The following is an essay I wrote last year over at Seeking The New Earth about whether one can really be thankful for autism. Over the past year I believe that what it has brought into my life makes it… easy to be thankful.
My wife and I have 3 boys under the age of 7. The youngest is about 2 and a half years old, and is autistic. Lying in bed half asleep this morning, I wondered if I’m actually thankful for this blessing.
This current age is unquestionably the best time in history to be “sick” with anything, mental or physical. Although autism is poorly understood, treatments are far more effective than the 50s. Mid-20th century treatments for mental disorder were analogous to the leeches and bloodletting of a thousand years before: blame the mother for lack of affection, don’t bother to try innovative methods of teaching the child, and put him in an asylum for the rest of his life. Autistic children generally never learned to speak, had no hope of making friends or being productive, and were shunned by societies and their family as well. Their “refrigerator mothers” (the myth was that the mother failed to give adequate attention to the child’s development with their cold, uncaring disposition) would take that guilt and failure to their graves.
But… thankfulness? In this culture, the decline of face-to-face contact has been a source of scrutiny and social criticism.
We’ve become a generation of zombies, staring into our phones instead of the world around us! We’ve lost the ability to interact! a person might panic. It’s a valid criticism, as without tone and body language, we’re handicapped to *just* the text on the screen. But I implore you, look closer: those folks on their phones are often on Twitter, Facebook, youtube, other social media, or reading news articles or Cracked (my own guilty pleasure), almost entirely a social commentary, application or production. They aren’t withdrawing from social interaction. They’re doing it in new, efficient, more innovative ways. On Facebook, I have more interactive events with the folks I love on a typical Monday than I would on a social holiday like Thanksgiving 10 years ago!
That missing tone and body language are exactly the communication aspects that autists find inscrutable and difficult to master. If this is the emerging new standard of communication, it is truly marvelous, truly wonderful, truly hopeful news for my autistic son.
As some of you know, as many as half of autistic children fail to speak at any age. Unlike most other disabilities, blame isn’t found in failure of senses (as with deafness), or lack of intelligence, but the way the brain is organized. Autistic children do not have the innate ability to mimic, which makes language acquisition much more difficult. However, their ability to narrowly focus is incredibly sharp in a way that neurotypical folks couldn’t imagine. So sharp in fact that many autistic savants are able to perfectly reproduce music or city skylines or name the day of the week you were born, all effortlessly.
Today, we have speech assist software. We take pervasive advantage of instant nonverbal communication by way of increasingly inexpensive computers and phones, already deeply saturated within Western culture across all income, social and age groups. We have keyboards that are many times more efficient in words-per-minute than the script my teachers made me learn in middle school.
This stuff was science fiction when I was 6.
So not only are we more “connected” than ever, but we’re connected in a way that favors my son by diminishing his communication liabilities. If my son stays non-verbal, he will be able to interact almost normally in this world, for the first and only time in the history of Man. Some of my very closest facebook friends and family are folks I haven’t verbally spoken to in 2, 5, even 10 years!
So am I thankful my son has autism? No, I’m not exactly gushing about the extra difficulties, the cost of therapy, or the current lack of the communication that I take for granted in my other boys. But it is possible, even probable, that autism could provide a “futuristic” mentality that will not hinder the autist, but even cause him to excel.