There’s a comic on XM Radio’s Canadian Comedy Channel who’s gotten good mileage out of his grandmother having told him that she does not believe in gay people. He recounts going around and around with her about this statement, and explains that he was finally able to determine that it’s not that his grandmother doesn’t believe in gay rights, or that she disapproves at all of gay people. She simply cannot wrap her mind around the notion that a human being could be attracted to a member of the same sex, that gay people are for real, that they really exist. To her mind, therefore, this whole gay thing is simply a charade, some sort of elaborate put-on, a story told to rile up the conservatives.
“Grandma!” he finally sputters, “They’re not Santa Claus!”
So it goes, though on balance far less hilariously, with much of the autistic spectrum. To take the comic’s story at face value at any rate is to acknowledge that there are human conditions and phenomena which can remain invisible to us while right before our eyes, all depending on what we believe to be possible and what we have been conditioned to see.
On the one hand there’s the story, too many times repeated, of the parent who refuses to accept the reality of their child’s diagnosis, who places all hope in the arrival of a cure. Or who decides that behaviors consistent with autism are simply an act, purposefully defiant contrariness from a “strong-willed child,” with the only “cure” being a stronger-willed parent. To people who become these sorts of parents, the idea of autism as a legitimate way to be in the world, albeit one with certain disadvantages, is as incredible as the notion that gay people really are real is to a certain Canadian grandmother.
Let’s turn away from those unhappy stories though, and look at the far, fringe, other end of the autistic spectrum as described in William Stillman’s essay Everyone Has Autism, recently republished here at Shift. Mr. Stillman, to be clear, is not trying to place anyone on the autistic spectrum as defined by the criteria of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. He is however trying to condition what his readers are able to see, and to help them imagine possibilities they might not have considered otherwise. In particular, he is trying to help readers imagine themselves as autistic, by describing behaviors which all of us have experienced occasionally, and asking us to imagine what it would be like to experience these behaviors most of the time.
Now, it bears mentioning here that the actual criteria for diagnosis with an autistic spectrum disorder consist of nothing more, essentially, than counting up such behaviors in various categories and then seeing whether or not enough of those categories have enough evidence in them to add up to a diagnosis. Even the physical characteristics correlating with autism which are beginning to emerge exist on a continuum, having to do with relative sizes and numbers in various brain measurements. These again offer no easy yes or no to the diagnostician. There is no test or scan for autism as there is for say, epilepsy or Fragile X. Diagnosis is 100% behavior-based.
Reading Everyone Has Autism then is not such a theoretical exercise after all. Not to put words in his mouth, but it seems Mr. Stillman is arguing that all of us are at least 1% autistic, that we are in effect all on the autistic spectrum, even if we turn out to nearly all be comfortably bunched together in the first, least-autistic percentile. Speaking, though, of that figure of 1%, it turns out that the most recent large-scale study puts the number of diagnosably autistic 8-year-olds to be also at one in a hundred.
So. If we represent this distribution by herding one-hundred 8-year-olds onto a football field, are we to assume that one of those kids, the 100% certifiably autistic one, ends up standing alone off to one end of the field, way down at one of the goal lines? Reasonable enough, according to the study. But are we to assume as well that all ninety-nine of the rest are standing shoulder-shoulder, ninety-nine yards away along the one-yard line, the as-close-to-not-at-all-autistic-as-it’s-humanly-possible-to-be line? And that midfield, all that space in between, is wide, wide open, empty? There’s not another soul in sight who’s even just a wee bit more than occasionally autistic? Really?
Well, how would we know?
The story is told that when the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María showed up on the horizon, the “Indians” could not see those three ships, because they had nothing in their experience that would allow them to comprehend the sight. I don’t buy that story. I don’t know that I even buy that Canadian comic’s story about his grandmother. What I do know is that Krafft-Ebing didn’t popularize the term “homosexuality” until 1886, and that gays in most ways were functionally invisible, for centuries, up until then. Visibility of course can be a mixed blessing, but given an actual welcoming society, those who would remain closeted might find their closest kin in the Japanese soldiers found hiding in island caves years after WWII had ended, still prepared for the Americans to attack.
Another thing I know is that I see people all over that football field, not just 8-year-olds but all ages, from one end zone to the other. For every diagnosed autistic at the goal line, there are 99 spread out across the rest of the field who are simply and to varying degrees somewhat less autistic. Our autism, lacking a proper (or even an improper) name, is functionally invisible. But we are everywhere nonetheless, even if most of us prefer to believe we’re all huddled down at the goal line of the non-autistic “team”—our version of the closet. Our society to date is far from welcoming to autism, and in that light a preference for the closet is understandable. This game, this war, after all—this emergence from the closet—may run on for generations yet.
No one though gets to play Switzerland; no one gets to be neutral; no one, in the long run, gets to be a spectator. We all have a part to play; we’re all implicated.
Everyone Has Autism.
And we are not Santa Claus.