26 March 2008
My Neighbor Autism
When I describe the ways I perceive things, or the reasons why I misunderstand non-autistic cues, when I react to painful stimuli or have trouble understanding something "simple", people will often point to my invisible neighbor autism.
They may give that "ohhh...I see" look that tells me they really didn't see, but rather were imagining, my neighbor autism. They may shake their head, get frustrated, or walk out of the room to leave me to my devices because they don't want to deal with someone who is self-injuring. Then later when talking to a friend over a cup of coffee in the lounge they may say, "Do you know who her neighbor is?"
Sometimes, they say, my neighbor moves in, and then in a hushed, whispered voice, say, "She lives with autism, you know."
The fact is that I have no neighbor called autism. But that is not what disheartens me most. It is the fact that people tell me - and not always overtly - that I ought to be ashamed of that neighbor. There are a few things I would like these people to know:
It is not more politically correct (or dare I say - Appropriate?) to address autistic people as "persons with autism". The rationale for this is that in using "person-first" language, you are not defining the person by the fact that they're autistic. It is supposed to be an acknowledgement that - yes, we really are human just like everybody else.
All this sounds very nice and good and all. But it's not that simple.
That and besides, political correctness means nothing if that's the only way you attempt to respect someone. For instance, it doesn't matter if you say "mentally challenged" or whatever is the latest term in preference to retarded; if you treat the same people as a nuisance or an embarrassment then your two cents of political correctness have been wasted.
The fact is, using an adjective descriptor of a person is not itself an insult, a denial of the person's humanity, or somehow supposed to define the entire person. It can be used that way (as in the man who sees a woman upset and says sneeringly, "typical female"), but that's not how it's usually applied. It is usually applied just as a plain descriptor ("I am female", "I am gay", "I am tall", etc.). The fact that the average person would have a much larger reaction to "I am autistic" than to "I am tall" mainly has to do with the fact that most people are not familiar with autistics and the fact that the only knowledge most people have of autistics tends to be skewed to the highly negative perceptions.
It also alarms me that somehow by separating autism from a person that this is supposed to reaffirm the individual's humanity. Perhaps this is part of the ghost of refrigerator mother theories and mythic interpretations of autistics as changelings. Our differing body language, our misunderstanding of non-autistic social cues, and the idea that we are autistic because of cold, un-nurturing mothers, have all been incorporated into the distortion that depicts us as less human.
But the best way to fight this ignorance is to inform people that because we act different doesn't mean we're uncaring or indifferent to people. Not to claim that our imagined neighbor autism really is something to be ashamed of.