At the end of Autism Awareness Month 2019, it is an apt time to reflect on the rationales behind the ongoing need for awareness.
Functioning language continues to proliferate, both officially and unofficially. Certain health professionals continue to uphold that a child on the “high” end of the spectrum has a better chance at a “normal” life compared to the “low” end. Certain parents beg to highlight that their autistic child is “high functioning”, a differential from the supposed “low functioning” children. How did such language become to be widespread and to some extent, even accepted? This is where I believe the DSM-IV has done more harm than good for the autistic community. While “high” and “low” functionalities have never been official language in the diagnostic criteria, health professionals and parents alike have equated a diagnosis of the formerly known Asperger’s Syndrome to that of “high functioning autism”, and conversely, equated a diagnosis of Autistic Disorder to that of “low functioning autism”. What really differentiated these diagnoses? IQ and verbal ability, again supposedly. The autistic community today strongly refute the use of functioning language as well as the perpetuation of distinction based on IQ and verbal ability alone. We are each to our own an individual. We each have strengths, and weaknesses, and everything in between. We make up a whole spectrum, but we each fluctuate from day to day, as our coping defences wax and wane, as support services become available or withdrawn, and as worldly triggers strengthen or defeat us.
Many in society continue to assume a deficit model of autism. This can be represented by what used to be known as “Autistic Distrubances of Affective Contact”, termed by the late psychiatrist Leo Kanner. This would be later referred to as signs of “classic autism” once the differentiation of “Asperger’s Syndrome” was made by the late paediatrician Hans Asperger. The problem with the deficit model of autism is that it assumed ALL autistic children could not relate to ALL people and objects. Ask any adult autistic group today, and you would hear a very different outlook, one that explains our inability to relate as being due to the inflexibility and unwillingness of society to accept us. When you put like-minded autistics together, then there is no social wall. Given a common interest, we can converse for hours and we suddenly feel alive with the wish, and even need, to socialise. Another aspect of the deficit model of autism which is harming many autistics is the assumption that communication must be in the accepted verbal form. An autistic adult once said: “Just because I don’t speak doesn’t mean I have nothing to say.” (I CAN Network, Humans on the Autism Spectrum 2018). It is only in recent years that society has begun to accept and even normalise other forms of communication. Some autistic individuals rely on a communication program via a computer device. Others like me express ourselves 100% better in written form than in speech form. Others still are constantly observing the world and processing all the stimuli (the inputs), yet struggle with expressing an opinion on what they see (the output). One talented autistic expresses their understanding of the world through art. What a beautiful spectrum of individuals with so many innate gifts that are often overlooked.
What else can be learnt about autism this month? Diversity and acceptance. In multicultural Australia, we have already come a long way in respecting differing beliefs and cultural backgrounds since the “White Australia Policy” of more than a century ago and the “Assimilation Policy” of more than ½ a century ago. Why is it then that we have groups within society whom still fear disability? A top marketing priority for anti-vaccination groups is the (long debunked) myth of the MMR vaccine causing autism. With some parents fiercely believing that it is better for a child to be dead from measles than to live with autism, it is little wonder that actually autistic children and adults question their worth when confronted with such triggering content. We are each born autistic, and with self-acceptance and a support network, hardly any of us wishes to change anything. Awareness of autism is the beginning stepping stone towards understanding the fabric of facts and the kaleidoscope of personalities within the spectrum. History has been corrected. There are notable advocacy groups now to represent what autism is. We are now out and proud, and no longer locked away from society either voluntarily or involuntarily. With awareness then comes acceptance. To accept does not equal to having to agree. We disagree on political parties to vote for and which religion to base our lives on. As a society, we too can accept disability and difference without having to agree with all that it encompasses. I can accept that another individual disagrees with the amount of social support I require, but they too can accept without judgment that I require these support services. Goodbye Autism Awareness Month for another year and counting.