From Intolerance to Tolerance to Acceptance
Freddie has made a strong argument against viewing autism as a positive thing to be celebrated. In so doing – and keeping in mind that he is our resident liberal – Freddie argues that such views are political correctness run amok. To complete the role reversal, I, one of our two resident self-avowed libertarians, am going to argue that at least mild autism, Asperger’s, and various other disorders, including ADHD, are in fact things that society should learn to celebrate.
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.
For several years until relatively recently, I probably would have agreed 100% with this statement, which I think applies with equal force to other disorders such as ADHD. Before that, I would have taken the hardline approach that these “disorders” were merely excuses for some sort of moral defect (although maybe not with respect to severe autism).
I tend to think that we as a society have basically followed this evolution as well – these disorders were initially viewed as mere exuses for character flaws that should not be tolerated. Eventually, as it became clear that they were becoming more and more a problem in society and it became more evident that people had little control over these traits, we learned to tolerate those with these disorders by defining them as diseases outside of the individual’s control but that should still be something to be corrected.
But I think there’s another step that we need to take as a society – one of acceptance, rather than mere tolerance. Where I’ve come down is that at least mild forms of autism, and just about all forms of ADHD are really just unchangeable personality traits that, like all personality traits, have their upsides and their downsides but are hardwired into one’s genetic makeup. People have them in varying degrees, and when they reach a degree where they do more harm than good according to our modern society, we call them disorders. But ultimately, the problems they cause and benefits they create are a function of what our society values at a given moment. People with these traits should have access to medication and treatment that allow them to better cope with modern society; but at the same time, society should do a better job recognizing the potentially positive aspects of these disorders and providing avenues for such people to funnel their efforts in that direction.
Much has been written in recent years about the fact that diagnoses of autism, ADHD, and depression have been rapidly on the rise in the developed world. There are countless popular theories as to why this is, some more absurd than others. As for me, I think these disorders, while almost certainly hardwired from birth or infancy, are not true “defects” at all, but are instead made more apparent due to changes in our social values. After all, there is to my knowledge no clear line that separates traits that are severe enough to be labeled “autism” or ADHD and traits that are simply common. Thus, if these traits are not proving a hindrance in a person’s ability to get by on a day to day basis, they are not diagnosed; if they are, then they are diagnosed.
What is necessary to “get by” on a day-to-day basis varies across times and cultures, as do the traits that provide social benefit and value. Just as not everyone is cut out to work on an assembly line, not everyone is cut out to work staring at a computer in the middle of a cluster of cubicles.
Admittedly, in the most severe cases of autism, it’s hard to imagine the individual being able to get by on a day-to-day basis in any culture in any era. For the most part, though, people with autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, etc. probably could thrive under the right conditions, and immensely benefit society in the process. History is in fact rife with undeniably great people, particularly in the creative classes, who are believed to have had at least one of these disorders.
In viewing these as disorders to be “cured” rather than as traits that may or may not hinder a person’s ability to survive, we run the risk of losing valuable contributions. To be sure, such persons should be permitted access to medication and therapy that will allow them to better cope with their society and culture, which cannot be asked to change solely on their behalf. But a culture that is economically diversified and which not only tolerates but actively accepts those with these disorders is a culture that will find itself immeasurably benefited.
An employer who can find a way of accommodating such persons in a cost-effective way is an employer who will find themselves immeasurably benefited by taking advantage of the strong points of those with these traits. A culture that does so will find itself enriched through greater creativity, greater productivity, and an increased ability for individuals to find a niche in society that not only best suits them, but that they also best suit.
In the end, I’m ultimately with Jason Kuznicki of Positive Liberty, who writes in response to Freddie:
But there is at least one categorical rule, that of consent in social relations: If the behavior or state is desired by the person or persons experiencing it, then it’s not for you to stop by force.
Now, I don’t think Freddie would disagree with Jason’s assertion about the use of force, so in that sense Jason is perhaps being a bit unfair. But the idea that autism is something that must be “cured” is nonetheless short-sighted, failing to respect the fact that it is at least conceivable that an autistic individual might wish to remain so without having to become a burden on the rest of society. To be sure, parents should have the ability to choose (or not choose) to treat their child’s autism as they see fit; but once that child is capable of giving or withholding consent, that child’s wishes should be respected.
One final note – I mentioned above how the traits that benefit a society and/or are necessary to “get by” change over time and culture. The fact is that this will almost certainly be as true in the future as it has been throughout history. It would be truly shameful if we were to wind up “curing” something that could become necessary to “get by” at some time in the unknown distant future.