Like autistics, Jews tend to like debate and aren’t afraid to challenge the “teacher” so this session included robust discussion, and many points arose that I label SAQ’s (Sometimes Asked Questions) and UIQ’s (Unintentionally Insulting Questions). For all those (perhaps non-Jewish, non-autistic people) who might also have such questions but are too shy to ask, I will answer them here. If you disagree with my answers I would be happy to hear why and discuss further in the comments below.
How can you compare autism to Judaism; they are completely different?
Yes, they are completely different though they are both integral parts of my identity. If someone insults Jews generally, they are insulting me whether they intend to or not. If someone insults autistics generally they are insulting me whether or not that is their intention. If someone says “You don’t look Jewish” they often seem to think this will be considered a personal compliment rather than a generic insult. If someone expresses surprise that I am autistic, that is not a compliment either; rather it is a demonstration of ignorance about autism.
I tell people who query my choice to be open about my autism ("it's not necessary"), or just tell me how “awful” autism is (you might be surprised that even a long term friend has felt free to do this) that if they heard such remarks about Jews they would be outraged at the anti-Semitism.
When explaining how helpful I think it would be to autistic people and society generally if attitudes to autism changed, I often quote the cultural change that has occurred in my lifetime about homosexuality which used to be illegal, whereas now it is illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of their sexuality.
How could you compare autism to homosexuality, autism is a condition that can cause major problems in daily life and homosexuality is just a particular preference in regard to sexual and life partners?
I don’t say that homosexuality and autism are the same, but I am saying that there are parallels in regard to some ways the two groups are treated in our culture. I make the comparison between autism and homosexuality not because I see any particular similarity between the two but because, while the incidence of homosexuality has remained stable over my lifetime, the attitudes to it have changed radically – this is what I would like to see in relation to autism.
Autism, like homosexuality, is a naturally occurring neurological disposition. There are advantages to the population as a whole to have some people who think differently; that is how we progress. Medicalising the condition is not necessary and is only helpful to individuals if a medical certificate is required to access appropriate support or acceptance of their condition.
Surely diagnosis is a good idea because that is how you get the support you need.
Yes, in the current context it is helpful for some people to get a diagnosis because there are gatekeepers to the support system and to get past these gatekeepers you need a diagnosis. However that does not mean that the system makes sense and that an official diagnosis has any more meaning or veracity than self-diagnosis. You can see that diagnosis is not based on objective criteria when experts like Simon Baron Cohen suggest that “If the term is used too loosely, it can lose its meaning as a medical diagnostic term. I think it should be reserved for people who are suffering, because that's when you get the diagnosis. When the features of autism are interfering with your life to such an extent that you're suffering, and you're seeking help and you take yourself off to a clinic and get a diagnosis, that's the only time when the term should be used”
Surely it is good that people who are mildly affected don’t get a diagnosis because then they are considered normal and are part of normal life.
The point here is not who should get a diagnosis but whether autism is actually part of “normal” human diversity or not. I would argue strongly that it is – that autistic people are part of “normal” - we just are the outliers and are atypical in various ways. If we want a well-functioning society we need to be inclusive of various diverse groups - the Equalities Act enshrines this principle in law. There is a great video online of Nick Walker, Autistic educator, martial artist and mindfulness meditation practitioner putting the case for autism as part of neurodiversity. I would also repeat something I read on twitter “Mild autism does not mean that I experience autism mildly. Mild autism means you experience my autism mildly”. It can be very disabling to have to behave like everyone else just to be accepted as “part of normal life”, especially when the special talents of extraordinary autistic people have so much to offer society generally.