Anyone who has had themselves or their child diagnosed with autism will probably be familiar with the following scenario. The diagnostician sits down with you with a serious but sympathetic look on their face. There is probably a box of tissues within arms reach, and eventually they say something to the tune of “you/your child has an Autism Spectrum Disorder”. They pause and let the words sink in before going on to tell you that autism is a lifelong disability characterised by…… blah blah blah, listing every characteristic you/your child has as a negative. Suddenly everything you saw as quirky, unique and cool has been labelled as a deficit, and something requiring some sort of therapy to change it. So the starting point in autism tends to be overwhelmingly negative, which to be honest scares the shit out of a lot of people, particularly parents of newly diagnosed kids. One thing I personally found a bit upsetting when Touristo was diagnosed was that about 80-90% of the autistic characteristics the diagnostician noted in him, are traits that he shares to some degree with me. It made me feel like all these things that I found beautifully eccentric about myself are apparently considered odd and deficient by the rest of the world.
Some time has now passed and one thing I have taken away from this is I think how we approach autism requires a drastic rethink, and I feel this is required from the very first encounter people have with professionals within the field.
What if we started looking at a strengths based approach to autism? What if we looked at autistic characteristics in a positive light?
An example of this strengths based/positive approach is something I was daydreaming about the other day. I was wondering what Touristo would be like as an adult, something I am sure many parents do. At the moment he is considered moderate to severely autistic, semi-verbal and cognitive testing is not really accurate due to his severe language delay, but this is changing rapidly at the moment and he is kind of at the point where a very wide variety of outcomes are possible. But just taking his personality into account and not focussing on the unknowns, I thought about what a future employer might say about him in a performance review based on his autistic characteristics that are perceived as ‘deficits’:
– Touristo always comes to work, to work and does not waste time chatting at the water cooler.
– Touristo has a strong interest in his field of work and focuses intently.
– Touristo has amazing processes and systems in place to ensure consistency.
– Touristo’s output is always completed with consistent quality.
– Touristo is never late to work and is a very loyal, trustworthy employee.
– Touristo’s communication style, is clear and concise, not leaving anything open to interpretation.
– Touristo is direct and does not engage in office politics.
– Touristo is determined, perseveres and will consistently apply himself until he has mastered a new system.
– Touristo is passionate and has a strong sense of social justice.
– Touristo is unfailingly honest.
Now of course the point of this is not to try and create a stereotype, it is based off one individual’s strengths and will vary from person to person. I wanted to illustrate that all of these traits stem from characteristics that are listed as deficits in the diagnostic criteria for autism, but I see these traits as things that can be overwhelmingly positively shaped…..I don’t get it.
I just don’t see autism as something that needs to be ‘fixed’. People need to learn to accept and embrace a wider variety of people, and positively harness the strengths that people have.
I would love to hear others’ opinions on a positive rethink of autism on our Facebook page.