Autism is not a disease or an entity. It is not something that we must seek out to eradicate. Rather, it is a mode of being, an umbrella term to describe how one relates (or does not relate) to the world. If we look at autism as an entity, a ‘thing’, then this leads us to develop programs that will seek to alter the person into something they are not nor will or can ever be. It causes us to seek to alter the person by force, coercion, and manipulation.
Behavioralism has sought to modify the person, the existential approach rather seeks to understand. How the autistic person behaves should be seen as a form of communication, possibly the only form of communication they may possess to describe their joys, sorrows, or distress. The world of the autist is often misunderstood, one may see the person flapping their arms, and see this as ‘strange’ and in need of suppression. But if we look inwardly and explore the meaning behind this action, we may find it is telling us of something, it is indicative of how that person feels. It is one of their few ways to be able to share their experience. A commonly used approach with autistic persons is Applied Behavioral Analysis where the child works on drills for up to 40 hours a week with a therapist. This type of program separates the child from their parents. The repetitive drills often lead to depression, humiliation, and rage. The entire system is built on this concept of altering the person by force, seeking to gain their compliance to an arbitrary ‘norm’ of what a child must and should be. Instead, we should realize and respect the various developmental stages both perinatal and postnatal that occur and understand that developmental differences exist. These developmental differences exist, and those wanting to aid the person must realize this, and then help the person in discovering their being, of who they are, and to be able to embrace who they are. Early intervention programs sometimes force children into meaningless, repetitive tasks and are geared towards conformity, solely seeking to prepare the child for the classroom, but not taking into account other aspects of the person.
A child with cerebral palsy may be autistic, a child placed under conditions of sensory deprivation may be autistic (Federici et. Al. 1998), a child exposed to a toxin may be autistic. Autism is merely a term we have
decided to use to label how a person has developed and relates differently to the world. If I am an American and travel to a foreign country and know nothing of the culture or language, I am bound to struggle. If I am an American and travel to a foreign country but have learned something of the language and culture, it will be far easier. This is the direction I believe that programs to aid autistic persons should be geared. Not to alter the person, but rather to help them to be themselves while also having an understanding of the ‘mainstream’ and being able to navigate through it.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.