Recently the New York Times posted an article titled The Kids Who Beat Autism. (Predictably, ASAN is questioning both the possibility of ‘recovery’ and the desirability of it.) I’ve mentioned before how I felt lied to as a child by the idea that the best way to make friends is to “just be yourself”, and this story and the reaction to it highlights why.
See, “just be yourself” is good advice–you can’t make a true friendship if you’re pretending to be someone you’re not, and self-acceptance is healthier than self-loathing. And I’m sure that all the people who give such advice truly mean it. Culturally, though, it only seems to be held as good advice for people who are sufficiently normal, which would also be the group of people least needing such reassurances. For those of us who are too different, that’s not how it seems to work. Instead those differences become something to label, treat, fix so that we can be more like other people. We get told to be ourselves just as much as anyone else–but the way we’re treated tells us that being who we are is not acceptable.
There are times when differences do need to be addressed because they are causing problems in our lives. The question, though, is what is the best way to temper or eliminate those challenges. Sometimes the work is something we have to do ourselves. Sometimes, the work is best shared or done at a structural or cultural level–it is far more reasonable to install a ramp than to ask a wheelchair user to navigate a flight of stairs, for example. And sometimes the only challenge is that those differences highlight that we are different. A lot has been said in the autism community about attempts to eliminate stimming, which frequently causes no problems other than the fact that other people notice and are uncomfortable with it. Or (lack of) eye contact, which is a very culture-specific demand to begin with. Why should anything be done about something so superficial? The problem is that often most or all of the work is demanded to be dealt with at the individual level, putting all the onus on the person who already has it hardest and sometimes bringing no benefit to that person at a personal cost.
As a culture we talk a lot about being tolerant of individual differences. In practice though, difference is often considered unacceptable. Instead of asking people who are struggling to spend precious effort on being “normal”, how much better would things be if we were actually as accepting of difference as we say we should be?