Officially, April is National Autism Awareness Month, which directly follows National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month in March. Although awareness of autism and the burdens it can sometimes bring has probably increased substantially in the past 10 or 15 years, it is not as evident that understanding and acceptance of people affected by autism have increased to a comparable extent.
A recent article by Erika Hayasaki that appeared during the month of February describes the life of an adult, JM, with autism in his late 50s and raises a critical issue relevant to many adults with developmental disabilities. Ms. Hayasaki describes JM's activities, which include writing a blog and corresponding with several well-known autism researchers. JM has also written 25 short stories and three novels. Nevertheless, JM has not had steady employment, suffers from severe loneliness and reports that he is still bullied in some settings.
JM has written openly about his suffering and his desire to find a curative treatment for his autism. One result of publicly expressing his wish to be "cured" is that self-described advocates for individuals with autism have attacked JM, sometimes quite viciously. They vilify him for daring to make known his views about a desire for effective autism therapy because they fear that public acknowledgment of his quest will undermine their efforts to achieve acceptance for themselves or, in the case of parents of affected individuals, their children. The attitude appears to be that JM's right to pursue his life aims as he sees fit should be held hostage to the needs of others seeking greater acceptance of autism-associated traits or behaviors.
These critics argue that society should change to be more accepting and supportive of people with developmental disabilities such as autism. In their view, traits associated with autism or other developmental disabilities are better regarded as differences within the normal range of variation as opposed to types of pathology. The term neurodiversity is used to provide a label for their movement and is intended to promote their claim that society should accept people with a range of patterns of neurological functioning.
Neurodiversity proponents are certainly correct in asserting that society has enormous room for improvement in living up to the sentiments expressed by President Reagan when, in 1987, he proclaimed that March would be National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. Reagan stated: "I urge all Americans to join me in according to our fellow citizens with such disabilities both encouragement and the opportunities they need to lead productive lives and to achieve their full potential." From direct observation in part, I can confidently state that many, although certainly not all, adults with autism and other developmental disabilities are not given the opportunity to achieve their full potential and sometimes are denied even the chance to lead decent lives. So I have sympathy for the concern expressed by neurodiversity advocates about the tendency of some fellow citizens to regard any trait that diverges from the typical in a negative light.
However, the critics of JM do not take sufficient account of the extraordinary range of autism-related manifestations when they presume, based on rather limited knowledge of JM's condition and circumstances, to tell him the source of his problems and what he is permitted to think or say about his own needs and desires. The contradiction between their commitment to seeking acceptance for a greater range of personality traits and behaviors and their condemnation of individuals who deviate from their views is remarkable and might be amusing except that it probably exacts a substantial and undeserved toll on targets, such as JM, of their disapprobation.
But even putting aside any issues related to neurodiversity, no one should expect to dictate to others what medical care they should seek or to speak about publicly. No one other than a particular individual can appropriately weigh the potentially numerous and difficult to quantify considerations that would be involved in decisions of such a highly personal nature. To attempt to do so is an affront to human dignity.
My impression from what I have read about JM and a brief correspondence is that he wishes to find relief for what he finds difficult about his current circumstances. I do not believe he has any intentions of demanding that other affected individuals must seek the same treatments, should they materialize in the future, that he would gladly try.
Neurodiversity supporters should pursue their goals but make room for JM and those like him, who may be quite numerous. JM and others who seek to reduce their suffering should be permitted to live their lives according to their own best judgments or their judgments in concert with supportive family members or friends. Otherwise, these activists will undercut their important mission by demonstrating their own inability to tolerate diversity in perceptions or goals.