Growing up as an autistic teenager in the early noughties, I often struggled with the prejudices of the people around me. When I obsessed over specific interests, failed to make eye contact and was socially awkward, I would be told that there was something “wrong” with me. For a long time, I internalized these assessments; it was not until I learned about the concept of neurodiversity that my self-esteem improved. I viewed myself not as a mistake, but simply as representing one part of a larger spectrum of humanity.
I’m not sure I’d be alive today if I had never reached that point of wisdom.
If adults view neurodiversity as a burden or scourge to be eliminated, they will accordingly treat autistic children as “mistakes.”
Neurodiversity is, quite simply, the idea that autism spectrum disorders are not “disorders” at all, but more akin to a language difference. Instead of shaming and trying to change autistic people, the concept behind neurodiversity is that autistic people should be accepted on their own neurological terms. If their autism hurts themselves or others, they should be helped in ways that they are comfortable with and which respect their autonomy.
Otherwise, neurodivergent people should be treated with just as much respect as neurotypicals, or people without autism. This idea has made tremendous strides in the 20 years since I was a teenager, mainly because scientific research repeatedly bears it out — but, as the news cycle makes clear, old prejudices die hard.
First there is Pastor Rick Morrow from Beulah Church in Richland, Missouri, who recently in his sermons referred to autism as “demonic” and an “evil presence,” arguing that ministers using prayer could cast out the demon and “rewire” an autistic person’s brain. “Either the devil has attacked them, he’s brought this infirmity upon them, he’s got them where he wants them, and/or God just doesn’t like them very much, and he made them that way,” Morrow claimed. “Well my God doesn’t make junk. God doesn’t make mess ups.”
Even if autism was a neurological disease and not simply a neutral difference, it still would be absurd (as well as deeply reckless) to claim that prayer or bleach tablets could “cure” it.
Morrow’s views are stigmatizing and unscientific, to say the least, but no more so than those of Pastor Joe Salant, who comes from an affluent New Jersey family and rose to fame for creating a rap in support of Sen. Ted Cruz in 2015. His angle is not merely Christian nationalism, although that is certainly one ingredient in his toxic brew. These days, Salant is selling literal bleach to parents that he claims can cure autism.
Sold under the brand name Safrax, these chlorine dioxide tablets are typically used for industrial cleaning. Salant claims that this is actually a form of bleach which is a miracle mineral solution. In a phone call shared with VICE News, he admitted that he is not allowed to recommend Safrax products for autism, but that it is a “common treatment” for the condition.
On the surface, the problem here is that both Morrow and Salant are promoting medically dangerous pseudoscience. Even if autism was a neurological disease and not simply a neutral difference, it still would be absurd (as well as deeply reckless) to claim that prayer or bleach tablets could “cure” it.
Yet more deeply, the issue with Morrow and Salant is that they are singling out and spreading prejudices against autistic people as a whole. Instead of recognizing that autism has a wide range of effects on patients — with some struggling to function at all, while others are so-called “high functioning” — Morrow and Salant behave as if autism is a scourge. It’s the same attitude that motivates anti-vaxxers like Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy Jr. to describe autistic people by saying their “brain is gone.” It’s an outlook that regularly causes autistic people to be misunderstood, bullied and dehumanized.
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While providing the physical resources is essential in terms of proper education for neurodivergent children, they are only as effective as the adults who use them.
Yet if the concept of neurodiversity was understood everywhere, these errors would be far less likely. It all must begin at the start of a neurodivergent human’s life. In December the British Psychological Society wrote that “successful, inclusive education” can include anything from including visual timetables for neurodivergent students with executive functioning issues to having materials on hand that autistic children may find useful. Per the latter, these can include “wobble cushions for hyperkinetic children to sit on and wiggle; noise-cancelling headphones for sound-sensitivity; stim toys to help induce focus; egg-timers to help structure independent learning time.”
It is a question of understanding the different ways that neurodivergent conditions can manifest themselves, and then accommodating them accordingly. The juvenile mental health advocacy group The Child Mind Institute also writes that schools can help autistic students by “checklists, dedicated binders, reward systems, timers, planners, and calendars to aid these students.”
Of course, while providing the physical resources is essential in terms of proper education for neurodivergent children, they are only as effective as the adults who use them. That is why, in addition to providing an education system that appreciates neurodivergent children as unique individuals, we must also supply one that trains adults to understand neurodiversity for what it is.
If adults view neurodiversity as a burden or scourge to be eliminated, they will accordingly treat autistic children as “mistakes” no matter how many egg-timers and visual timetables you give them. Only a few short steps separate the adults who misunderstand autistic children and the ones who refuse to hire or constantly fire autistic adults.
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This is why, when I think of how much power people like Morrow and Salant have in our society, I worry about the future of new generations of autistic youth. The science is right there to demonstrate that the condition they are taught makes them “wrong” is, in fact, nothing more or less than a neutral quirk.
There are neurodiversity advocates like autistic animal behaviorist Temple Grandin who encourage autistic people to self-actualize, and to recognize when their autism-related suffering is caused by discrimination rather than their own bodies. Medicines like cannabis are being found to alleviate “core symptoms” that cause autistic people difficulty in their day-to-day lives, just as medications exist to help the mental health problems that face neurotypicals. As a Jew, I believe in God, and I do not consider myself to be a mistake. Quite to the contrary, I believe God and made humans diverse for a reason: To help our evolution, to keep us humble, create a rich and fascinating tapestry of life. Is it really so hard to recognize that? Why do these people have to think of anyone different as automatically evil?
This content was originally published here.