Sometimes, I write posts that express a new idea I’m still processing and so it may come off a bit roughspun. This is one of those posts. Go gently on me!
We toss around the notion of karma like a harmless play-thing, we use it to suggest that people get what they deserve; that both horrible and good things are deserved in some sense. We warn against actions because of the karmic retribution that may come from them, and we tell the people we love that they’re surely “due” some good tidings after they’ve suffered some undeserved misfortune, because of how good they truly are.
And when a child has autism, we look for what must have caused this “misfortune,” what the mother or father must have done to call this down on themselves, they must have abused the child or injected it with toxins. We say things like “this happened for a reason,” in an effort to make some cosmic sense, to suggest all things are in balance and purposeful in some way. We listen to theories that autism is caused by “energetic legacies from unresolved family issues in previous generations.” And we think that other people getting autistic children is what they deserved for saying mean things to us in the past.
Or, we don’t.
When I was a youngster, I had a friend who lived by the saying “shit happens.” I thought the saying was pointless and was a way of giving up responsibility and control. It’s only years later that I realise the true worth of such a statement, ironically brought home to me by a very well researched and well thought-out essay by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg. In that essay Rachel puts a different light on disability than that we grow up with in today’s culture. She highlights that disability is not some evil thing that is done to someone, rather it is part of the natural human state. We experience disability as part of our very human lives. I think she will forgive me if I quote an entire paragraph for you, because she says it better than I could, and you’ll find the rest of her insights at the link provided above:
“[A]s a number of disability studies scholars have noted, disability is a condition to which the human body, because of its fragility, inevitably tends. Tobin Siebers echoes Shakespeare and Watson in asserting that, if we recognize the fragility of human bodies, then disability becomes central to the human experience and not its exception. Because all bodies are vulnerable to injury, illness, and age, disability is “a defining characteristic of human beings” (Siebers 2011, 178). Disability, to turn conventional wisdom on its head, is neither exotic nor tragic, but utterly ordinary and common to all societies, in our era and in every other. As Linton notes, disabilities can be difficult, but they are “nevertheless part of the dailiness of life” (Linton 1998, 4).“
So, if we can – and I think we must – accept that disability is part of the human experience, for better or worse, that some are born with it or come to it through accident or grow into it through old age, then trying to accord it some deeper role in the grand scheme of cosmic justice and karmic balance, strikes me as misguided and cruel. To do so, first almost always accepts that it is an abhorrent evil; something that was “caused” by a bad choice that we or our grandparents made, when sometimes it was just the roll of the genetic dice or a bunch of factors that converged outside of our control.
If we view disability (including autism) as something inherently negative that reflects both purposeful action and some sort of expression of justice, we turn other people into mere negative “consequences.” Even if you see autism as some sort of fantastic product that came about through the awesomeness of the parents, you are relegating the person with autism to being what someone else “deserves.”
Whatever the cause of autism, and disabilities, they do occur. We try to discover and address the causes where we can to alleviate severity of symptoms if possible, or we may find there was nothing that could have (or should have) been done to make things otherwise. The fact remains that these things happen sometimes and they don’t have to be turned into a tragedy or a piece of karma, to accord them deeper meaning or to make sense of them. The investigation of the origins and treatments for autism, do not require and are not advanced by buying into the idea of karma, despite what some (too many) clearly believe. Speaking of karma in relation to it, just turns people into deserved consequences of others’ actions, and either romaticises or demonises a medical condition.
So yeah, “shit happens.” Good shit, bad shit, things don’t always have some deeper meaning or (as yet, perhaps) discernible cause. Disabled people don’t exist just to inspire us (“inspiration porn,” another area that Rachel has a profound and fascinating understanding of), or for any other “purpose” to the rest of us so-called normal people. They are people, with their own desires and their own stories to tell, and those stories don’t have to whittled down to some moral that the rest of us can package up and carry around to post on our Facebook statuses when we’re in the mood.
If we let go of this idea of karma, of deeper meaning and purpose to disability and autism, we treat people with more respect as I see it. We also then take a step back from the sort of horrible, overly simplistic, and deeply misguided theories and expressions about autism that I gave at the start of this post. Whatever causes autism, the answer is not written in the heavens.
So next time someone suggests autism, or my son’s autism, or my experience with him, is some sort of cosmic karmic event, I will direct them to this post, and hopefully thereby bring them that much closer to a to a “divine” understanding, of why I wish people would just keep their karma to themself.