First, I should explain what I mean by disability. The way I see it (for now, and until I encounter the sort of evidence that could change my mind), the idea of disability is best conceptualized as a comment on the context in which some particular ability is being exercised. Think “fish out of water” here, or better “penguin out of water”. Penguins are graceful and highly capable swimmers, as long as they’re actually in water; not so much while on dry land. On dry land penguins look just ridiculous — totally lost.
We human beings are just like that, in that whatever abilities we may have as individuals, each of these is only functional under certain specifiable conditions; outside of these conditions these wonderful abilities somehow transmogrify into disabilities. For example, at the moment you can read, but without sufficient light this reading skill is utterly worthless to you. Likewise, if you have two healthy legs and can walk on a dry sidewalk, you will find that these same legs are just a burden if you’re standing in four feet of soft snow. And of course, what about your ability to fly?
Fly? Yes, fly — and I mean literally, just like a bird, a plane, and of course Superman — just not in the sky, of course. But you can fly in water. Hey, what do you think penguins do? Or we might say that eagles swim in the air.
Note that I didn’t put the words fly and swim in scare-quotes. I left the scare-quotes off because I’m really not using these words figuratively. To my (admittedly autistic) view the verb fly is just a synonym for the verb swim. As I see it, the only real difference between flying and swimming is the density of the medium in which the given activities occur. With respect to what we normally call flying, air functions exactly like a very low-density fluid, and with respect to what we normally call swimming, water functions exactly like a very dense gas. Other than the spelling, little difference exists between the sciences of fluid- and aerodynamics. In fact, physicists consider aerodynamics to be a sub-discipline of fluid-dynamics and use exactly the same differential equations to describe swimming and flying, but with different density constants.
But these density constants are critical with respect to the organism doing the actual flymming (should be a word, if you want my opinion). And this basic principle is true for any ability.
Now, I do understand that autism is not necessarily a disability, in the same way that a penguin’s swimmability (yeah, that should also be a word) is not necessarily a disability — unless of course the penguin is trapped on land and cannot use his ability to swim! And it is in that sense that autism is really a disability, although perhaps not for all autistic people — in particular those who have managed to find niches for themselves in our world which has been designed primarily by and for neurotypical human beings.
As an example from my own life, although my 80-year-old father has yet to be formally diagnosed, I would be shocked if he didn’t easily fulfill the modern DSM V diagnostic criteria for Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). To my view, he is your stereotypical aspergian, but he has also done an amazing job of making himself utterly useful to pretty much everybody that he knows, and this is as true in his personal life as it was in his professional life before he retired. My dad is a gifted problem solver — for pretty much any kind of problem involving the physical world. I have yet to see him encounter an object or a device — electronic, mechanical, or electromechanical — that was broken in a way he couldn’t fix with with some tool or gadget or bit of plastic or piece of rubber tubing or a clip of some sort that he found in his vast personal collection of what my saint of a step-mother refers to has his “junk”, and which he accumulated incrementally over the decades of his life and stored, neatly organized, in countless boxes and shelves in his garage and home office.
On the other hand, my own claim-to-fame seems to be that I still don’t have a criminal record. To be clear, I have never physically injured anybody, nor wanted to, nor have I broken any laws more serious than the occasional traffic violation. But I have also never been able to hold down a full-time job; and largely as a result of that I have accumulated a mountain of debt. Perhaps more importantly, I have been a chronic disappointment in every conceivable kind of relationship that one person can have with another. I’m sucky as a friend, son, brother, uncle, husband, father, cousin, nephew, grandson, employee and co-worker. As much the antithesis of my dad (although people are always telling us how alike we are, which is also true), I have always proven to be utterly useless to pretty much everyone.
And why am I such a chronic failure in pretty much every area of my life? Well, as I’ve written elsewhere, I’m sure a few — a minority of the people who have known me, thank goodness — might say I’m just an “asshole” — a “fucking loser” or maybe a “total jackass”, and honestly, I really couldn’t fault them for that. Every so often my encounters with other human beings can go to an ugly and uncomfortable place, and I know that my own misguided choices play a significant role in bringing about that sort of outcome.
But I honestly believe most who have met me would describe me much more kindly — and this includes my own wife, who along with my children, has to endure my autistic symptomatology more than anyone else ever has. These saintly humans would probably tell you that I’m quite friendly, honest, witty, intelligent, sympathetic, with much to offer, but that I have perhaps never quite found my niche in the world. They might go so far as to describe me as a “a bit lost” — not unlike a penguin waddling around looking for water to swim in, but finding none.
Just over a year ago (November 2016) I sought medical attention for my chronic, life-long misfitery, and as it turns out, I’m actually autistic — I have Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). For me, learning this about myself has been a huge relief. Now I finally know why I’ve fucked up my life. I must admit that for as long as I can remember I have struggled not to accept the harsher judgments that people have made of me. Far too often have I seriously suspected that these critics may have been right after all — that I really am just an “asshole”, “fucking loser”, or maybe a “total jackass”.
But no — as it turns out, none of that is true. I’m not an asshole; I’m just autistic. And like a penguin forced to waddle around on dry land, yes, I guess I do look quite lost and a bit ridiculous. But I’m quite sure this is only how I look when I’m on dry land. I’m quite sure that once I do find my way to the water, I will show the world what I’m really good at.
Until then, and for me at least, autism really is a disability.
And penguins really can fly.
Hey, check out this cool YouTube featurette of Brandon Routh‘s preparation for his role in the 2006 film Superman Returns. Starting at about minute 2:12 you can watch him prepare for his flying scenes in a swimming pool! And don’t worry if you’re male and homophobic — there’s absolutely nothing at all homoerotically provocative about Routh’s lithe, muscularity.