Humans are strange creatures, aren’t they? We are by and large a social species, reliant on one another for support, safety, and overall well-being, and yet, we are fickle with whom we share our social acceptance. One could make a multitude of arguments as to why this seems to be such an inherent part of our interactions, but I would argue that it comes largely down to one factor: fear of the unknown.
When I set out to write this week, I aimed to remain within the overall theme of this blog, which is to teach about the reality behind the communication and interaction hurdles for people with Autism and sensory-motor differences, both through the eye of my own experience and training as well as the feedback from the dynamic Autistic people I know and work with. But the philosophical called me, and I felt drawn to touch on this idea of inclusion and acceptance for people with Autism and-really-any difference that falls outside our neurotypical view of “normal”.
I think examples go a long way here, and the battle that the Deaf community has faced for recognition and acceptance provides an astonishing one. In the early development of supports for deaf of hard of hearing individuals (and by early, I mean 18th century Enlightenment period), the discussion was started by hearing individuals who wished to determine if deaf people were actually capable of “rational and abstract thought”-I know, I rolled my eyes at this one too ;) From there, the debate shifted to best-methods for communication: writing and sign languages, or lip reading and speech training? Though discussed theoretically, in reality all of these options were integrated into education and support programs in various combinations across Europe and the U.S. until the late 19th century.
At that point in American history, we experienced an influx of immigrants which in part led to the development of “nativist fears” (i.e., the outsiders are different and not to be trusted). This gave the Oralist movement the foothold it needed to disseminate the idea that non-speech methods of communication like sign language were primitive, underdeveloped, and indicative of “imperfections in the public body”: in essence, Deaf people were inferior to those who heard and spoke. This perspective shift on the part of larger society meant that the use of sign language among Deaf people was suppressed, and a non-hearing person who sought education in the established system would in most cases have to aim for “normalcy” by using spoken communication or risk being seen as deficient.
Until the late 1960’s and 70’s, the main opportunities to learn and access sign language were largely through Deaf-established schools, publications, and organizations. This forced separation has-despite growing understanding and acceptance among our culture as a whole- left a rift between the hearing and Deaf communities. As it tends to do, history seems be repeating itself when it comes to those in the Autistic community as they bid for understanding and acceptance and who, like those of Deaf culture, “create lives based on a different sensory universe than that of those around them.”
As neurotypicals, we have time and time again been met with people of different abilities, sensory experiences, and communication needs to which our cultural responses range from patronization, to pity, to willful ignorance and impatience. We are uncomfortable with the unfamiliar, fearful of the unknown, and subsequently seek to “normalize”. We aim to fit as many people as we can into the same box while failing to realize that there is no box: there is only the astounding and chaotic beauty of the human mind, heart, and soul in its many and varied forms.
So to all of us I must ask: what are we missing? What do we lose when we demand eye contact? Require a smile and “Hello” from a minimally-speaking person? Ask a stim to be hidden? What genius are we suppressing, and what soul are we teaching it is less than it “should be” because it is not what we expect it to be? What have we lost as humanity by creating the rift between “same” and “not the same”?
Acceptance- and by that I mean truly seeing the beauty of our and others’ individuality-is not only the kind and moral thing, but that which is necessary to bridge the gap of forced conformity. Our neurotypical view has merit, but is only one lens: it is time we look to our comrades with Autism, with Down Syndrome, with any difference or disability for the view we cannot see and yet so desperately need.
Special thanks to the Autistic individuals who provided feedback on this topic, your words guide the way.