When I first got the diagnosis for my son, one of the things that I noticed immediately was the negative language around autism that the professionals used when talking to me about it. "Deficit, Dysfunction, Disorder, even Disease.." the 'd' words that I came to know all too well in those first weeks and months.
I couldn't help but think "Wow, you guys really don't like autism, do you?" Which begged a question - why were they pursuing careers in it? I mean, if it was such a bad thing, why engage in it, unless you saw it as a monster to be slain. which meant, in some small way, they must be viewing the autists themselves either as monsters, or at the very least possessed by something monstrous. Not a great message to transmit to the kid surely?
So, as a journalist, hard-wired to always ask "what's the other side of the story?" I thought - where are the good things in autism? What these professionals are all telling me cant be more than 50% of the story, because that is human nature - to always see things, at least initially, from a single perspective that actually leaves out at least half of the truth.
So I went to meet as many autists as I could, and also living daily with my son, I quickly discerned that there were indeed great gifts here.
Going to interview Dr Temple Grandin and seeking mentorship from her was the best thing I ever did. I met a woman of great empathy, so much she had devoted her life to making life less stressful for the farm animals we consume each day, and helping millions of people understand their funky brains and thus suffer less. So empathetic was she, that I could see how sometimes it overwhelmed her, and made her almost shut down. But it didn't stop her.
Then there was the memory. Not just Dr Grandin, but even my then echolalic son, could recite great reams of information, whether neuro-science or Thomas the Tank Engine videos - either way it was something so far out of the ordinary that it (no pun intended) often topped me in my tracks.
When these people engaged and focused their intellect on something, the results were quickly successful because they weren't distracted by all the social stuff that we neuro-typicals were distracted by all the time - the little inner critic voice that constantly says useless things like "You're fat!" or "You don't make enough money" etc. Tens of thousands of neuro-typical people chuck themselves of bridges every year or disappear down bottles, or worse because of this horrible inner critic voice. I began to work quite closely with a very talented young adult autists named Cisco whose fascination with all things medieval and whose need to stim with his hands were concentrated into the making of chain mail. I first watched and then helped him build a business around this, while he became more and more independent to the point that he eventually ran his chain mail business as a side gig to working in tech support.
I realized that being neuro-typical was no holy grail and began to look at my own (many) dysfunctions (my friends used to joke that I put the word 'fun' back in 'dysfunction'). Was it so great to be like me? Was it so bad to be autistic?
And then there was the quiet ego. I don't mean no ego at all, because every human, indeed every mammal has one. but being around my son and others like him was _ I soon realized - very healing because their egos seemed to be in the background not the foreground. A bit like being around people like the Dalai Lama, who had spent decades in rigorous spiritual practice to minimize their egos. Except they were born that way.
Why was it so healing to be with them? In psych terms one could argue it was because they didn't press the mirror neurons in my brain and bring out my own dysfunctional competitivism. I also noticed how when my family were around my son, they behaved better. I saw this repeated with many other families - the autist among them acted as a quiet kind of healer, bringing everyone to their highest self simply by being who they were.
Those of you who have read my books The Healing Land, The Horse Boy, and The Long Ride Home know that I have spent a lot of time with hunting and gathering tribes - the original human societies. When your with these people you cant help but notice that the healers in their communities almost always display neuro-psychiatric symptoms - often to the degree that they would be medicated and perhaps even institutionalized in our culture.
Yet in their cultures the adult autism, or other neuro-difference they display is regarded as a job qualification. And these aren't woo-woo people. They don't know that the word 'New Age' means. They are purely concerned with survival in places so harsh that we Westerners would be dead in three days if we tried to live there with the same degree of self sufficience - they don't waste their time with whimsical notions just to please their sense of romance. If it doesn't work, they don't do it.
This quiet ego, this healing presence, this focused intellect, this extraordinary memory - these are just a few of the gifts of autism. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't also help someone who cant speak, cant go to the bathroom independently, cant make friends, attain these skills and navigate the shark infested waters of neuro-typical humanity. Just as I can ((and have) sought out therapies for my own less functional sides over the years.
But to miss the fundamental gifts of this extraordinary and beautiful way of being that we call autism i to miss the point so grandly that it begs the question - to the professionals at least - of why engage at all?
So readers, what do you find the gifts of autism to be?