Thursday, 6 March 2014

Yeah, maybe Aspergers is a "disorder" - is that really such a bad thing?

"Autism isn't a disability, it's a difference!"

"Without Aspergers, we'd still be in caves!  It's responsible for all the great moments of human achievement!"

"Aspergers is great because Einstein!"

These arguments really get on my wick.

Before you leave an angry comment, hear me out:

A lot of people will, at this point, be ready to argue that it's not a disorder or a disability because having Aspergers is not, in itself, a bad thing.  And the social model of disability* agrees: it's not the condition that's disabling, but society's (lack of) ability to deal with it.

But there's a problem here.  Actually, there are a few.

The first is that some people with Aspergers genuinely are disabled, are really struggling, and often can't get the help they deserve because so much of the autism industry is aimed solely at small children.  To those people, "Aspergers isn't a disability!" comes with an unspoken "therefore, you are a failure".  To argue that Aspergers isn't a problem erases the most vulnerable members of our community, those people who are in desperate need of real, practical help.  It also potentially does them a great disservice: in a situation where there are few resources and many people in need, it provides an argument to turn them away.

The second is that it smacks of ableism.  Is disability really something one has to make a point of distancing oneself from?  There's an aroma of "we're not like those people!" which sits uncomfortably with me.

Stop bringing me into this, guys
The third problem is that posthumous fan-diagnoses of famous awesome dead people are largely cobblers.  We don't know and will never know whether Einstein was autistic, or Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, Michelangelo, Mozart, Nikola Tesla, Isaac Newton, or any of the other famous awesome dead people speculated to have been on the spectrum.  Not only were they never diagnosed in life, but in many of these cases they died so long ago there's not a single living person who can tell us what they were like.  If it's that easy to remotely diagnose a person who hasn't breathed since the sixteenth century, why's it so complicated, expensive and time-consuming to get a diagnosis for a living person?

If you choose to believe that Tesla or Newton or Einstein were on the spectrum, go for it and more power to you.  We all need role models, and if you find meaning and inspiration in those remarkable people and their legacy, seize it with both hands and go forth and change the world.  But we can't use them as an argument for why Aspergers is awesome, when there's no way to really tell if they had Aspergers.

And if they were, they're still hardly representative of all people on the spectrum.  The spectrum - as the name suggests - covers people of all abilities and skills and interests.  And that's OK.  We all deserve to exist, to be here and to be treated with respect.  Not because we share a tenuous link to a long-dead genius, but because it's a fundamental human right we all deserve.

Whether or not we have a disability.

*Social Model 101: the social model of disability argues that it's not the condition itself that's the problem, but the way society deals with it.  So, a wheelchair user isn't disabled by whatever condition has led to them using a wheelchair, but by a society that doesn't provide ramps, lifts, accessible loos and ATMS, and the other things they need to get about their lives.  Solve the accessibility problems, and they're no longer disabled.  It's very different from the medical model of disability, because it puts the onus of fixing things on society to create a community where everyone can function, rather than on the individual to get better or to shoulder the whole burden of 'fitting in'.