The Objectification of Autistic People

Please note that this post is an attempt to bring together a range of ideas and concerns I’ve been grappling with for a while, rather than a definitive version of my view on all these issues. It is “unpolished”, but I still want to share it in the hope that others’ insights will help me clarify and refine what I’m trying to get across.

I do not have to justify the existence of my son. I do not accept the notion that a worth of a person is tied into what they can do for someone else. My son has basic rights by virtue of his being a human in a humane society; not by virtue of what he can do for someone (or everyone) else around him.

Yet I very frequently read the view – even from disability rights advocates – that the value of my son, as an autistic child, is tied to the hidden potential he has to enhance everyone’s else’s life: That his hidden savant talent or hidden high IQ will allow him to solve world hunger or write the ultimate computer program; that he should be allowed into a mainstream school because it will enrich the lives of the other children.

So I’m not surprised when I read stories about autistic children being used as a stepping-stone to another child’s fame, or about businesses gloating about using cheap autistic labour and expecting everyone to pat them on the back. It’s how they’ve been taught to value autistic people, in part by autistic people who are arguing for equal rights but who have accepted the rhetoric that human value comes from what we can do for others.

I want to be clear that I do think that messages about hidden talents and great potential can be important, where it helps the public to understand that autism can get in the way of appreciating and accessing a person’s “wholeness”; their own voice, their skills, their potential. That providing adequate support and services can help an autistic person towards independence, to form loving relationships, and achieve employment. But that message – about the nature and challenges of autism – is far too often linked to the idea that the value of autistic person lies in those unseen and unknown abilities.

Not only should we not see a human’s basic value in this way, it is also dangerously distorting for autistic individuals; supporting the idea that autistic people who don’t have high IQs or hidden savant talents, are either thereby not truly autistic, or are of lesser human value. It ironically encourages parents to not accept and love the child they have, but the child they might one day have; ironic because acceptance is so much of the message of the disability rights movements. The fact is some autistic children will always remain non-verbal, or of excessively low functioning levels (etc). Telling parents that their child has fallen short not just of the normal human ideal, but also the mystical autism ideal (the high IQ or savant for instance), is a sort of un-necessary cruelty that I think few really understand unless they have lived their daily lives with the care of such children.

There are no prognosis promises, no magic cures, with autism. Nor are there any promises of a bright and happy future for any other child (disabled or otherwise). We don’t just love children because of what they might be someday, we love them because of who they are right here, right now. If we encourage people to only value our autistic children for what they might become, we are just encouraging them to see those who can’t and don’t reach that supposed potential, as failures. To see their parents as failures too. The fact is the vast majority of autistic people are going to be painted then as failures in a society that primarily values them for their “hidden” astounding talents that will better the world for everyone else.

So much media attention is given to this idealised autistic person – so much focus on the unusual and high-end talents, or the “miracle recoveries” – that the more simple yet wonderous achievements of autistic people are ignored. The autistic people who learn to drive, get employment at all, have relationships and have children; these wonderful things that enhance their own lives – instead of focusing on autism as a side-show to benefit the rest in society – get side-lined. Those who overcome the enormous challenges autism presents to them in order to get some level of independence, to live their own idea of “the good life” without reference to everyone else’s versions, need to be seen and heard more. Their stories might not make for flashy headlines, but they make you cry with joy and take pleasure in achievement in the face of serious adversity. They make us celebrate achievement in reference to the individual themself, not in reference to “everyone else.”

It makes sense in a democracy supported by taxes to take an interest in whether someone can contribute to the pool of resources we all draw on in times of extreme need. But that interest is that people have genuine need when they draw on the resources, and that those who can contribute do (rather than, say, those who actively choose to draw down resources without intent of ever adding to them). Autism is relevant here in regards to genuine need; through no fault of their own many autistic people need higher levels of support. As a caring society, we provide accordingly. And we know that we may find our lives or our children’s in the same needy situation some day, so most of us accept this arrangement as necessary and moral.

But these concerns do not mean it is a kindness to say all autistic people can one day contribute more than they will need; it’s unlikely to be true and it creates false expectations from society about what autistic people can and will do. In turn, creating cynicism from a public asked to support autistic adults who haven’t “reached” that magical potential the public was promised (I’m increasingly encountering forum discussions attacking autistic adults for not getting jobs, calling them lazy and not “truly” disabled).

It is true that higher levels of support and services from a younger age can help very many autistic people reach higher levels of skill and functioning in life (relative to themselves otherwise), in turn lowering the required costs to help them live their lives as adults. But this needs to be a separate argument from some overall picture of what all autistic people can achieve with adequate support. The focus must remain on how it can help that individual towards a better life and independence, without ultimate referral to super-talents (or otherwise) of the few.

If we don’t like human lives been ground-down into “money-in, money-out”, the response should not be “but really these people can be amazing in-puts to society, just look at this amazing example…”. Rather, the response should be a reaffirmation of humanity and of a society that supports those who need it when they need it. Otherwise you’re just buying into a view that will always ultimately view the disabled as lesser human beings, in general and within society.

If my son has the same rights as everyone else, it is not because of some idealised version of what he might one day be or what he can do for others, it is because of who he is right now. He is a human being. Promising or pretending he will be something “more” than what he is now, just buys into the rhetoric of those who would treat my son as a less worthy human being by virtue of his disability. If he becomes an amazing savant, has a tremendous hidden IQ, or will one day enrich everyone else’s life as much as he has mine, then so be it. But if he doesn’t – if he can’t – it does not detract from his being human, and deserving to be treated with humanity.

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16 Responses to The Objectification of Autistic People

  1. A human being is of value beyond what a test can determine. There is so much more beyond IQ. A smile, a kind word, a hug–has the potential to change one person’s world. I think some parents are searching for positive aspects and answers in relation to autism; they don’t mean any harm. Your passion is evident. And you have some very interesting points. Thanks for sharing. Sam 🙂

  2. Joanna says:

    Excellent piece, as sisters of an autistic man in his fifites I and my sister echo your thoughts often in our conversations.

  3. Shazza says:

    This is such an important message. Kudos. Bravo.

  4. Helene says:

    I think it would help to start using person first language, a person is not an “autistic man” but a man who happens to have autism. Don’t label them by their disability.

  5. Landon Bryce says:

    Thank you for this, both because you say some things I already believe in a way that I think will encourage others to consider the possibility that they might be true, and because you challenge my current thinking in ways that I need.

  6. mattyangel says:

    I couldn’t read all the words because there were to many for me to keep up with but.

    I have been told over and over and over and over and OVER again, I need to be working with computers. That a job with computers is all I can do. they base this on the fact I have Autism. Its about the first thing they say when they meet with me about me working one day in the future. Before they even know me!

    But I am not good with computers. I know how to use them, but they do not make me happy. I do not understand programming, or code.
    I don’t like computers much. I use them to communicate, watch videos, look up words and understand things, to write… and sometimes I play games… or do art… but that is all I do with them.

    I like writing and painting… I like making me people laugh with my silly words. If my computer breaks I go and ask someone to help me fix it.

    I am also horrible at numbers… Everyone assumes I am good with numbers but I can barely count and I can’t do a lot of basic Math things

    I would rather be treated as a human, not thought of as some machine that is broken because I can’t do what others with autism can do.

    Wow this post long, I hope it make sense =)

    • Powerful response mattyangel, it definitely makes sense. And yes, you most definitely have a talent with words and art, and I’m so glad you share those with others through your website too 🙂

  7. It is horrible what some people have the gall to think about an entire group of individuals based on a spectrum diagnosis. I didn’t know much of anything about Autism before my son was diagnosed – but I would never think this way about any group of people. Horrid.

  8. Peggy Welker says:

    I think there are a few things going on in today’s culture. I think the world of people with disabilities is breaking new ground and so the transition in language hasn’t caught up. I think more kids with disabilities (KWD) are growing up mainstreamed and now they (and their peers) want/expect them to “get a job”. But there is still a lot of old-school thinking and a lot of ignorance in our cultural collectively about the “worth” and “value” of all humans — disabled, unborn, etc.

    I also think there is something else going on: a type of affirmative action. Back in the 60s, 70s, 80s, African-Americans began moving into getting higher education. I remember their being “talk” about — will they be able to make it? Can they really graduate? They were breaking through to higher ground and no one had seen “them” to that before and so they wondered and puzzled and stared — collectively as a nation, of course. Now, today, we wouldn’t think twice about “if” a black person could be in middle-management or sit on the Supreme Court or in the Presidency. I think that day will come for the disability community. In the meantime, certain people like Temple Grandin and others are hailed as “special”… it is our cultures day of saying, “Look, Temple did it, maybe my neighbor kid could do it too.”

    The highest compliment someone can pay another person is to see them for who they are. When you walk up to a black person, do you think, “How does it feel to be black?” I would think not. I would imagine you are thinking, “I wonder what he/she is like? Maybe we’ll end up friends.” That is what I hope for “our” children — not that they are seen for their abilities or their dis-abilities but that they are seen. Right now we are just in transition!

  9. Sheogorath says:

    Not only should we not see a human’s basic value in this way, it is also dangerously distorting for autistic individuals; supporting the idea that autistic people who don’t have high IQs or hidden savant talents, are either thereby not truly autistic, or are of lesser human value.
    The opposite is also true. For example, Autism $peaks often says, “Since you can communicate, you’re too high functioning to possibly understand truly Autistic people, so have no part in this debate.” Of course, If you’re low functioning enough to be judged ‘truly Autistic’ by them, you then can’t join in the debate because you can’t communicate at all, not having been provided with the tools to do so.

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