April is Autism Awareness Month. Autism is now said to affect one out of 88 children. Autism doesn’t go away with age so many adults have it too. When people think of Autism, they generally think of people who are severely disabled to the point that they cannot attend college or live on their own. In many cases this is, unfortunately, true. However, The Autism spectrum is wide and includes a diverse variety of individuals, including a number of “high-functioning” Autistic people. Asperger’s Syndrome is a common manifestation of high-functioning Autism. People with Asperger’s (Aspies, as they like to call themselves) and other high-functioning Autistic individuals face significant obstacles in life, that’s for sure, but many of them are able to overcome these obstacles and live fulfilling lives.
High-functioning Autistic people have significant deficits in social skills and therefore face numerous “failed social encounters” throughout their lives, especially as children. Aspies tend to be victims of bullying during their school years and frequently have trouble learning in a “typical” classroom environment. In most cases, these childhood troubles are not the result of a lack of intelligence-most Aspies have above average intelligence and a number of them are outright geniuses. The problem is that the Autistic mind works much differently than the “neuro-typical” mind and thus Aspies frequently do not excel to an extent on par with their level of intelligence in a “normal” educational environment. Standardized tests may also underestimate the intellectual abilities of Aspies. Little, if anything, has been done to address this problem even on “high stakes” tests such as the SAT, ACT, LSAT, and GRE.
As young adults, life can improve for Aspies, especially those in Generation Y. Over the past decade awareness, diagnosis, and societal tolerance of Asperger’s Syndrome has greatly improved. Young adult Aspies no longer have to deal with immature and cruel peers, since most kids grow out of this behavior when they reach college age and are thus less likely to incessantly taunt their peers with Autism. (Yes, high-functioning Autistic people do attend college and frequently perform very well academically, even if their social struggles continue.) Furthermore, colleges have become more accommodating to individuals with Autism and this has allowed Aspies to be judged more based on their true intellectual abilities and less on the limits that their Autism imposes. Several universities recognize the value that students with Autism bring to campus and have thus ramped up efforts to accommodate them. Such colleges, one of which is nearby Drexel University, uses the term “neuro-diversity” to describe their efforts.
However, there is a long way to go before we can truly say that Aspies are equal citizens. There is too often a stigma attached to Autism and thus Aspies frequently do not feel comfortable telling people that they are Autistic, even if it may help explain certain socially frowned-upon, but harmless, behavior.
Many misconceptions about people with Autism plague even well-intentioned neuro-typical people. A big problem is the popular notion that we ought to come up with a way to “cure” Autism much in the way we might want to find a way to cure cancer. Many, if not most, Aspies find this offensive. Many Aspies don’t view their Autism as some sort of disease that needs to be cured and taking away their Autism is probably impossible since every part of their consciousness and most of their thought processes reflects their Autism-it isn’t like there is one part of the brain where Autism resides. Besides, most Aspies are happy with who they are and see Autism as an advantage in many ways because they see the world differently and many Aspies see immense benefits to their unique perspective. While Autism is a disability in some ways, it may be better to think of people with Asperger’s as differently-abled rather than “disabled.”
Like everyone else, Aspies just want to be a full and equal part of society and live their lives to the fullest potential. The best “cure” would be a society that is willing to be more tolerant of those who don’t naturally conform to irrational social norms (such as looking someone in the eye, etc.). Autism awareness can help us build a society where people with Autism are understood and accepted for who they are, rather than being treated as diseased people that should be shunned and “cured” of their Autism. Society has made great strides in the past decades; people who used to be locked up in insane asylums are now better understood and allowed to positively contribute to the world. But we still have a long way to go before people with Autism can truly be equal citizens. Understanding and tolerance of people with Autism combined with the ability of Aspies to use their intellect to compensate for their lack of naturally acquired social skills can make the world a better place for Aspies and neuro-typical people alike.
Bill Hanrahan is a fourth-year student majoring in political science and philosophy. He can be reached at WH750431@wcupa.edu.