This has been worrying me a lot recently. The whole notions of diagnosis (or identification which is a term I prefer) through to reasonable adjustments, the concept of disability, equality, fairness – to me a lot of the issues stem from what I see as a fundamental and critical flaw in how autistic people are commonly compared to the predominant neurotype (PNT) as opposed to simply being understood within their own context. One only needs to scan through definitions and descriptors of autism to ascertain just how much judgement of the autistic person there is in relation to the PNT. Impairment in social skills? Read as impairment in PNT social skills. Impairment in Theory of Mind? Read impairment in PNT Theory of mind. The list could go on…and on – the point is that these judgments mostly seem to be a direct comparative analysis of so-called skill sets against a demographic majority – which holds absolutely no logic whatsoever. It’s akin to deciding that the lone dog in a room full of cats should be described/labelled/diagnosed as having impairments in purring, miowing, and looking aloof (slight sarcasm warning for that last sentence by the way). And before anyone gets upset, I am not suggesting that autistics are a different species to the PNT!
Of course the converse is equally the case – the PNT in the main make for terrible autistics! Show me an average PNT who has well developed autistic social skills and I’ll give you a medal (not literally – but I will be very surprised!). And yet the PNT are not labelled as impaired in (autistic) social skills – despite the fact that sitting enjoying company in total silence can be highly logical, immensely satisfying, and deeply enjoyable. The removal of ‘small talk’ can be the most glorious blessing, allowing people to have a sensible conversation without the litter of erroneous communications that bear no relevance to the subject matter. Again, the list could go on – the PNT usually lack good autistic empathy, linguistic accuracy, sensory diversity, the inability to lie, autistic logic…and so on. But are they encapsulated in a deficit-based impairment model as a result? No.
Ok – so I accept that others have written about this very thing, as have I – so I shall get to the point that has been worrying me recently. It’s this: that the autistic person’s success/or otherwise is based on PNT perception and status, as opposed to autistic potential. This scares me beyond belief, as it might mean that autistic children and adults are at a massive disadvantage just because they are able to ‘perform’ at a similar level to their PNT peers. If this is the case, then society is getting things very wrong indeed. Take the following:
A child in a mainstream school, causing no fuss, passing her coursework and exams with average marks.
An employee with no remarkable productivity but with no obvious negative issues either.
A university student, on for a below average second class degree.
One might argue that if all three of the above were autistic, it is unlikely that they would ‘qualify’ for any additional support, reasonable adjustment, application of equality laws and so on – after all, what’s the problem? Well, for me, the problem is that those individuals are being judged/assessed against a ‘norm’ – and not against their own potential. If being autistic is holding them back because of a lack of adjustment – then they are at a grave disadvantage. If, with reasonable adjustment those three could be the straight ‘A’ child in school, the most productive employee, the first class honours student – then are we not being discriminatory by not recognising this and doing something about it?
The same applies to being identified as autistic in the first place. One tends to need to be perceived as disabled in the first instance to ‘qualify’ for a diagnosis – ‘persistent difficulties…impairments…’ etc. – but compared to what? Or, more importantly, compared to whom? What if we radically changed our perception and instead asked the question – how much less disadvantaged might an individual be if we took autism into account, even if there appears to be no issue on the surface? You might be an adult who does not outwardly demonstrate a persistent difficulty in effective communication – but compared to what your potential is, you may be operating at a considerably lower level because autism has not been identified or taken into account. Surely what this means is that how we (society in general) understand and perceive autism should be vastly different compared to current thinking? If we stopped assessing autistic people in comparative judgemental ways, and instead tried to understand how their environments might be disadvantaging them in relation to their potential, we might all of a sudden realise just how many people are being discriminated against simply by being compared to the ‘norm’.
In my opinion one should not have to demonstrate disability, difficulty, or impairment to qualify either for a diagnosis, or reasonable support. If one is at a disadvantage by being autistic in a non-autism-friendly environment, then to me it’s discriminatory not to make appropriate attempts to alter the environment. Only then can we justifiably talk about equality in a meaningful way.
Autistic people deserve to be understood in relation to their own goals and potential, not those of the PNT.