If I can travel back in time to my childhood, I will tell myself to ignore others’ advice to use NeuroTypical strategies that I was hopeless at. Instead, I am to create new ways to succeed without betraying my dreams and ethics.
During the few years when I started working, my mother occasionally compared me to others to highlight my underachievement. One of her favourites was a younger relative who owned a car (despite Singapore’s expensive auction-tax on car ownership) and worked in a high paying government job. Whenever overachievers in the newspapers caught her eye, she made remarks such as since some people can survive on 3 hours’ worth of sleep, why can’t I muster the willpower to merely study part-time while working full-time like “everyone else”? My father also occasionally reminded me that “everyone” was getting married and he would like to be able to carry his grandchildren. Thankfully, this nagging has died down for the past few years; perhaps they have given up on me.
People often judge others on superficial criteria. Is a person less worthy because he/she does not get married and have children? Is a person less worthy if he/she does not earn a high salary in a prestigious job? Is a person less worthy because he/she does not score well at school or get university qualifications? This is even more insidious when we are judging autistic people because people measure them based on NeuroTypical standards and mindsets. This is like judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree, not by its ability to swim in water.
The news articles celebrating autistic talents are not helping since they implied autistics can only be valued if they have some special abilities or gifts, especially one that is valued enough by society to make a lucrative career out of. Autistics are made to feel like losers, not necessarily because they can’t succeed, but because they don’t succeed in the way that NeuroTypicals generally define success.
A common area many parents focus on is educational qualifications. For a NeuroTypical, the process of climbing the corporate ladder starts with a university degree, which allows the candidate to land a management job. Such jobs are out of bounds for autistics due to office politics, so I find degrees much less useful. Since I don’t wish to commit to the academic qualifications game, don’t have the money to play the business game, and don’t have sufficient social competency to play the office politics corporate ladder game, I have to find an unconventional way to achieve my goals.
Ability = Worth is the definition of ableism. In other words, if you have no ability then you are worthless. Talking about autistics as differently-abled also does not address autistics who have no abilities.
Neither does the demonstration by autistics of being able to perform certain tasks as waiting on tables, doing public speaking, and playing musical instruments solve the problem of discrimination. These often props used by certain people and organisations to obtain more donations or to market their therapy/intervention. Watch out especially for the new social enterprises jumping on the autism bandwagon.
Caregivers of autistics have very different interests to that of autistic adults: they usually want autistics to get a job that can provide comfortably for themselves, while autistics just want to be left alone to do whatever they like to do.
Organisations founded by caregivers may stop short of (the politically incorrect goal of) curing autism, but they still want to fix autism and get the autistics to conform to NT society. They measure their success by how many autistics get employment, marriages, material successes etc.
It is a bonus (but not a requirement) if autistics find meaning, happiness, and equality in the work that they have arranged. If not, then that is just too bad. “Hey, don’t be so ungrateful. At least you got a job, even if it sucks and your colleagues earn 3 times more than you for doing the same thing.”
Adult autistic advocates usually focus on being accepted and exercising their rights to be who they are. They see caregivers’ demands as abnormal alien intrusions to their pursuit of freedom and self-actualisation, obtained via the autistic style in an autistic manner. In other words, “my intense interest in slavery/trains/dinosaurs/whatever and delight in flapping/spinning/jumping/whatever is none of your f**king business”.
Many NeuroTypicals may not even realise that autistics can be hurt by people denying them of who they are. The hatred against robotic behavioural therapy is a reaction to the oppression of autistics, treated like lab rats to be trained by their therapists into whatever their caregivers think they should become.
Make no mistake — I am not saying that disability is desirable. I see no reason to choose to remain disabled because ability is what truly matters. We are rewarded well when we can contribute where others cannot, not because we cannot contribute. However, if we do not attend to the needs of autistic people, then it is not possible to convert the disability of autism into an advantageous difference. Caregivers who insist on denying the needs of their autistic child will only cause them to develop into weak-willed and dependent adults who hate themselves.
There are no easy answers to all these issues, but at least we should be aware of what we are talking about and what types of organisations we are throwing our support behind. Every one of the millions of adult autistics in the world must find their path to success because our society is clueless at developing autistic potential. Caregivers, please don’t prescribe the popular definitions of success. Instead, help the autistics find their path towards success.