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We must not treat our autistic people as if they had an illness to be cured [Jun. 11th, 2010|11:32 am]
Rainspotting in Bangalore


A quick break from the usual environmental fare to react to an article that appeared in yesterday's paper.  'Autism and genetics: A breakthrough that sheds light on a medical mystery' relays the research findings of The Autism Genome Project, which has drawn the first link between autism and DNA.  The findings are fascinating, and research into autism - a condition that affects so many, but about which comparatively little is known - is sorely needed.  In fact, I find it unsurprising that the condition is represented in a person's genetic code.  But the article also refers to autism as a 'disturbing behavioural disorder'; a 'developmental illness' based on 'fundamental errors in a patient's genetic code'.  It is later inferred that autism is a mental disability.

To suggest that these variations represent an illness that can be treated sits uncomfortably with me, and I'm sure with many others.

My brother was 'diagnosed' as autistic as a child, though has made such adept leaps and bounds to maneuver himself through common society that his condition is now probably best described as Asperger's Syndrome.  But I am again falling into using the common vocabulary of affliction which I believe to be inaccurate.  I don't believe that a person has autism, but rather is autistic.  When a parent grieves on a description of their young child as autistic, much of what is grieved for is the difference between the 'normal' future that is automatically anticipated, and the alternate realities that come with autism.  Yet the set of characteristics that we recognise as autism are not an affliction upon a person, have not snatched their future from what it may have been otherwise.  They are an integral part of that person, and we must not look to treat it as if it were an illness or disease.  

I am not an idiot.  I don't romanticise the condition.  I realise many things may have been easier for my brother if he was able to seamlessly read others' emotions the way some people can, or as a child hadn't found change so difficult and upsetting.  In other words, if he were not autistic.  But if his balances were tipped in that direction, perhaps he may not have been able to so effortlessly break the ice in a room full of people as he can, may not have been so entertaining in his painfully accurate imitations, may not have been so kind.  If the world had a few more autistic people, as my mum pointed out, it would be a far more peaceful place.  

Help does exist in the UK for families looking to adapt to an autistic member, and for autistic people looking to smooth their interactions with society.  My brother has received great education and support through the state schooling system in east London, which has taken him from a young boy who, we were told, may never speak, to a young man in a mainstream university with a whole bunch of mates.  He has more bloody GCSEs than I do.  I think he sometimes wishes he were 'the same as everyone else', which can be heartbreaking, but this is hardly a unique lament for a young person.  Social interactions aren't seamless for anybody, despite the widespread conviction that everyone apart from you is having a great time.  We're all trying our best, trying to show those ideal characteristics.  I still don't know what exactly they are, but I do know this: if such a thing as a normal person exists, then they would be very, very boring.