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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Is Autism the New "Gay"?

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.


  1. Said well, Dave. As a tail-end boomer, i'm blown away by the amount of interracial couples and biracial children shown in the media today. Hubby and I are always cheering about that, teaching the kids how "back in the day, you'd never ever see that; in fact it was against the law in many states." Our teenage daughter is part of the GayStraightAlliance in her school, and is open to all sorts of people thanks to media (and hopefully her parents' influence).

    Also, about the way things used to be seen re autism. Our son's pdd-nos has also been a challenge to my inner-pathologcial side born of 60's conformity. We're so pleased with who he is as a person, but more challenged to see him socially left out.

    Thanks for posting this. Yes, maybe autism is the new gay. Elissa

  2. So well said. So insightful. I loved this. I, too, have a 'spectrumy' son and a niece who has autism and have been amazed at how much media attention has been given to an issue which was never discussed growing up. Paula

  3. Thanks Dave, very well written post. only caveat might be, as I hear stories coming from middle school, the revolution didn't get to their message board. I do appreciate school's anti bulling policy, however, what's going on in the lunch room and even under the supervision of teachers is very bad news to all of us who aspire for the assimilation of values as tolerance and acceptance for people being who they are. I'm a true believer that kids are not born bullies, they happen to grow up in a house that raises them to deal with the world in a certain way,thus I must deduct the revolution did not reach what you and I highly desire to be a media representation of evolution transforming our society.Sharon Avitzur

  4. Points all well taken, Dave. As far as the middle school kids are concerned, tolerance and acceptance will always be in short supply--I think it's part of that miserable stage of social development. Of course, we should still continue to demand tolerance and acceptance from this age group, perhaps limiting the disappointment we feel when they fail to 'get it'.

  5. Thanks for the comments folks, my daughter is still in grade school so I appreciate the insight and heads up for middle school...

  6. Wow. As a fairly successful adult who is both gay and autistic I find this article cringe-inducing on a number of levels. Lets just look at the framing in this single sentence:

    "Now, I'm not equating a developmental disorder with what is, in my view, a natural human expression of love and affection."

    So, you, writer, are happy to accept me as a gay person, but find my existence as autistic to be unfortunate, and on quite a different level? As someone intimately familiar with both "conditions", I fail to appreciate the distinction, in terms of the innate value of the people AS THEY ARE. I find the seeming lack of awareness of the problem with this distinction to be kind of appalling in its hubris. I patently reject the insulting and dehumanizing idea that autism is either, "unnatural" or a net negative for society. I would point to the existence of people such as Jefferson, Einstein, Galileo, Bill Gates, Henry Ford, Nikola Tesla, Marie Curie--even those in the arts and letters like Picasso, Andy Warhol, Mozart, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, Andy Kaufman, Woody Allen, etc. I would suggest that such people are neither unfortunate, nor are they magical unicorns that arrived here from another planet: They exist because of autism. The idea of someone writing on this particular subject (ostensibly as an advocate for autistic people and for raising awareness about us) without showing basic appreciation for the indispensable role autism itself has played in furthering the advancement of humanity throughout its history, is really incredible and depressing.

    It is would be worthwhile for you to consider that "autistic" isn't just your kid, whom you are (understandably) resentful of having to expend the additional effort to specially accommodate and uniquely care for. Rather, "autistic" is an ENTIRE GROUP OF PEOPLE--INDEPENDENT ADULTS, who are misunderstood, beset and marginalized within their society. You don't have a right to speak for us, nor to casually muse about the value of our existence as we are. You're not just speaking about your kid, you are speaking about ALL OF US. And you are not just speaking about burdensome social challenges, and sensory issues--you are speaking about AMAZING contributions that are effectively not possible without our presence exactly as we are in the world. This world is not your exclusive property simply because you are a majority--it belongs to us as well. And autism is not your property--it is OURS: Our problem, gift, challenge, genius, drag, uniqueness, humanity, and being. We don't sit around musing about your worth, or which groups you do or don't measure up to. We don't do that because it is a patently absurd thing to do. We recognize your worth and place here as you are. It would be nice to be treated with a simple degree of reciprocal respect by someone who is actually supposed to be "on our side".

    How is it not as out-of-touch and insulting to define autistic people by their particular problems and challenges as it would be be defining gays by HIV and barrenness, whites by skin cancer, colonial exploitation and racism, or Jews by Tay-Sachs? We all have challenges and problems in life. That is a part of being human. We all have trade-offs associated with being who we are.

  7. (cont'd - 2 of 2)

    Ironically, in recent history the psychiatric profession and society in general similarly pathologized homosexuality. It was "unfortunate" among the most "sympathetic" and liberal non-gays. And it simply WAS defined by barrenness, "depravity" etc. What you imply about the regrettable nature of being autistic is EXACTLY the way I would have been regarded as people for being gay 40 years ago. the goal its to have a society that accommodates people as they come into the world because that is what is healthy and in the interests of the whole society--not a society that grudgingly "tolerates" them, on the basis of subjective judgements as to whether minorities "earn" the right to come off the "Patronize Us" list, to be respected, and to simply be here as they are like everyone else.

  8. Firstly, why do parents of autistic spectrum children ALWAYS see the issue from their own point of view of having to care for such a child? Secondly, I'd like to remind you that autism isn't a children's problem. Neither are we hugely likely to be mysterious genuises, or have special abilities. This is a dangerous stereotype that gives people false hope and makes AS's believe that they are superior, and makes NT's have ridiculous expectations and lack of understanding of ASD people they know. 88% of Aspergers and 98% of autistics in the UK are unemployed - this is the reality. Even if we are intelligent (which we often are) we find it hard to put this to good use because society is against us, and because we find it hard to navigate life. Also, media portrayals of ASD people should never be used as examples. They never get it right and promote stereotypes. A normal person can never "act" a role of an ASD person because they can never know what it's actually like to be on the spectrum.

    Lastly, I'd like to remind everyone that unless you are on the autistic spectrum, you will never understand it. You can read about it all you like, and observe relatives and friends on the spectrum, but you will never know how it feels and never be an expert. Thus, only ASD people have a right to an opinion on the autistic spectrum.


    An Offended Aspie.

    PS - I agree with Jim.