Trigger warnings on this post for ableism and suicide.
I’ve recently been drawn into a number of arguments about the idea of whether autistic people need to be cured or not.
Now, before I start writing about this, let me explain first of all that I am talking here about people being cured of their autism. Many autistic people have all sorts of comorbid illnesses and disabilities which impair their quality of life, and which could do with being cured. For myself, if I could get rid of the psoriasis, arthritis, anxiety, depression, asthma, migraines, hypertension, and multiple sleep issues I have, I would do so without a second thought. Those things all often go along with autism.
Many autistic people have comorbid learning disabilities (most — though not all — of the people whose parents refer to them as “severely autistic” or similar terms to try to devalue the opinions of supposedly “mildly autistic” people like me (my autism is anything but mild) fall into this category) or epilepsy. I’m not going to take a stand on whether those things should be cured, because that’s a matter for people who have those conditions.
But as far as autism itself… there’s something I’ve tried to explain many times to people who claim that it should be cured, something which most autistic people understand as soon as they realise what the label of “autistic” actually means. This is going to sound disgusting, but it’s literally true:
If you talk about wanting to “cure” an autistic person, what you are asking is for that person to be killed and for a stranger to walk around using their skin as a suit.
Now, this is not to deny that autism sometimes causes problems which I would wish not to have — or, rather, that living in an ableist society which assumes that everyone communicates using the same body language, that everyone has the same sleeping patterns, fine motor skills, level of executive function, tolerance for intrusive sounds and smells, and working memory, causes problems which I would wish not to have. But *every single aspect of my personality* is shaped, utterly and completely, by my autism.
Take my writing for example — people say I’m very good at explaining complex and confusing ideas in a way that gets across the ideas well. To the extent that that’s true, it’s because of two things. The first is that my brain is better at pattern-matching than most people’s. That’s an autistic trait. And the second is that my autism means that any time I want to communicate with anyone at all, I’m trying to talk with people who I can’t rely on to be sharing even my most basic assumptions, because their brains actually work differently, so I’m extremely practiced at breaking down what seem to me like simple concepts.
Or my interests. Autistic people have a tendency to have what get called “special interests” — an enthusiasm about some aspect of the world, or culture, or area of knowledge, that makes us examine every aspect of it, that makes us learn and retain every piece of information about that topic. Goodbye to my interests in DC Comics, or Grant Morrison, or Doctor Who or the Beach Boys or the Monkees, hello to being the kind of person who doesn’t even know the middle names of all the original Beach Boys members (Douglas, Edward, Carl, Dean, Charles, and Lee, in case you were wondering. And Bruce’s is Arthur) or the name of the theremin player on “Good Vibrations”. (Ha! It’s a trick question — it wasn’t a theremin, but an electrotheremin, and it was played by Paul Tanner, who was also the last surviving member of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, for whom he played trombone… you see what I mean?)
But even if I didn’t have a “special interest” in those things, surely I’d still like some of them? Plenty of neurotypicals like the Beach Boys or the Monkees, right? True, but they’re not listening to the music for the things I’m listening to, largely. Autistic people don’t have sensory filters the same way everyone else does, and I’m reliably informed that the closest thing to how I listen to music *normally* that a neurotypical person can experience is to take a small dose of mescaline or LSD — not enough to have a full-on hallucination, but just enough to break down those “doors of perception” that Huxley wrote about. My brain, and all autistic people’s brains, is constantly registering details neurotypicals don’t notice, and doing weird things with those perceptions. (A simple example — in my case, I can’t tune a guitar, even though I can play one, because my brain processes pitch and timbre in the same category). So no, my tastes would probably change so much that I wouldn’t love that music any more.
Speaking of love… autistic people make much stronger, much fiercer, attachments than neurotypical people tend to. We can love with a pure, laser-style focus. A cure might therefore mean I stopped loving my wife. That would be such an inconceivable change that I couldn’t even type that for a while, because the concept is so painful.
Or my dog — autistic people tend to find relating to animals much easier than to neurotypical people, because animals tend not to mask their feelings. Admittedly, this would give my Twitter followers some respite from my tweets about the latest cute thing my Jack Russell has done, but I’d rather keep that source of joy.
Or my politics. I might possibly remain a Lib Dem, but my political views are shaped by my autistic love for systems and understanding things in terms of systemic changes rather than individual events (thus for example my desires for constitutional reform and for economic changes that go further than the simple spot patches most mainstream social democrats support), and by my autistic hyperempathy (autistic people tend to have a strong sense of justice and a personal outrage at it).
How about my sense of humour? Well, when I go to see Stewart Lee or Richard Herring or Simon Munnery live, a lot of the audience seem to be men wearing T-shirts advertising IT companies or science fiction TV programmes, and many of them have rather stiff body language. I’m certainly not saying that all of them are autistic, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was rather more prevalent in those audiences than in the general population.
(And that goes for everything here — I’m not saying that no neurotypical people can share any or all of these traits, I’m saying that when they do it’s not for the same reasons I do, because their brains literally work differently. I am not meaning for this to fall into the autistic supremacy trap that some fall into, and claim that neurotypicals aren’t capable of loving their spouses or pets or anything like that.)
There would, of course, be compensating positives — I’d be able to be on time for things, I’d be sociable rather than introverted, and I’d be able to eat a much wider range of foods and wear a wider range of clothing than I do now, thanks to the lack of sensory things.
But even there — those things would change who I am at least as much as any of the losses would. Ask anyone who knows me, even slightly, what they would think if I came into a room wearing a stylish suit, made casual small talk with people, and then ate a salad, and every last one of them would say that they would assume it was some sort of lookalike or Mirror Universe twin.
And this would be true for every autistic person — a “cure” would make them, literally, become a different person, in the same way that a version of me who didn’t like the Beach Boys or Doctor Who, didn’t love my wife, didn’t support the Lib Dems, ate salad, and didn’t write much would be a different person.
Now, some autistic people hate living in a neurotypical-centred world that they would like a cure anyway, and it’s even tempted me on occasion — but what that is, as many (though not all) would admit, is a desire for a version of suicide that wouldn’t upset their loved ones — because they’d be dead, and someone else would be walking around pretending to be them, but a version of them that their families and friends would find easier to get on with. Living in a neurotypical-centred world can be so painful for so many of us — and can induce such intense self-loathing — that it can seem like a good idea to just stop existing altogether.
But for anyone who actually cares about actual autistic people, just remember this — if you call for a cure for autism, you’re calling for a cure for *us*, and treating human beings like cancer cells. Instead of calling for a cure, maybe call for a world that doesn’t hurt us, instead.
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