The Autistic Mind: To Celebrate or Cure? (by Kate Altman)


(Note: the client described in this post gave permission; his name has been changed to protect his identity)

The other day, I was walking with a 14 year-old client, Bruce, who has Asperger’s syndrome (we take walks during sessions to get a little exercise). Mid-conversation, he suddenly stopped, pointed towards a passing car, and exclaimed, “I hate those bumper stickers!” Surprised by his outburst, I looked to where he was pointing and saw that the car featured a “cure autism” bumper sticker to the left of its license plate. I looked at Bruce quizzically, and he continued, “I’m so sick of hearing people talk about ‘curing’ and ‘fixing’ people with autism and Asperger’s. Don’t they know about neurodiversity? There is nothing wrong with us, nothing to be fixed. It makes me so angry!”

When I met Bruce a few years ago, he was a child who knew about his AS diagnosis, but never spoke of it and quickly changed the subject whenever I brought it up. When he learned that his idol, Albert Einstein, is often speculated to have had AS, Bruce’s interest was piqued and a sense of pride began to develop. Now, he boasts about his AS—he is thrilled to share cognitive features with Einstein and Bill Gates. Recently, I have noticed him making casual references to the neurodiversity movement and autism self-advocacy. Before my eyes, Bruce is blossoming into a self-aware young man who is proud of his differences and even pities us “neurotypicals” who don’t possess virtues like an intense ability to concentrate and the “black and white thinking” that helps him make sense of the world. Bruce once described his mind as being segmented into many rooms which are not connected, but in which everything is stored and accessible to him. He said it is because of these thousands of rooms that he never feels bored.

Learning about neurodiversity and viewing his AS as a neurological difference rather than a defect has helped Bruce to develop confidence, independence and the sense that he is special, even during the height of puberty and the mania that is middle school. I support neurodiversity, especially when I look at what the movement has done for Bruce. However, I can also appreciate that supporting a cure for autism is much more important to many parents than celebrating neurodiversity. After all, Bruce can speak for himself; he is also a straight-A student in his honors classes, performs in school plays and has friendships. Parents of kids with autism who don’t have language, avoid being touched, and will never live independently, face a much different and more desperate-feeling situation.

Some parents of children with autism oppose the neurodiversity movement, just as Bruce and other neurodiversity advocates oppose the “cure autism” movement. I would argue that there is room for both. We can support researchers as they look for better therapies to help individuals with autism live comfortably in this neurotypical world, while celebrating the beautiful minds that autism creates.