"I'M NOT RETARDED I'M SMART NOT A MENTAL GIANT BUT I AM INTELLIGENT" These are the words that were communicated to me by a 16-year old young man whom I was visiting in his rural high school classroom on a crisp and wintry January morning. Like most teens his age, he took classes in keyboarding and computers, and was a fluent two-handed typist. But his classroom was anything but typical; it was for kids in Special Ed, and my new friend was autistic and virtually mute, a man of very few words. And yet the words he conveyed upon our first meeting were a declaration to belie his physical appearance in favor of presuming an intellect intact.
It was a credo I had heard -- or rather read -- from countless others before him; those who felt the need to qualify their unconventional mannerisms, vocalizations, and assorted neurological blips, disconnects and misfires by imploring, in essence, "Don't trust your eyes. This isn't really me. See past my deceiving exterior, see beyond my label." And indeed, I always assure them that I see clearly their gorgeous humanity and profound potential.
The desire to simply be welcomed and accepted is universal to all human beings, but there are those among us that struggle in the endeavor for worthiness -- to be considered whole and complete and competent. Still, while I've enjoyed a career as someone who intuitively connects to those on the autism spectrum, I knew that this concept of presuming intellect was not exclusive to people with autism. Upon becoming conscious of it, I realized that an assumption for incompetence of those with different ways of being surrounds us with glaring reality throughout each day. It shows in the way others publicly avoid the brightly beaming man with Down syndrome; or the adult son who berates his elderly mother compromised by dementia; or the impatience with which people tune out the person who stutters; the small child everyone thinks wants to be tickled, swung through the air, hair tousled; or the individual who is blind that truly is capable of ordering her own meal instead of the server deferring to her companions with, "And what will she have?"
It extends even to the infant who struggles to make her needs known in the ways only she knows how to, as explained by my friend Evelyn: "My granddaughter usually takes a nap by falling asleep on my shoulder after letting me know that she is tired by rubbing her eyes. On this day, she looked at my shoulder and started alternately bucking her head into my chest and pushing me away. Instead of personalizing her behavior by thinking "She misses her mother," or blaming it on entering the terrible twos early, or thinking she's overly tired, I decided that she was communicating to me that I had overloaded one of her senses. I looked down at my bright orange ribbed sweater and decided that either the color or texture were not soothing and conducive to falling asleep. I covered my shoulder with a cloth diaper, patted it and said 'soft.' She looked at the diaper, at my face, back at the diaper, and then laid her head down and went to sleep."
In reflection of our neurological brotherhood, if we embrace the philosophy of presuming intellect we are in a position to become agents of transformation. We have become a culture that elevates perfectionism to exalted heights, which is an unrealistic and potentially damaging aspiration. When we acknowledge the kinship we share with one another, we are most apt to value diversity in our lives within the context of mutual respect, co-collaboration for greater good -- and the presumption of intellect. This is the proper response to autism.
It's not too late. But time is of the essence in recognizing this most salient truth about the autistic experience. I hear too regularly from individuals with autism who are suffering... suffering not from autism, but from the abhorrent prejudices of others that seek to further distance our humanity from one another. As a result, too many people with autism are severely depressed and contemplating suicide, absent compassionate understanding and devoid of an inner knowing that purports great purpose. I should know, given my own version of autism.
It was a quiet, inner voice that kept me safe from any real harm in my formative years, a voice with spiritual origins that I often discounted. But it was this small, still voice that prevented me from taking my own life in adolescence due to the social pressures of non-conformity; and it is this voice to which I now owe reverence for enlightening me with the spiritual reserve to persevere. So when this voice spoke to me again recently, I listened intently to its secret call. It yielded a message of optimism amidst adversity, and of the need to stay the course in advocacy of those without a voice. It concluded with a nourishing affirmation, "Peace within, brother tell." And so I'll carry forth continuing to tell what is right and true and good and kind, desiring to share a creed of acceptance.
Won't you join me?