Autistic people are different from other people. We hear that all the time, but what does it really mean? To non-autistic people, including most of our parents and teachers, being different is one of the most disturbing things about autism. A treatment program is considered successful to the extent that it causes the autistic person to act more like a non-autistic person. An autistic person is considered successful to the extent that he or she has learned to “act normal.”
I’ve heard autistic people say that they wish they weren’t so different from other people for this reason: that they don’t like being mistreated, and they know the reason for the mistreatment is that they’re different and don’t fit in. I never reached that conclusion. The idea of wanting to fit in for its own sake, of being different as a misfortune in and of itself, is not an idea I’ve heard expressed by autistic people. If an autistic person is unhappy about being different, it’s because non-autistic people have taught the autistic person that bad things will happen to you if you’re different.
If an autistic person is engaging in behavior that is dangerous or destructive, or that interferes with the rights of others, then certainly this is a problem that needs to be resolved. If an autistic person lacks a skill that would enhance that person’s ability to pursue his or her goals, then every effort should be made to teach the skill. The problem I see is when autistic people are subjected to intensive, stressful, and often very expensive treatments simply for the purpose of making them appear more normal: eliminating harmless behaviors just because non-autistic people think they’re weird, or teaching skills and activities that are of no interest to the autistic person just because non-autistic people enjoy those activities.
Another important issue in helping autistic people to function as autistic people is that even if an autistic person has the same goal as a non-autistic person, he or she might need to follow a different procedure for getting there. This is what I call working with autism, instead of against it. Autistic people have ways of learning, ways of remembering, ways of orienting, and ways of working that are different from those of non-autistic people. We should be looking for ways to use our natural processes productively, not trying to do everything the same way non-autistic people do it.
Of course this brings us back to the matter of being different, and not being ashamed of it. But a lifetime’s experience has demonstrated that autistic people have no choice in that matter, they are going to violate people’s expectations no matter what they do, because they don’t know how to act normal even if they wanted to.
Being different is fine, love your uniqueness!