Sunday, May 27, 2007

Not indistinguishable

To distinguish is to recognize the characteristic features belonging to a thing. This seems like a positive activity. It does to most parents of typical children I know. They work hard to help their offspring learn the difference between cars and trucks, between airplanes and helicopters without once worrying that there is some unspoken message being conveyed that one in the set is superior to the others.

Likewise, when discussing their children, I've noted that moms of typical kids like to point out those things which make the child unique, be it a precocious ability, a trait shared with a beloved uncle or a fondness for broccoli, and that these things, neutral as they are, are usually stated with obvious pride.

Somehow, parents of autistic kids are not supposed to want that.

In the (far from distinguished) movie, House of Cards (1993), a psychiatrist played by Tommy Lee Jones reprimands a mother who marvels at the conversation in prime numbers carried on by two autistic boys. He cautions her that this type of behavior is commonplace at the facility he runs; the ordinary, the unremarkable is what he wants to see more of. And so should she.

Of course the main character's daughter turns out not to be autistic after all. It's okay for her to have her "special" traits, since somehow these resulted from having undergone a very traumatic event. Never mind the ludicrousness of that whole scenario. The point is, she is "normal" so her being special is no longer a problem. Plus, her elective mutism is "cured" magically after two or three therapy sessions.

Is this really what our society wants for it's autistic citizens? Suppress your weirdness, suppress your gifts. Be like the others. Be average. If it isn't good enough for parents of typical children, why should it be a goal for those whose children happen to be autistic?

Distinguishing and being distinguished are good things. As far as I'm concerned (I'll speak only for myself here), distinguish away. Just don't discriminate.


  1. In my experience (I am not autistic) divination in general is only minimally tolerated. Young kids broccoli is OK, young kids liking Shakespeare or physics really is not. Being really, really into cars is OK, but not if you are a girl. Now that I am bringing up my son (who is autistic) I find myself reliving the same small-minded expectations of conformity that I struggled with as a kid. It's unfortunate, it's annoying and it would be better changed, but it's not exceptional. This is what unusual people go through when they are kids. Fortunately, the world offers more opportunities to take advantage of difference to adults than it does not children.

  2. Helping autistics develop social skills is a good thing, as they have to live in an NT world.

    But too often "the system" seems to work on a longitudinal model of learning, rather than accept that parallel processes of learning can occur at the same time.

    Thus many educators continue to insist that all of the "areas of interest" that an autistic is good at be put aside until "normal" social skills and verbal skills are required. While all the while general interest in learning is exterminated from the autistic. This, when taken to its logical conclusion, leads to areas that a child is above average (or even average) at being ignored because the child hasn't learned to sit still, be quiet, and follow all commands. The child thus falls farther and farther behind academically, further handicapping them in relation to their peers.

    It would be much nicer if kids that "lack social skills" could be encouraged to continue to develop in their strong areas while at the same time working on their not so developed areas, recognizing that their underdeveloped areas will most likely eventually come into a functional range, while not totally extinguishing all the good things that the individual brings to the table.

  3. Club 166:
    "Thus many educators continue to insist that all of the "areas of interest" that an autistic is good at be put aside until "normal" social skills and verbal skills are required. While all the while general interest in learning is exterminated from the autistic."

    This is a perfect analysis of one of the mechanisms creating confusion about the general intellectual competence of some autistics. I would love to see a full post from you on this topic.

  4. My autism is like a secret weapon, but also a secret weakness. When in potentially hostile territory, I keep it secret and try to be selective in how it manifests. Don't get me wrong, I am still glad to be unique. But in a world in which people are constantly being "sized up", evaluated or "cased" for vulnerabilities (such as in a hostile work environment), sometimes these things are best kept as a secret, if one is able to do so, which, for the most part, I can.

    It's similar to how one protects one's computer from being hacked. Hackers rely on all sorts of measures to determine the vulnerabilities of their target system. They try to determine the profile by way of TCP-IP fingerprinting, open ports, server responses, protocols used, file systems, authentication systems, etc.

    In the workplace, some people can be classified as hackers of humans. These people can be co-workers, or even one's own boss or the HR Department. As such, prophylactic and counter measures must be taken to thwart these types of attacks.

    I have learned the hard way. As such, I am much more successful now.

    So, know when, where and how to differentiate. And you may find yourself "having the cake and eating it too". ;-D


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