autism is a disorder
Those who have read a lot of my stuff know that I am someone who has very little patience for the seemingly endless (brave, bold, contrarian) stances bloggers and pundits make against political correctness. Very often couched in the language of the provocative and the new (when in fact these arguments are old and tired), anti-PC screeds flow like water from our mediasphere, on both the right and the left. Filled with stereotypes and strawmen, these missives often lose sight of the forest for the trees: opposition to racism is better than racism, equal rights for women is better than sexism, respect for homosexuals and homosexuality is better than the systematic oppression of same, and our “politically correct” society, for all of its excesses and faults, is a vastly more humane and just one than what came before it.
So I hope you will believe me that my disagreement with the movement to classify autism as just another difference to be respected is not some artifact of an anti-PC mindset.
Let’s not mince words: autism is not just a difference. Autism is not a category of diversity that has to be respected. Autism is a disorder, one which medical science should work towards curing. If you’d like to use the more inflammatory language, rather than cure, we can use “eliminate”. Autism has debilitating effects on many that have it, often with profound negative consequences for learning, self-control, communication, and the restraint of physical violence. I cannot personally comprehend the emotional toll of dealing with autism in a family– nor can I understand the depth and love found within the relationships between families with autistic members. The value of autistic people or the relationships austic people have are unquestionable. Who would want to question such things? But there is something wrong, and deeply sad, in eliding a love and respect for the people and relationships that are affected by autism into a respect for the disorder. Autistic people are beautiful. Autism is not beautiful.
All of this is a judgment call; I’m afraid that there are no categorical rules that can help us avoid calling homosexuality a disorder while maintaining the view that autism is one. But that’s human life, and it is a failure to understand the task of liberalism to think that once any difference is respected, all must be. The great foes of political correctness, and people like those who would make deafness or autism mere differences to be celebrated, make precisely the same error about what we pejoratively call political correctness: they assume that because we have begun a process of destigmatizing and normalizing certain differences, we are bound to respect all differences. This is a simple logical error. Much like those who insist that normalizing and respecting homosexuality means we must similarly recognize bestiality or pedophilia, those who insist that we must “honor” debilitating medical conditions like autism or deafness because of our respect for other kinds of diversity are reading a logical turn that simply doesn’t exist. No one, outside of a George Will-style stereotype, advocates for the elimination of all stigma on all kinds of difference. What we say, and what we have found, is that normalizing the full civic and political participation of many formerly marginalized groups has been a net good for mankind. But in no sense does the acceptance of some kinds of difference obligate us to accept all kinds of difference. We have moved away from certain kinds of discrimination, but we have not abandoned discrimination. The struggle for liberation does not absolve us of our responsibility to make informed and intelligent choices about what differences we, as a society, must respect. Indeed, it only deepens those obligations.
Of course, it is perfectly easy to understand the emotional mindset of those who wish to assert that autism is not a disorder, but yet another color on the rainbow of human difference that must be honored. Parents love their children, siblings love their counterparts, and families see only the best in their members. No one would have it any other way. And you can add that into the context of a growing autism awareness movement that is in part a group of dedicated people struggling for increased awareness and in part an increasingly dogmatic and zealous fringe, which doggedly pursues conspiracy theories and seeks to purge the ranks of their movement of nonbelievers. In an atmosphere of growing extremism and deep emotional investment, it is easy to become radicalized.
It is precisely because of this emotional bond that families are often the very last people to have a measured or rational point of view. That some will inevitably see those like myself who consider autism the undesirable disorder that it is as cruel bigots demonstrates again why those self-same parents cannot be the only or even primary voice in our national conversation on autism. Parents, family members and friends struggling with any disease are often not rational about the disorder in question. The continuing farce that is the “autism truth” movement, desperate to prove a link between autism and vaccines that simply isn’t there, demonstrates that fact. We have an unfortunate tendency in American society to act as though only those with the deepest emotional connection to an issue are qualified to speak about the issue. Very often, they are the least likely to have a sense of perspective, or to apply vigorous rationality to their arguments.
It is a sad fact of children’s medicine that the developmental disorder du jour becomes the subject of intense media scrutiny, politicization and overdiagnosis. Autism afflicts those who suffer from it in a way that seems perfectly suited to poetic or artistic impressions of the disorder, and this supposedly poetic side of autism plays directly into the hands of our tendency to lose track of the simple medical realities of a disorder. Still, I imagine that, at some point, a new disorder will grip the media, and the diagnoses of that disorder will inevitably rise, and the popular culture will move on. Those afflicted with autism will be left to navigate a set of emotions I can’t understand, and to continue to confront a maddening, strange, terrible, and incredibly complex disorder.
That parents have wonderful and fulfilling relationships with their autistic children is undeniable. That many with autism live rich, full, and happy lives is equally undeniable. I would never challenge the depth of those relationships or the value of those lives, nor would I pretend to understand the emotional reality of the people caught up in this disorder. But a society that has a decent respect for medical science, and one which believes that we have an obligation to pursue cures to medical disorders for people (or their parents) who wish to utilize them, needs to be clear, that autism is not a difference, but a disorder, which a compassionate and rational society must work to cure.