A Primer on Autism
Dear EEOC Deputy District Director,
If one knows anything useful about Autistic Spectrum Disorder (“ASD” or “autism”), one knows in the first place that it is not an intellectual disability; and in the second place, that even though autism is not an intellectual one, it is nonetheless a bona fide disability. Autism is a disability in the same way that the ability to read is a disability without light sufficient to see a text; in the same way that the ability to run is a disability in waist-deep water; or in the same way that the ability to smell is a disability in the presence of a sinus infection. When exercised in the wrong context, any ability can become a disability, and autism – when understood as a repertoire of abilities – is exactly that. Although a few autistic people do manage to achieve even great success despite being trapped in a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all culture that has been primarily designed by and built for the neurologically normal, most of us fare much worse.
For example, it is common to recognize autism as a “triad of impairments” – “impaired communication; impaired social skills; and a restricted and repetitive way of being-in-the-world”. But when manifested together in a suitable context, these “impairments” turn out to be exactly what is required for the acquisition of expertise – the communication and social-skill impairments serve to isolate the autist and shield him or her from social distractions, while the attentional/behavioral restrictions and repetitions can result in the acquisition of expert levels of knowledge and skill. Consequently it is not uncommon for autistic people to become exceptionally proficient in various ways.
Unfortunately, such expertise is not even a necessary condition for career success, let alone a sufficient one. Autistic and otherwise, the world is teeming with failed and financially impoverished experts of one kind or another, and these are not all poets, painters, sculptors, and musicians. Steady, long-term employment in any field is heavily dependent on Market whimsy.
The blind and impersonal Economic forces of Supply and Demand can send all but the most skilled, knowledgeable, and in many cases merely lucky individuals into misemployment, underemployment, or outright unemployment. Under such grueling conditions of competition, the aforementioned autistic triad of impairments can weigh heavily against any sort of technical expertise that an autistic person may have acquired. Survival under such conditions requires not just one, but at least two kinds of expertise – the most important of these being social/communication expertise, exactly the kind that autistic people find difficult to acquire.
Mr. Deputy District Director, I am autistic; and even though I do not have an intellectual disability, I must nonetheless spend most of my waking hours “out of context” – like a walrus out of water, waddling around ridiculously – trapped in a culture that was built for the neurologically normal human beings who designed it. To the extent that I have no choice but to do this I am disabled.
And the fact that my disability is not an intellectual one is quite irrelevant to the disabling nature of my own autistic neurology, just as the fact that I’m neither deaf nor blind is irrelevant; just as the fact that I’m not paralyzed below the waist is irrelevant; just as the fact that I don’t have Alzheimer’s, diabetes, HIV, or any number of other disabling conditions is irrelevant. Yes, indeed, I am quite fortunate in that autism appears to be my only disability, but that does not change the fact that autism is a disability for me, as long as I must still struggle with it daily in a neuronormal-centric culture.
Now, many autistic people, of course, have it much worse than I do. It appears that for many autists, their autism itself is much worse in some way than my own. And even for those whose autism is not actually worse than my own, many of them may also have one or more additional disabling conditions – perhaps an intellectual disability, perhaps diabetes, or maybe some sort of physical paralysis, etc. But true as all of that is, none of it serves to make my own autism any less of a disability than it usually is. Make no mistake, sir, I’m quite sure that given enough water this walrus would be an excellent swimmer. But where is all the water? All walruses – even the least disabled of us – need enough water in order to swim.
On the other hand, the fact that my own autism is relatively “mild” or “high functioning” (this walrus walks pretty good, I think – for a walrus) does make me feel like I have the responsibility (to my fellow walruses) to apply my advantages – whatever they are – to the problem of helping those who have it worse than I do.
And one advantage that I have – a form of expertise that my own autism has helped me acquire – is my ability to write. If there is any contribution that I might make toward helping my fellow autists, most likely it will follow in some way from this particular skill. Indeed, though I am writing you this letter on my own behalf, it is also my hope that doing so might benefit my autistic fellows.
Continue with Part 2…
 For example, a 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics found that “More than 50% of youth who had left high school in the past 2 years had no participation in employment or education.” Source: Pediatrics, June 2012, VOLUME 129 / ISSUE 6, online at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/129/6/1042, last accessed Jan. 19, 2018.