Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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Understanding autism

2.2 Neurodiversity

The relationship between the autism spectrum and the rest of the population is one with important social and ethical implications. Traditionally, autism was seen as akin to a medical problem – diagnosed by medical professionals and regarded as a disorder and/or disability, with deficits that impair the individual’s functioning and depart from the ‘norm’. Historically, this was the perspective most strongly associated with the idea of a ‘treatment’ or ‘cure’ aimed at returning the individual to ‘normality’.

Nowadays, many individuals with autism and their families prefer to think of autism as a difference from neurotypicality (and note the use of this term in preference to ‘normality’).

Some, including members of the Autism Rights Movement, altogether reject the concept of autism as a disability, arguing that being autistic is simply a valid alternative to neurotypicality, and something to be celebrated.

Here Arabella reflects on coming to accept and celebrate Iris Grace’s unique qualities

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Well, to some can be very isolating. You worry as a parent how other people react to your child. Iris quite clearly now is autistic. When she walks down the street, it's obvious. She tip-toes along, she gets excited by-- she'll see a bit of texture on the stone, on a sort of old building. And she'll go up to it, and she'll feel it, and she'll be sort of inspecting it. And people will walk by and think, oh god, what is she up to?
And I can tell now when she's in a book shop. That people are seeing it. That I can't hide it anymore. But then, I've got past that point of caring. I really do celebrate the fact that different it's brilliant, now. And I don't feel that kind of awkwardness, and the embarrassment I used to feel. I used to want to fit in with her, I used to want her to fit in. I needed her to be like other children. And now, I don't.
I love the fact that she's different. And that difference will probably be the greatest thing in her life. Because if you celebrate those differences, and follow them it'll end up being some sort of career. Or it'll end up making her-- separating her from struggling in a sort of mainstream world to be extraordinary at something.
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An associated perspective first introduced in Week 1 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   is ‘neurodiversity’. This extends the ‘difference not disorder’ perspective to include individuals with a range of cognitive differences besides autism, such as dyslexia and ADHD. Neurodiversity advocates argue that these conditions arise due to natural genetic variation and are not ‘pathological’ (medically disordered), but should be recognised as a social category like ethnicity or sexual orientation. They suggest that it is society that needs to change, to accept autistic people for who they are and to accommodate their behaviours.

Those in the ‘difference not disorder’ lobby are making valuable contributions to changing perceptions about autism. However, their views are not universally shared. In particular, some families where there is a profoundly affected autistic individual may feel that while the neurodiversity view is appropriate for high-functioning individuals who lead relatively independent lives, it fails to acknowledge the distress, suffering and disability of those such as their own family member.


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