Friday, July 24, 2009

Challenges and opportunities

A colleague sent me an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education a couple of weeks ago, titled "Autism As Academic Paradigm" (behind a subscriber wall, sorry). The author makes the interesting argument that if autism represents a different -- not "disordered" -- way of configuring cognitive processes, then academia is in large part engaged in the effort to teach exactly those cognitive processes to neurotypical students.

The kind of things autistic individuals tend to be naturally good at -- paying close attention to facts and figures, following orderly steps, working solo, ignoring the messiness outside the lines -- are the skills that people in many fields have to acquire to succeed in higher education. If we could revise our view of autism to appreciate the strengths of the autistic orientation (tough to do when it's been defined as a disease to be cured), then we might be better at recognizing the traits present in that orientation that turn out to be highly adaptive in particular settings.

I'm a bit torn about the whole "autistic/neurotypical" dichotomy that is championed by a certain segment of the autistic community. While I appreciate its focus on the unique and valuable way autistic people configure their world, taken too far it tends to minimize the serious challenges they have in negotiating parts of our world that weren't built for them. You might say that we ought to make the world more autistic-friendly -- the equivalent of building wheelchair ramps to make society autistic-accessible -- but that's not the point. We value -- rightly -- parts of human interaction and artistic expression that autistic people have trouble understanding. I don't think there's anything wrong with calling that a deficit. Given the way the overwhelming majority of human beings interact, a blockage in that area is going to cause problems for the person affected.

But I'm in full agreement about the importance of recognizing the strengths of autistic individuals -- strengths we often envy in more functional individuals, strengths we might go to great lengths to acquire. Noel and I often say to each other that we don't want the attempt to "cure" Archer (an orientation that seems to go along with diagnosing and labeling him) to destroy what's special about him. He's amazing, as those of you who read this blog regularly know. And I do see those around him -- some teachers and some of his fellow students, especially -- appreciating what he can do that they struggle with. I don't want that to be lost in the shuffle as he continues through the "special needs" gauntlet.

What really gives me hope is watching the way Archer learns to connect his deficiencies to his strengths. Playing Mario games has opened up a whole world of role-playing to him -- it's been like going from 10 mph to 60 mph in the blink of an eye. It's the limited storylines and focused task orientation of the computer game and the computer character that have given him the framework he needs to imagine in narrative form. I see the door opening, and I think: There's a way into writing, perhaps. There's a way into literature, someday.

Most of us are so adept at the processes needed to navigate the world that we may not even recognize as valuable the things that we don't have a way into. It's a problem that we academics see all the time -- the hurdle of even caring about what doesn't come naturally. Maybe autistic people have the advantage of being told from an early age that what doesn't come naturally is worth acquiring the skills to appreciate and perform. If we can balance that with a celebration of the skills they have, then their maturation and development are the building of bridges, not the correction of faults.

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