The Last of the Wild Autistics

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — my generation is the last of the wild autistics.  Many of us were never given any autism-related diagnosis as children.  Those of us who did recieve clinical labels back then had a different experience to later generations.  Back then if you were identified as autistic, there might not have been any assumption that you were neurologically defective, as the belief that autism was caused by bad parenting still had some currency, so your Mum or your folks might have got the blame, which is bad, but at least you weren’t branded for life as defective.  I’m sure many parents back then rejected such labels for their kids too.  One can understand why.

Autism was a clinical label back then, but one that was not applied often, and it was confused with schizophrenia and psychological trauma.  When psychiatry gets things obviously wrong, it is easier to reject psychiatry and labels.  Some progress has been made in recent years, and the labels are now not so easy to discount and ignore.

Autism is an industry now, and it is also a major obsession of armies of early childhood health professionals.  They have declared war on autism.  When I was a kid I don’t recall feeling like a thing that someone had declared war on.  I’m sure if I were a child now, I’d have a very different self-concept.  I’d have a label, I’d probably know or guess my label, I’d know I was expected to change into something different, I’d believe I was defective and in need of a cure or treatment, and I’d know it was my job in life to become less like who I am and more like someone else.  I don’t envy any of that.

I knew my synaesthesia was odd and inexplicable, so I never discussed it with anyone, and I tried to ignore it the best I could once I was a self-conscious young adult.  One day as an adult I found synaesthesia impossible to ignore when a completely inexplicable taste would flash into my mouth when triggered by particular experiences.  I thought this was odd, but had no idea of it’s significance, and I thought little of it.  I never had any idea I’d one day discover that it’s a scientifically interesting neurological phenomenon, and communities of people who have similar experiences exist.

Growing up I’ve never thought of myself as disabled or neurologically abnormal.  I knew I was not good at dealing with people in general, but I never saw myself as having anything in common with a person in a wheelchair or a Down syndrome kid or the teens in the Basic Level classes at high school or the strange and often amusing and beloved “deafos.”  It turns out that the very few friends of mine in my young years were all disabled in non-obvious but important ways.  I had minimal awareness of this — I only saw the many ways in which they were more successful than me in the area of socialising and getting ahead in human society.  I didn’t realise that one of the big things that separated me from my friends was a 30-odd point difference in IQ.  I can see it clearly now.  If you’d told me back then that I’d one day have kids who are labelled as intellectually gifted I’d never have believed it.  I never thought I was smart, and I never thought I was disabled.  I just knew I was different.

I was never part of a community in which I felt like a full member.  I was never a part of any disability community, and the same is true nowdays.  I never grew up with any sense that I was morally entitled to special services, accommodations or priviledges because of a disability.  I also believed that I had the same rights as anyone else to have a job, to marry and to have children.  I never thought of my own genes as being defective or mutations.  Like my age peers, I left school expecting to have great difficulty finding any kind of job, and a degree might be my only selling point in a very competitive job market.  I had no idea that my degree would be less useful in the long term than the innate social charm of my not especially bright non-autistic peers.  It’s probably a good thing that I hadn’t known that back then.  It would have been too depressing.

I can’t say if my childhood and youth experience was generally better or worse than the type of life that I would have if I were born today.  I can only say that things were different back then, and things have changed forever.  There will never be another generation of autistics like us.

Lili Marlene’s The Last of the Wild Autistics first appeared on Friday, May 14, 2010, at Incorrect Pleasures, and is republished here by her permission.

on 05/31/10 in featured, Society | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. Mark Stairwalt says:

    This reminds me of a self-dx discussion thread I followed last November, and the dramatically pessimistic poster who finished off one comment with this:

    “I remember before AS even existed in the DSM — there was a lot of thoughtful talk about identification, community, culture, disability, etc. “What is autism?” was a question that generated many thoughtful answers. But those days are over. The tyranny of the youthfully dx’ed will prevail, by sheer numbers. It’s inevitable.”

    That stuck with me primarily because what he describes there is very much what this site strives to be about, i.e., “thoughtful talk about identification, community, culture, disability, etc.” It has not escaped my notice, though, that we are swimming upstream — upstream, btw, being generally where the spawning grounds are found.

  2. Clay says:

    Yeah, while reading all these stories about IEPs and such, the difficulties parents have getting proper education for their kids, I’m glad I was a “free-range Aspie”. I wouldn’t have liked that kind of attention back then, but I wish I could have found out about it earlier than I did.

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