Autism, Choice, and Morality.


Image by jonycunha via Flickr

Autism affects almost every aspect of the person’s life – their speech, movements, relationships, senses, their very thought-patterns. And so (the argument goes), to love a person with autism, is to love autism – the person and the condition cannot be separated.

At first blush that may sound true, even profound, and some would say, beautiful. But it makes many errors in its reasoning, and leads to conclusions which threaten progress for people who are affected by autism – particularly those progresses that give them the right and ability to choose the life they want to lead.

Indeed those who think autism is part-and-parcel of the person’s identity, often go further and say they prefer people who have autism: That their truthfulness, talents and diversity make them better than your average neurotypical (meaning a person who is not autistic).

Again, that might look like a harmless and beautiful notion, and an interesting way to view the world. As lovely as it may sound, it has real impact on people’s lives and futures; these are not simply pretty thoughts for philosophy students in ivory towers.

This can only be an introductory post to the huge controversy; it will take many future posts to do the topic justice. I will though briefly introduce my own view:

People are more than the sum of their abilities and disabilities. I love my son, and not because he has autism. The autism doesn’t make him a better person, or a worse person, those are moral assessments which come from decisions individuals make in their lives. You cannot hold someone morally (or legally) responsible for things they did not choose. The importance of that capacity to choose – to make meaningful decisions about how they want to live their own lives, and then to take responsibility for those choices – is why we shouldn’t simply love autism.

Overcoming the daily challenges that autistic people face, would not remove the interesting ways in which the autistic mind works (which, contrary to some popular myths, does not designate that person as prone to genius).

My son will always have autism, but I will not let it limit or dictate his life. It is my job as his parent to help him achieve independence – to help him be able to live the life he chooses even after I am gone. This is about more than public attitudes to autistic people, this is about something that objectively stands in the way of his freedom and independence, how could I love that..?

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