Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Different Ways of Seeing Things

I bookmarked this article some time ago, meaning to blog about it when I had the chance. The reason I wanted to respond is that it brings up a way of looking at autism that is different from my own, and which I have difficulty getting my head around, but which I think is very common.

In the article, the author asks whether or not her son has recovered from having autism. It strikes me as an odd question, similar to asking whether a person has recovered from being gay or being white.

Part of it is attributable to the author being misinformed. For example, she says:

Seven years after the initial diagnosis, Leo has achieved significant gains in areas thought to be unattainable by even high-functioning children with autism spectrum disorders.

He attends a regular school and is socially engaged, articulate, creative and performing at grade level with a tutor for reading and handwriting. He understands and can express complex and abstract thoughts. He can empathize. And he has friends he cares about and who care about him.

What she describes is, in fact, bog standard for kids identified as having high-functioning autism and the last three sentences are true of kids all over the spectrum, though the modality in which those things are expressed may make them invisible for some observers.

In the attempt to differentiate autistic from non-autistic, they focus a great deal of attention on friendship:
I answered hours of questions focused on Leo's ability to make and keep friends. I said Leo had friends, even a best friend, and asked for play dates without prodding from me. That's key: While many children with autism spectrum disorders have friends, according to Catherine Lord, director of the University of Michigan Autism and Communication Disorders Center, they don't seek out peer relationships. "Having an aunt or a music teacher as a friend doesn't count," she said.
This such an odd thing for a modern professional to say. My son has had many friends, some of them autistic and some not. Of course he has asked to play with these kids and I know that his autistic friends have asked to play with him. It is true that the asking part has not always been entirely smooth. For example, a phone call in which two young autistic kids, both with language issues, arrange to meet is a more difficult thing than it might be for two typically developing kids. But to confuse this disability with lack of interest makes no more sense than assuming that people with spinal injuries do not want to move around.

Of course, from my point of view, I would not consider a person who was a loner and felt more comfortable with their aunt or their music teacher as someone in need of any particular recovery, so the whole discussion is somewhat lost on me.

Our guy has grown up very nicely so far. He has had some very real challenges, which have been best met by some kinds of teaching that were developed for autistic people. I'm glad that he having an easier time with language (in fact, he's having a lot of fun with language these days, in a way that many typically developing kids do not) and that it is easier for him to deal with sensory input and challenging social situations. But I don't ask myself if he has recovered. When I see him with a newspaper, or plowing though his math homework with gusto, or spending countless hours in deep concentration on his art, or monitoring the weather in 30 different cities, or keeping up with his ever widening gang of online friends, I see an autistic kid and I am proud.

I don't know whether autism is going to be a conscious part of MK's identity as he finishes growing up and makes his own way in the world. Life is long and people and fashions both change. He may or may not find that word a useful way to describe himself. If he does, I really hope (in fact, I insist) that it will be a source of pride. That will be easier if people stop asking whether happy, well adjusted autistic people have recovered and simply accept them as happy, well adjusted autistic people.