A former work colleague, now a friend, messaged me the piece on a Rhodes Scholar with autism. This friend has a brother with autism and a son with severe anxiety troubles, and she knows that Martin has autism. (She may or may not know that, really, Martin had autism.) About the Rhodes Scholar, she wrote simply: “Love this.”
I love it, too. But I also don’t love it.
A story like this is terrific because it reminds people that ability does not depend upon behavioral factors, and that awkwardness or perseveration are often just covers for awesomeness! Also, it’s a powerful message to go out and achieve, without excuses.
On the other hand, celebratory and feel-good stories tend to normalize autism in a way that I find unproductive. This is what feeds the “neurodiversity” movement, the idea that neurological variations just happen, and we need to stop trying to “correct” neurodivergent behavior. It’s like, If you can be autistic and a Rhodes Scholar, why would you not want to be autistic?
I don’t support neurodiversity or the feel-good approach to autism. What’s also going on in this story is that a mother had to sacrifice her own career (in toto) and personal success in order to give her son this opportunity. And that this young man, an Oxford-bound college graduate, cannot live independently and perhaps never will. And that he needs a service dog to assist with interactions, and that it’s unclear whether he’ll achieve the depth of interpersonal relationships that lead to marriage and the sustenance of enduring friendships.
I guess that seems like a pretty bleak view. My view of persons on the autism spectrum is blindingly bright. They achieve so much despite struggling with issues that the neurotypical cannot, truly (I include myself), fathom. My view of autism itself, however, is negative. “Autism” is the symptoms of underlying health and immune disorders that can, and should, be treated. In terms of the young man profiled in this story, I would suppose that autism may have given him the (perseverative/obsessive) focus to acquire vast amounts of facts/knowledge. But that amazing brain of his would have been present and functional even without the autism—and perhaps he could have become an independent Rhodes Scholar who will miss his family and girlfriend and football buddies during his years in England. And perhaps his mother could be practicing medicine and available to help others, free from the monopoly of her son’s needs.
I am 100% sure this is more than you wanted to hear this morning! It’s a topic I feel so strongly about that sometimes I can’t help myself. The way I look at it is this: Autism was never an essential part of my son, and it’s not an essential part of anyone on the spectrum. It’s an imposed condition that can be alleviated or eradicated through the right biomedical treatment (though not always, not by a long shot). My son is witty and charming. He’s going to go to Princeton or maybe Yale, and he could well end up a Rhodesie, if he doesn’t decide the Marshall Scholarship or a Fulbright is a better fit. I’d prefer if he does all that without the burden of autism.
Does that make sense? Honestly, it’s hard for me to write about these things because I worry about offending others who are touched by autism, which as time goes by is more and more of us. I’ve got a “love the sinner, hate the sin” relationship with autism, albeit in foggier terms. I admire the person—and could do well enough without the autism.
I sent the message off with trepidation, almost chagrin. I like this friend. She’s never been anything but kind, and I feared insulting her. It is so tricky, to discuss recovery with an autism family member who’s not pursuing biomed. I would never want to suggest that anyone else is providing inadequately, or has to be doing biomed, or anything similar. We all do what we can.
I hope she responds well.