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Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Community Conversation - Part 11

A Community Conversation About Health and Responsibility: Vaccines and Beyond

Part 11:  The Strengths of Autism

When the media discusses autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it is usually in terms of disabled children. But children have this odd habit of growing up into adults. The population of adults with ASD is quite large and growing larger every year. So, what does it mean to be an adult with ASD? And what are the likely impacts upon our overall society?

First, let's dispel a few myths. Most people with ASD are not like Dustin Hoffman's character in “Rain Man.” Yes, some people with ASD have absolutely astounding skills in some areas. Some people without ASD also have astounding skills in some areas. But most people with ASD, like most non-ASD people, are pretty regular folks with pretty regular skills. So please don't assume an ASD diagnosis instills a near-magical ability to instantly count hundreds of toothpicks. It doesn't. Adults with ASD also tend not to require a lifetime of institutions and caregivers. Yes, those cases exist. But most adults with ASD grow up to be members of society who get jobs, have relationships, have children, go on vacation, and generally do all the things that everyone else does.

People with ASD are people. They start small and grow up. They start with little self control and gain more as they mature. They start with few social skills and learn them over time. That 3 year old who never makes eye contact, can't speak, goes into hysterics if someone puts a dining chair in the living room, and would rather go naked than deal with tags in clothing?  He may grow up to be a computer programmer who is a little shy, pretty well organized, and is happiest wearing well-worn jeans and t-shirts.

Yes, we should do research to try and find out why the rates of ASD are going up so quickly. This is important information to know. And yes, we also need to offer more support to parents raising children with ASD, since those kids tend to need a different kind of parenting than “normal” children. But really, how many of us are raising “normal” children? Maybe we need to look beyond parenting and start discussing “normal.”

The truth is, most of us don't really qualify as "normal.” Many of us struggle in silence, convinced that we are alone in our unique thoughts or behavior patterns.  Perhaps it's time to stop seeking "normal" as a goal. Let us remember that "normal" thinking, "normal" attitudes, "normal" perspectives, and "normal" skills have gotten our society into a whole lot of "normal" trouble. As our society stands on the shoulders of giants in the subjects of science, math, literature, and art, it would behoove us to remember that many of these inventors and discoverers were, well...definitely not normal.  

So what can adults with ASD offer? This varies with the individual, obviously, but as a group, adults with ASD offer an amazing array of benefits to society. Let us share a few examples.

  • Meticulous attention to detail. People "on the spectrum" are often better at noticing details which can lead to superior project outcomes. 
  • Thinking in terms of images or functions, without reference to words. The ability to see beyond words, or think outside of the landscape of words, is especially beneficial when exploring new ideas or experiences. "Normal" people often need to create words before they can think about something in any useful way. People with ASD can ponder the problem first, and figure out the language later.
  • People with ASD often have a unique understanding of time and space. This can be expressed as the ability to "see" the center of gravity on objects, a sense of the perspective of a grazing animal that has 300 degrees of vision (humans only have about 180 degrees of vision), dramatically enhanced abilities to perceive motion, and more. These perceptual differences allow a kind of creativity that is neurologically impossible for "normal" people. 

Combing through historical records and retroactively diagnosing various famous people may not always be accurate, but it is usually instructive. Einstein described thinking in pictures and, although he adored his children, couldn't stand to be touched by them. Thomas Jefferson couldn't make eye contact, loved math, and kept meticulous notes about practically everything. Mozart flapped his hands and exhibited a legendary lack of social graces. Sir Isaac Newton would always give a lecture as scheduled, even if there was no audience. Charles Darwin avoided people and spent 8 years in intensive study of barnacles. Were these folks all on the spectrum? Maybe, maybe not. But they all exhibited traits currently linked to autism and which “normal” society would consider, well, weird.

We are stronger as a whole when we make room for all of our parts. Even the weird ones. So let's keep Vashon weird. Let's keep the world weird. Let's overthrow the cult of normal and be more than forgiving of each other's differences.  Let us cherish them! Only then will everyone be able and invited to contribute their strengths.

“A Community Conversation About Health and Responsibility: Vaccines and Beyond” is an ongoing series written by two close friends with a passion for improving community cohesion and building respectful relationships in a diverse world.  This article was co-created by Karen Crisalli Winter and March Twisdale.   BLOG:   Email:

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Welcome to the conversation. Knowledge changes. People respond best when this truism is kept in mind. In community, March & Karen