Many critics of this post insist that I am wrong, which I may be. Some further that I am uncaring, which I’m not. And a few that I am interested in pursuing eugenics against those with autism. (No.) Mark is much more measured (and constructive), but he as well as most commenters insists that autism is in fact just a difference, a set of personality traits.
The thing about personality traits is that they can be judged. Indeed, when we judge another person, that is precisely what we are judging. People judge each other all the time, for their personality traits, and do so unapologetically. And all judgments of personality are inherently judgments of difference. When we call someone cheap, or rude, or selfish, or vain, or dishonest, or irritating, we are interrogating difference, and judging it. There is no protection of difference when judging personality. There is, in fact, no alternative to judging difference when judging personality.
Yet if I were to encounter an autistic person in public, who was acting in a way contrary to social expectation, and I judged them aloud, if I said the sort of things that we say about people when we judge their social behavior, I would be roundly denounced. And I would be denounced most loudly by precisely the people who are now attacking my unenlightened vision of autism as a disorder. What sense does that make? If autism is just another set of personality traits, if it is just a difference, then the behaviors it provokes can be judged just as surely as the behavior that is provoked by someone being aggressive or boorish or unfair. And yet I doubt anyone here arguing for the de-medicalization of autism would be comfortable with my judging an autistic person for the behaviors that we consider outside of sound social practice. Nor would I.
I cannot understand the notion that saying something is a personality trait is in some way respecting or accepting of people when that personality trait so often leads to behaviors that we normally abhor. I cannot understand the notion that saying that someone has a medical condition is insulting them, when in fact it begins from the assumption that there are aspects of a persons behavior that he or she would very much like to change but is literally unable to do so. And to those who would insist that autism produces no behavior that the person afflicted would like to stop, then again, we are dealing with a romanticized vision of autism that borders on sheer fantasy.
Or how about funding for medical and scientific research? What possible justification can there be for spending millions of dollars of government money for finding cures or management strategies for a disorder that we have decided is not a disorder? I know of no vast government expenditure devoted to other sets of personality traits. It is precisely the medical status of autism that allows autism awareness advocates to lobby for more funding. Do we walk away from that position, and from that funding? And whose needs are we serving, precisely, if we do so?
How about acts of violence by autistics, or other types of criminality that we consider actions spurred by autism? There is no legal defense of “it’s just my personality”. Someone with a severe anger control problem operates in a society of laws where there is no special defense for him if he assualts someone else, simply because his personality is inclined towards violence. Would those who now excoriate me for considering autism a medical condition really advocate that there be no special consideration for an autistic person who assaults someone else?
This is what my critics want: they want autism to be a difference when it suits them, but a disorder when it does not; they want autistic people to be considered responsible for themselves when it suits them, but not when it doesn’t; they want autism to be funded like a disease but talked about like a set of personality traits; they want the difference of autism to be just another difference when it comes to acceptance, but to use the shield of medical language when it comes to judgment; they want autistic people and their families to be considered entirely mainstream and no different from any other, except when they are being celebrated in the media. What they want, in other words, is for autism to mean and convey only whatever they choose for it to mean at any particular time. And behind it all, the force of their complaints stems inevitably from (explicit or implied) the never-ending drumbeat of “This is my child we’re talking about,” the unavoidable emotionalism that obscures the actual content of what we’re talking about and assures that the loudest yellers carry the day.
I want to say that they can’t have it both ways, that autism can’t be just a difference but be funded like a disorder, that autism can’t be a personality trait but be protected from being judged like all other personality traits, that they have to choose. But of course they don’t have to choose, and of course they will have it both ways, because most people will allow them to. Most people, when confronted with the emotions that accompany severe mental or developmental disorders, will stay far away from engaging, and with people like commenter Jaybird accusing me of advocacy of eugenics, who can blame them? That’s the final irony in this sad situation: it is precisely the medicalization of autism, and the assumption of gravity and heightened emotions that comes with medical issues, that my critics use as leverage in attacking me.
I have been consistent in saying that I have sympathy and understanding for the tangled emotions and thoughts that those who wrestle with the reality of autism every day face. I have been equally consistent in saying that I am in no way advocating forced treatment, or anything of the kind. What I am saying is that a rational society must insist on a certain degree of internal consistency in how we view autism, and I am saying that I believe that the best thing for those who suffer from autism is a society that recognizes the medical nature of an often debilitating condition. I may be wrong in that regard. The insistence by some of my critics that my refusal to adhere to a logically porous vision of the condition demonstrates moral intransigence only serves to show the degree to which emotionalism and bad faith has come to cloud this issue.