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By William Stillman
The world needs autism. Of this, I am convinced. The world needs autism now more than ever. Don’t believe me? Look around...look closely and carefully. Contemplate a global awareness. Consider the call to action we’ve received in recent times by way of grand-scale, devastating natural disasters and international terrorist attacks—which drastically spiked an online “rapture” index, a Christian speedometer that measures how quickly the world is careening toward the day of reckoning. Popular culture has relaxed ethical conduct so much so that films and television programming have desensitized us to sex, violence, and abusive language to the point of no further room in which to push the proverbial envelope. Motion pictures like Saw and its sequels, Wolfcreek, The Devil’s Rejects, Turistas, and Hostel have given rise to a pornographic franchise: human beings mutilating other human beings with sadistic ardor in gratuitous, graphic depictions of torture. Witness, too, the celebrity behavior we have come to condone as acceptable due to “wardrobe malfunctions,” racial rants and sordid misconduct. Although this book was written during wartime, it is the irresponsible misbehavior of certain public figures that made top news. There is vague accountability and fewer repercussions in consequence for one’s misdeeds which may, in fact, be rewarded post “rehab.” Further, the premise of most reality television is predicated upon lust, greed, manipulation, deceit, and the endeavor for physical beauty at all costs. Such cultural poison has anesthetized us to our own humanity.
Think people don’t emulate what they see? A recent Associated Press article speculates there’s an astounding drop in social etiquette—rudeness and amorality is on the rise. Corporate corruption has fostered employee disloyalty. Email has taken passive-aggressive interactions to new heights. The 2006 National Violent Crime Summit concluded that “crime is coming back” in a big way. USA Today recently cited an FBI estimate for a 94 percent increase in hate crime attacks against persons with developmental disabilities. Reports of “road rage” are a daily occurrence. “Happy Slapping” has become the latest craze: someone physically accosts an unsuspecting victim while another perpetrator records the assault with a camera-phone, and posts the attack online for all to see. Internet child sex predators are rampant, and child pornography has become more brutal with the number of images depicting violent abuse rising fourfold since 2003. Americans are insulated with artificial complacency from heinous international human-rights violations perpetrated by megalomaniac dictators. Instead, self-absorbed and selfish behavior without consideration of others has become the norm, it would seem. A “messiah complex” has emerged; we have become a narcissistic society bent on gratifying our own needs because “it’s all about me.” Violators of this pursuit are perceived as rivals. And it’s autistics that, clinically, are defined, in part, as lacking empathy and social reciprocity!
In early 2007, the Centers for Disease Control revised its autism statistics from the previous tally of 1 in every 166 children (which excludes countless untabulated adults), now suggesting that the national figures are closer to 1 in every 150. But perhaps the reverse statistic signifies the greater epidemic: of every 150 individuals, 149 are “normal” or neuro-typical! We so dearly need people with autism and other differences—in their mild, unaffected manner—to lend balance to the world, and refocus us on what’s truly important. Perhaps this principle resonates most with parents who have been obliged to undergo a personal transformation as a result of their child’s diagnosis—parents who otherwise may have succumbed to the messiah complex. One mother confessed, “I think [autism] has humbled me. I think I’m a pretty good parent, and I can do that sort of stuff well; but with autism, that ego is taken down a few pegs. I think it has helped me be more accepting of people with disabilities. Not that I was a complete anti-handicapped person before, but now I think more in terms of what people can do.”
Dwindling are the days of parental shame and self-deprecating guilt, as underscored by the mother who wrote, “Autism for me was a challenge not a defeat.” A new evolution is compelling parents to re-envision their lives, to see clearly their own transcendence, and to hold greater hope for the future. This is supported by research such as the “Qualitative Investigation of Changes in the Belief Systems of Families of Children with Autism or Down Syndrome,” a document that concludes, “Although parents may grapple with lost dreams, over time positive adaptations can occur in the form of changed world views concerning life and disability, and an appreciation of the positive contributions made by children to family members and society as a whole. Parents’ experiences indicate the importance of hope and of seeing possibilities that lie ahead.”
One parent rejoiced and opened her heart by telling her circle of parent-friends, “I was just thinking about all the reasons I am ticked that my child is autistic and then thought, you know, if autism had not happened to our family I would not have learned so many things! So many people I would have never known! I believe it has taught me courage beyond words…As much as I hate it, it has made me a better person and better parent to my child. Anyone here feel as though you were helped on some level by this diagnosis?” She received an avalanche of glowing responses.
I have yet to meet a person with autism who has not in some capacity declared their desire to give back of themselves, to share their gifts, and to teach others. In their gentle way—as befits their nature—people with autism compel us to higher standards of deference and respect for humanity. Being present with the autistic individual requires us to be calm and refrain, to be silent and truly listen. What do you suppose people with autism have indicated they’re here to teach? The most salient themes of the human experience: tolerance, patience, sensitivity, compassion, and, of course, unconditional love. These themes consistently emerge in my work as a consultant no matter where I go.
We need people with autism in the numbers with which they’ve increased, especially if we’re to unite in a renaissance for what is right and true and good and kind. It is coming. And the next major human rights movement to shatter myths and tear down walls of hate will be lead by those meek of voice but strong of will.
© 2008, William Stillman