Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The Autism Spectrum and the Great Glass Elevator

Some folks have the idea that an autistic person moves up the spectrum when he or she speaks more fluently, displays less autistic mannerisms, acquires a new skill, develops more social relationships, or in the case of an autistic adult, finds a job or gets married. This linear view of autistic existence seems to envision a process similar to the classic children's story by Roald Dahl, in which success is achieved by smashing through the ceiling of autism in the great glass elevator of therapy (of one sort or another), and the occupant of the elevator, having now become socially acceptable, is miraculously transported to the wondrous heavens of normality.

To quote a crotchety Texas judge by the name of Tom Gray: "There are so many problems (with this opinion) that I do not know where to begin; so I will start where I first knew there was a problem and proceed with a stream of consciousness as new problems emerged."

I'll start with a question: Did you ever try to follow a rainbow, when you were a child, to find out if it really had a pot of gold at the end? You ran across the wet grass, and when you reached the place where you thought the end of the rainbow ought to be, all you could see was a faint shimmer of color in the tiny drops of water at the tips of the grass blades. In the same way, the autism spectrum contains all the bright colors and vibrant hues of our human existence, but it has no end, no clear line of demarcation from the rest of the world.

All children develop new skills and learn more about their social environment as they grow older. (Adults also continue to learn, if they maintain an open mind and a willingness to explore new viewpoints and experiences.) This doesn't make a child or adult less autistic, just better educated and more mature.

And contrary to the another-brick-in-the-wall mindset of our cookie cutter educational system, we don't all have to learn exactly the same things and develop in exactly the same way. Just because a child does not begin speaking at the age listed on a developmental chart, it doesn't mean that he or she will never be able to communicate, and it has no relevance whatsoever to other abilities or to intelligence in general.

The same can be said of harmless behavioral differences such as rocking and hand-flapping. They have no bearing on competence or intelligence, and the only reason why they are seen as undesirable is social prejudice. When an autistic adult finds a job or gets married, that doesn't mean he is any higher on the autism spectrum; rather, it means those around him are higher on the tolerance spectrum.

One more stream-of-consciousness problem: When hierarchical language such as "moving up" is used in connection with autism, it has a patronizing air of social superiority to it, similar to the attitude of wealthy white folks who praise a successful non-white person for becoming educated and moving up out of the ghetto. Yes, education and financial success and social integration are all good things—but the ghetto never should have existed in the first place.

The autistic spectrum is not linear, not an elevator, no more of a constraint than any other way of being. It is a rich and complex part of the bright, beautiful, multidimensional kaleidoscope of human diversity.

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  • Great post.

    However, I actually do think the autistic spectrum is a lot like Willy Wonka's great glass elevator:

    "This isn't just an ordinary up-and-down elevator!" announced Mr. Wonka proudly. "This elevator can go sideways and longways and slantways and any other way you can think of!"

    (p. 119 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:42 PM  

  • Very nice. I've been thinking along similar lines lately -- it makes me cringe when people talk about wanting to move their kids "off the spectrum" or "up the spectrum". I think they're probably talking about a different spectrum than the one I am -- theirs is a constellation of unwanted "behaviors", whereas mine is a range of sensory variations, perceptual styles, and cognitive proclivities that certainly shape a person's life but by no means make it something less than a life.

    I think that a lot of people who talk about moving people "up the spectrum" are doing so innocently (or ignorantly, depending on how harsh you want to be) -- that is, they see the negative things as "autism" and therefore eliminating anything that looks "autistic" means eliminating negativity.

    I would guess that a considerable fraction of the debates I see on the blogs I read are based on the fact that one party is using the word "autistic" to describe how they (or someone they know) perceives, learns, and senses their environment and the other party is using the word "autistic" to describe a state in which a person behaves in certain ways. This is one reason why autistic adults need to keep writing about life from their (our) perspective -- I'd consider it great progress if more people got it into their heads that yes, we really are seeing the world differently and that we learn differently, and no, eliminating outward "behaviors" doesn't mean we're turning into NTs or somehow suddenly perceiving the world more "normally".

    By Blogger Zilari, at 5:02 PM  

  • I like the image of the Möbius strip.

    By Blogger kristina, at 8:12 PM  

  • Good grief. I've never heard the term "moving up the spectrum" before. How...bizarre.

    "When an autistic adult finds a job or gets married, that doesn't mean he is any higher on the autism spectrum; rather, it means those around him are higher on the tolerance spectrum."

    I can't tell you how much I loved this line! Brilliant!

    By Blogger Attila the Mom, at 4:28 PM  

  • This is I believe very closely related to the misleading high/ low functioning dichotomy that Amanda has railed against in the past. As she notes, autistics can be 'low-functioning' in some areas and 'high-functioning' in others. It does show how wrong, in terms of basic *science*, the conventional view on autism is.

    By Blogger Redaspie, at 5:09 PM  

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