In a recent discussion on personal buzz words for books I admitted to fellow BookTuber Acacia Ives that fairy tale re-tellings, specifically appealing to or talking about nerds, and autism are three of the big buzzes for me. When she asked why I realized that maybe my answer would require more than a few lines in the comment section (Mostly because I deleted three paragraphs worth of response before settling on a somewhat lengthy shortened reply).
So why is autism a buzzword for me? I haven’t ever been diagnosed as being on the spectrum, I didn’t grow up with a close friend or family member on the spectrum…so what’s going on?
I honestly cannot tell you when the first hook grabbed me. I can’t remember the first person I met with Autism, though I’m sure there were autistic students in school with me when I was younger. However, I can tell you that I can always remember being interested in the idea of autism. If you aren’t familiar with ASD (Austism Spectrum Disorder) you can find some helpful facts on the webpage for the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and on the Autism Speaks webpage.
For me the idea of autism resonates in a way that most perceived ‘special needs’ do not. I say perceived because I have begun to see autism as merely a different way to see the world. Having spoken to many students and peers with varying levels of ASD, as well as reading articles written by and about those who have been diagnosed, what I’ve found is that a great majority of autistic people find more issue with how people perceive them and with struggling in the ‘normal’ sector of the world than they do with their ‘special need’. To them, the only thing ‘special’ is how hard they have to work when placed beside those of us who don’t think in their type of brain. Yes they might need help discerning things like emotional intent, expressions, and even imagination. However, ‘special needs’ and extreme levels of help are often not what people with ASD really need.
As an author autism both intrigues and frightens me. I love the way autism works, the way the brain works with autism. Each person with ASD has a different tick. It changes, it evolves, it moves with them in ways others disorders and/or illnesses cannot. I am enthralled by the way people with autism work, the way the different levels of autism force people to change and create in order to make their way through the world. The intricacies of beautiful minds that become somewhat of a fear factor for those of us who aren’t forced to live with it. I often write characters who, in my mind, have a touch or more of autism. I never specifically state that, however, because I am afraid writing yet another autistic character who is just a stylized, simplified, watered down version of their true self. A candy coated pill for the ‘normals’ to swallow down and say proudly to each other that they read a story about autism. Or, conversely, an over dramatized, emphatic, in your face autistic character who makes everyone uncomfortable because those are so rare in real life that I would be completely untrue to those I love and who I feel have entrusted me with their significance. You see, that must be it. Autism is a buzzword for me because people I care about, a cousin, some students, a nephew..those people deserve me to care. They deserve for us all to care and to want to understand. That is why I think it Should be a buzzword.
Here, though, is what I do know about why Autism is a buzzword:
- It has been used as a scapegoat.
When I say that it is used as a scapegoat, I’m not just talking about classroom inclusion discussion or lively debates about inoculations. While both of those have been batted around like a tired yarn ball given to a kitten, those aren’t the only things that like to use autism as a main battle point. In fact, when people discuss things like ‘mental retardation’ they like to also bring autism into that mix. While the rise in autistic diagnosis for the past 15 years or so has actually led to a decrease in the diagnosis of ‘intellectually disabled’ the likelihood is that the actual issues haven’t changed, but our abilities for detection have. As our understandings and tests have evolved, our ability to recognize those who learn, comprehend, and develop differently has become slightly more sophisticated.
Now take all of that last paragraph and set it aside for a moment because I have also seen a few cases of ‘autistic scapegoating’ while in a teaching capacity that had nothing to do with whether or not a repetitive motion or strict schedule should be allowed in with the ‘normal’ kids (remind me to post about normal sometime…).
For Example: I have seen a student who was placed on academic plans, had ‘special’ classes, etc etc etc due to their ‘severe level of Aspergers Syndrome’ but who only exhibited signs of ASD when they thought about it. That’s right, the only time that student actually showed any discernible signs were basically when they didn’t want to do the classwork or wanted to get out of a project. It turns out that the family had been so insistent that a love for farm animals and interest in horses was a ‘fixation’ that must be a mental issue, the therapist finally gave in and diagnosed it. A new doctor did an examination and declared that said student just needed to be made to follow rules and stop being coddled..and that they had mild Attention Deficit Disorder and should be allowed to work on the family farm more.
- It is an unknown
The term ‘Autism’ has been around for roughly 105 years. On the WedMD’s A History of Autism page the discussion ranges from early diagnosis, to the combination of schizophrenia and autism, to the use of LSD as a treatment for autism in the 70s, and on to the 1980s and 90s as we slowly began to use behavioral therapy as a way to ‘treat’ autism. All very interesting and enlightening things. All facts that you should check out. However, none of the facts are definitive. Unlike many of the other mental or physical illnesses we deal with, autism has not been completely defined. We cannot pinpoint one or two specific activities that cause or worsen autism. In fact, each case is different.
What that means for those not dealing with autism is that we have no idea what to do. We don’t know what it is to have that difference in our heads. This means that most of us will be made uncomfortable by the difference. No matter how progressive most people might claim to be, change makes us uncomfortable. Funnily enough, the change that makes us uncomfortable makes them uncomfortable from the other side of it. Think about that next time you encounter someone a little different from yourself.
- It is on the rise
As I mentioned before, the occurrence of an ASD diagnosis is up and rising, mostly because our understanding of the disorder has helped to create more appropriate understandings for people with what would have previous been lumped under the title of ‘mental retardations’. However, the statement that 1 of 45 children is being diagnosed with some sort of ASD could throw people off. That does seem like an awful lot of newly minted autism sufferers.
All of this comes together, in my mind, to show that we are still bumbling through the world of the brain. That we still don’t truly know anything about autism, and that ASD is a term deserving of our buzz.
I didn’t realize that this term held so much importance for me until Acacia asked me that innocent ‘why’ and I hope that I have fired you up a little along the way as well.
Are you an Autism buzz worder? Do you have other buzz words that attract you to things, or repel you from them? Are you a writer that deliberately writes, or doesn’t write, a certain type of character because of things like Autism or tropes on special needs? Leave a comment and lets get a good conversation going!