Autism Fantasy, Autism Reality

Yes, autistic people face challenges, some of them severe, but to present their lives as nothing more than unrelenting tragedy and despair is simply dishonest.
11/19/2013 02:40 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

If you are the parent of an autistic child, you may be surprised to hear that you are not actually living. Yes, I'm sure it's a shock, but you can find this and many other startling statements about autism in a recent article written by Suzanne Wright, the co-founder of Autism Speaks.

According to Wright, families with an autistic child, "... are not living. They are existing." She conjures a world in which "we've for the most part lost touch with 3 million American children" who are autistic. And she claims that for families with autistic children, "Life is lived moment-to-moment. In anticipation of the child's next move. In despair. In fear of the future."

The world that Wright presents is a fantasy. Yes, autistic people face challenges, some of them severe, but to present their lives as nothing more than unrelenting tragedy and despair is simply dishonest. And stirring up fear of and pity for autistic people doesn't actually do anything to help them live lives that are far more nuanced than Wright would have it.

Given the disdain that Wright's fantasy world shows toward autistic lives, you might not expect Autism Speaks to be a funder of one of the best recent support programs for autistic children. And yet, that's exactly what happened with Keeping it Real, a website partially funded by a Family Services Community Grant from Autism Speaks. In contrast to Wright's vision, this site shows how the lives of autistic children can be improved -- with the help of autistic adults. Keeping it Real has something to teach its funder.

The site was developed in part by Lauren Hough, Kristie Koenig, and Aaron Lanou of New York University's Steinhardt ASD Nest Support Project, which provides training and on-site support for professionals working in the ASD Nest program, New York City's inclusion program for autistic students. Keeping it Real offers lesson plans, activities, and video clips for educators, therapists, and kids on the autism spectrum.

According to Hough, "We wanted to have strength-based modules that we could use to support our middle school students with autism. We were interested in activities and materials that would empower our students and help them find their strengths and voices."

But to create those materials, the ASD Nest Support Project did not turn only to education professionals. As NYU's Koenig explains, "True partnerships between academics, professionals and autistic adults will be the way to improve services and supports for all autistic individuals and the autistic voice has to be central."

For that reason, to create the website, NYU partnered with three autistic adult self-advocates: Jesse Saperstein, who developed an anti-bullying curriculum; Dr. Stephen Shore who helps students recognize and build on their strengths; and Zosia Zaks, who teaches self-advocacy. (Full disclosure: I am partnering with the NYU faculty and the self-advocates on an unrelated autism project.)

Zaks, who provides counseling services to autistic people and their families, learned the importance of self-advocacy from personal experience. "I had very little self-awareness when I was a teenager," he said. "It's not just about challenges. I had lots of strengths too, but no language. I learned to advocate for myself only by trial and error. But that took up a lot of energy and I missed out on so many opportunities."

To help autistic children learn from his experience, Zaks created materials explaining what self-advocacy is and video examples of people advocating for themselves both at school and at work. Zaks believes that self-advocacy is a vital skill because, "The Americans with Disabilities act is a self-advocacy law. Once you are an adult, it is your responsibility to ask for and to arrange the accommodations you need to work or to live in the community." And, as Zaks points out, self-advocacy is not about opting out of the community, but rather opting in. As he puts it:

Let's say you have a sensory issue at work with the intense overhead lights. If you don't even know what sensory issues are in general, and if you have no idea how to manage your specific sensory issues, you're going to encounter huge barriers to success. Advocacy skills enable you to be proactive. What do you need to get back to work?

Like Zaks, Jesse Saperstein came to an interest in bullying through personal experience. Saperstein, the author of a memoir about life with Asperger's, says, "A lot of what I do is cathartic and my curriculum is designed to give students what I needed as a young child and what would have made a difference."

Interestingly, Saperstein's personal experiences include not only an extensive history of being bullied, but also an example of when he bullied a less-popular student. Having been both victim and perpetrator, Saperstein brings expertise to Keeping it Real lessons on cyber bullying, blaming the victim, and bystanders.

In addition to his work for Keeping it Real, Saperstein speaks about bullying at schools and other organizations. He notes, "My presence is the first time the students are seeing an adult version of their fellow classmates who are often isolated or made fun of on a daily basis." To show them what life as an autistic adult can be like, Saperstein designs his work "to flaunt my eccentricities, and I typically show off silly props like a paddleball, cup-and-ball toy, and bouncy balls." He believes that "students are not given enough credit for their innate compassion. They simply need enough resources to promote this new consciousness."

Stephen Shore's work on Keeping it Real is only one of the many autism projects on which he works. An Assistant Professor of Special Education at Adelphi University, Shore openly discloses being on the autism spectrum. He comments, "Increasingly, I see individuals with autism achieving great success, fulfillment, and productivity when encouraged to follow their strengths -- to the point of becoming regional, national, and sometimes worldwide experts in their area of interests."

The work of Saperstein, Shore, Zaks, and other autistic self-advocates is inspiring. And if Autism Speaks was best known for partnering with autistic adults and funding projects like Keeping it Real, it could be an inspiring organization. Unfortunately, whatever good work Autism Speaks did in this instance is completely undermined by the tone-deaf words of Suzanne Wright. Even worse, Autism Speaks has a long history of excluding autistic voices and promoting fear and pity of autism.

An organization with the resources of Autism Speaks that was focused on working with the autistic community could fund countless projects like Keeping it Real. Rather than dismissing the lives of autistic children as hopeless, such an organization could partner with self-advocates to offer important resources that would help autistic children develop vital skills they need to make their way in the world.

Sadly, though, such an organization is currently as much a fantasy as Wright's despair-filled world. Autism Speaks remains an organization largely opposed by the very community it claims to serve.

Fortunately, we have Keeping it Real -- a site that stands as a rebuke to the founder of one of its funders. It's an odd position to be in, but I'm glad the site is there. It presumes that autistic children have strengths, and it sets out to build on them. It does so with the best resource available to children on the autism spectrum -- autistic adults. Their work will keep it real and make it better.