It's great to promote disability awareness!
What's the matter with "Autism Awareness" month?
There are so many different features of autism these days. Autism has changed, at least in my view, from those times when I worked with kids identified as having autism.
In the 1960s and 70s when I worked directly with students identified as having autism, those with whom I worked had substantial problems in both school and home settings. To be sure, the diagnostic criteria have changed since those days. I remember debates about whether a diagnosis of “childhood schizophrenia” or “anaclitic depression” would be more accurate.
There were very few sub-groups. There were (a) those who had echolalic language vs. those who had virtually no language and (b) those who did not injure themselves vs. those who did. The high-functioning kids were those, like Fernanda, who did not injure herself but who would pace about on on tip-toes, wiggle her fingers in front of her face, and repeat phrases of previous trainers. The low functioning kids were like Juanito, who would rarely say more than “No, doctor,” scratch the hands of his teachers, tip over furniture, and run away.
I remember asking the professor in my “psych 101” class about children with autism. To his credit, he said he didn’t know anything about that topic. This was, to repeat, the 1960s. Autism wasn’t very popular.
Of course most of our focus was on younger children. Adolescents (and adults) with autism were largely out of view (living, as it were, at institutions such Camarillo State Hospital, with which Pat and I were later affiliated in the early ‘70s) or had died. Parents of those children with substantial needs were, naturally, quite concerned about what would happen for their children in later life...and concerns about adult development are still critical concern.
Now we recognize a much broader “spectrum.” It ranges from individuals who differ on those two dimensions (language and behavior-problems) all the way to those who do not experience such severe problems but, later in their lives, realize that aspects of their behavior (perseveration, interest in sameness, misunderstadning of nuances in language, etc.) characterize them as autistic.
These days, educators provide services to a wide range of kids with autism. Not only do we have Fernanda and Jaunito, we have others who are frail, experience anxiety, get bullied, and still have peaks of academic excellence.
Perhaps because the diagnostic criteria have changed, autism has become more popular in the press. Along with the broadening of the range of people who are said to have autism, there have come other changes, too. For example, consider the disability advocacy movement to promote acceptance. In the US, at least, we see a lot about this effort in, for example, “Autism Awareness Month.”
Western societies have witnessed and even promoted greater acceptance of “neurodiversity.” In my view, this is a good thing (though there may be concerns...leave those for another day), because I generally think that society should be more supple, more willing to entertain difference, more inclusive in the sense of welcoming those who differ from the majority. We should be accepting of diversity, whether that diversity is predicated on ethnicity, language, disability, wealth, or other variables. And society should seek to ensure equitable treatment regardless of differences in ethnicity, language, disability, wealth, or other variables.
Autism Awareness month is one of many examples of efforts to promote diversity. Groups trumpet new reports about that increasingly larger proportions of the population have been identified as having autism, for example. We get stories about the heart-tugging achievements of individuals with autism. I understand these as exemplars of human concern.
But, what could be more human—at least, more American—than people trying to make money off some popular idea? This is where I have reservations about the growing interest in autism. I’m concerned about how much the immediate example of promoting diversity has become a marketing juggernaut. Philanthropic ogranizations? OK. Commercial operations…?
I understand reputable non-profits soliciting donations during April; I’ll give to some of them. I also “understand” why companies seek to cash in on autism awareness...and I find the profit motive less altruistic.