By Molly Ratner (’14)
On September 17th, the New York Times highlighted the story of Justin Canha, an autistic high school student with a prodigious ability for drawing, especially cartooning. From a young age Mr. Canha has been enrolled in a costly special program run through the local high school by Kate Stanton-Paule who has dedicated her life to helping special education students enter the workforce. Despite his artistic brilliance, the young Mr. Canha has faced extreme challenges in finding work. At a job interview at an animation studio, Mr. Canha introduced himself by saying: “Hello, everybody. This is going to be my new job, and you are going to be my new friends.” It is scenarios like this one that often polarizes the communities’ belief in the ability of autistic people to hold serious jobs because it does not follow the “typical” or “normal” interaction between employees and managers. As a result, many individuals living with autism are never able to find work or live entirely independent lives. They often end up unemployed, living in group homes, or with their families.
However, Ms. Stanton-Paule, along with a new force of advocates, is trying to change the discourse surrounding autism from one of a deficit model to a paradigm of “neurodiversity.” In their article, “Autism as a Natural Human Variation: Reflections on the claims of the Neurodiversity Movement,” Jaarsma and Welin define neurodiversity as a theory that “regards atypical development as normal human difference” that therefore should not be discriminated against. Judy Singer, an Australian mother with a child with Asperger’s, initially introduced the concept in the context of civil rights: “I was interested in the liberatory, activist aspects of it—to do for neurologically different people what feminism and gay rights had done for their constituencies.” Mrs. Singer does not see her daughter as a disabled person, but rather a unique young woman who functions differently than people around her. In other words, Mrs. Singer’s activism is rooted in the acceptance of diversity and difference.
[Photo courtesy of Flickr user: BLW Photography]
Over the span of the next five years, the New York Times estimates that over 200,000 autistic children will become adults and seek stable work. However, in spite of the efforts of activists, stereotypes of autism still prevail. On December 1, 2008, the NYU Child Study Center posted this advertisement around New York City:
We have your son. We will make sure he will not be able to care for himself or interact socially as long as he lives. This is only the beginning. [Signed] Autism.
Although these advertisements were designed to encourage parents with autistic children to seek help, the billboards enraged many in the autistic community because the endorsement of such stereotypical beliefs, especially by legitimate medical establishments, makes the struggle that much harder. Yet, activists with autism like Ari Ne’eman have proved time and time again that the disease does not necessarily impair a person’s ability to be a functioning and productive member of society. Ne’eman organized a successful protest, which ultimately forced NYU to retract its campaign.
The fight for autism rights parallels the movements beginning in the 1960s and 1970s where people had to fight for their basic human rights: including the right to work. Even though the process to assimilate children with autisim into larger society may be costly, the importance of their new perspectives and ideas must not be discounted or ignored.