Autism is like cancer: Just like there are multiple autisms, there are multiple cancers, but they have an underlying similarity. We need to focus on finding the elusive causes (which may also be multiple) and the corresponding cures and preventatives.
Autism is like a person’s race: People are born with it, and society can make it hard to live with it, but race is not something we should work on changing. What we need is more acceptance, tolerance and understanding of diversity, not a “cure.”
Wait, I’m not finished yet…
Autism is like diabetes; you might be born with it or come to have it later on, the important thing is to focus on management and finding a way to live the best life you can in the face of the challenges.
Autism is like a broken leg; it may be caused by lots of different events, and can vary in severity. The important thing is not to put all the effort and research into finding out what caused it, but to focus on the fact it exists and try to fix it now.
Analogies attempt to draw key similarities between something people are already familiar with (cancer, diabetes, race, broken legs, etc), with something people are less familiar with (autism). The aim of analogies is generally to elucidate some truth or insight through the comparison. There are always (necessarily) differences between the two entities being compared, and focusing on those differences can easily make any analogy look farcical or redundant: Autism doesn’t kill like cancer or diabetes can; race doesn’t affect your ability to learn your own language or use the toilet; broken legs are always a bad thing that objectively make your life worse and everyone agrees should be fixed…
Already you see the next problem: the analogy is formed with an eye on the conclusion, not on the deductive strength of the premises, and yet it’s frequently wielded like an argument: The person making the analogy has already decided what they want you to think about autism (that it’s good, bad, needs a cure, doesn’t need a cure) and then chooses a comparison point that suits their ends. (Which is fine; that’s how analogies work, we just need to be honest about it.) For example, if you think autism is simply beautiful diversity, you’re hardly going to choose a cancer analogy to explain the nature of autism.
So when one side is shouting “it’s like cancer” and the other side shouts back “it’s like race,” and start trying to pick apart where each others’ analogies don’t perfectly match autism, it’s not really a substantive debate or argument that’s going on, it’s just a shouting match over pre-formed conclusions.
Which is not to say that the analogies can’t be helpful; they can. Analogies are very useful methods to make a point or get people approaching a topic in a new way, or simply to attempt to explain an entirely new concept. It’s just when it comes to autism, the factions are so deeply split and so passionately directed towards their own views, that these analogies more often inflame upset and deeper division, than aid understanding and comprehension.
Autism affects people in such diverse ways, to such different severities, and still has so many unknowns and half-knowns around it, that trying to capture it in a simple analogy to something we really do already understand, is likely to always come off badly. It is one thing to use an analogy to explain something you know very well to someone who doesn’t know it well; it is quite another to use an analogy to claim superior knowledge (and superior attitude) against someone else who also lives with and has a highly developed understanding of autism. It is in the latter way that I see these analogies used the most, and to least effect.
Ultimately, forming autism analogies to win an argument, is like…
(I’ll let you fill in the gap :) )