater acceptance was the role they played on TV or movies -- when writers wanted to titillate, or spice up an otherwise formulaic show, they would drop in a gay or lesbian character. Sometimes it was a broad stereotype, sometimes it was comic relief, and later they became actual human beings...
Today, we have seen the same evolution of folks with autism. Probably starting with Dustin Hoffman's autistic savant in "Rain Man", moving from curiosity to comic relief -- the person with the funny habits or obsessions, who unintentionally subverts manners and customs ("The Big Bang Theory" and "Community"). Now, a few actual human beings, like the all too familiar (to me) son in the TV series "Parenthood", are beginning to appear. Behind the scenes of this cultural sea change is the dedication and compassion of scores of special ed teachers who have always seen that behind the diagnosis are real, actual human beings (to those who gleefully participated in the recent bashing of public school teachers as uncaring parasites, as David Mamet would say, you should all have been born punched in the mouth.)
So we become more humane, more tolerant, and more compassionate not by arguing, not by preaching, but by simply spending time experiencing another person as an actual human being, whether in pop culture or in person.
Soon, they are not "retarded" or "queer" but just like everyone else, perhaps just on a little bit different wavelength.