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Autism and Super-Heroes

Several years ago, I was in Pennsylvania, and a man approached me in a grocery store parking lot.  The man had buzz-cut gray hair, a few days' growth of beard, and shabby clothes.  Clearly homeless.  He walked with an odd gait, didn't make eye contact, and he said, a little too loudly, that he would like some money for food or for the bus as a cold wind swirled around both of us.

My heart twisted inside my chest.  It was clear to me the man was autistic.  After living with my son Aran for so long, I recognize the condition elsewhere in seconds.  I realized I was staring at Aran's future.

When people think of autism, two images spring to mind.  The first is of a cute child with a piping voice who probably gets bullied at school.  The second is of a super-hero.

We see on TV shows and news stories about autism a lot of children who need help.  The children are adorable.  They say odd things or act in odd ways, and the adults watching think, "Oh, that poor thing.  We need to help!"  Once they know a child is autistic, they show patience and understanding.  They want special education services in the schools and other services beyond the school.

We also see on TV shows the image of the autist as super-hero.  Adult autists, both real and fictional, show amazing powers.  Temple Grandin designs animal-friendly cattle chutes, sees the world in visual chunks, and goes on speaking tours.  Kim Peek (on whom RAIN MAN was based) has an eidetic memory.  Sheldon Cooper from THE BIG BANG THEORY (who has never been officially acknowledged as autistic but who shows all the symptoms) is a world-class physicist.

Here's the problem.  The media always--ALWAYS--wants to show people as getting help or as succeeding.  No one wants to end the broadcast on a downer: "And, despite everyone's efforts to help, Alvin is now homeless, begging for spare change at the bus station."  The children we see on TV shows inevitably get help, and the viewers are left with the vague idea that they'll be all right in the end.  Autistic adults are portrayed as having successful full-time jobs where they're such highly-regarded experts, everyone is forced to accept their odd behavior.  They even have friends.  And the audience says, "Well, see?  Autistic people do just fine.  They have super powers."

The problem is, they don't.

Only a few autists actually have a savant talent, and the majority of those talents don't lead themselves to a successful career.  Aran, for example, has perfect pitch, but that won't land him a job anywhere.

In fact, less than 10% of adult autists actually work at all, let alone full-time.  It's hard for autists to find work--most can't get past the job interview.  The hiring manager might be the nicest person in the world, but she'll still be put off by someone who strides into the office and booms, "This is my new job!"

Most adult autists live on disability, or with relatives, or both.  Some live in group homes or institutions.

And a big chunk are homeless.

Aran can live with me for as long as he needs to, but I won't be around forever, and I'm watching the social safety nets in this country disintegrate a little more every day.  Although there's a lot of help around for autistic children, these children grow into teenagers and then adults, and there's very little help for them.

While the media have helped bring autism into the spotlight, they have also given many Americans the false impression that with minimal help, autistic children grow into slightly odd but perfectly functional adults.  They don't.  They often need help and supervision all their lives, and that costs money.  The trouble is, these autists aren't cute children with big eyes.  They're adults moving into middle and old age.  They don't dress fashionably, they walk funny, and their voices have a strange lilt.  And when it comes to adults, we have this idea that they should shape up, try harder, do the right thing.  They've had a lifetime to learn how.  Why don't they?  It must be laziness or foolishness that makes them that way.

If you ask people flat-out if they believed the above, they deny it, of course, and profess compassion or pity.  But left to their own devices, they'll sidle to the other side of the room.

I took the man from the parking lot inside the grocery store and bought him a hot drink at the bakery, then gave him $20.  It was all I could do for him right then.  He shouted a thank-you and shuffled down the cookie aisle.  I watched him go, thinking of Aran and trying not to cry.

One day Aran will graduate high school.  I don't know what'll happen then.  He says he wants to go into finance or manage a hotel.  If he can get through college and survive a job interview.  Perfect pitch won't help him.

There are no autistic super-heroes.



Apr. 29th, 2012 09:55 pm (UTC)
Steven's second cousin Sandy.
I agree cathshaffer. My ex became schizophrenic shortly after I married him and the illness quickly progressed. I am disabled from his extreme abuse. He lives in a group home, one for people who become violent. He has been in the home/s for 22 years. He does not have the opportunity to make a sandwich, get a cold drink, or eat foods he likes. If anyone gets him anything, before the day is through they are stolden by other residence.
The med's they give him on a regular basis make him a different more insane person. When he is hospitalized for medical purposes the meds they give him or take away from him make him return to his sane self, once he goes back to the home, he again is gone. To see him it is not a pretty picture.
I cannot have any sort of regular contact with him, I am one of the person's that he displays his undredictable violence on.
People wonder how I could still care. He is mentally ill.....no cure, no control. Not a pretty picture.
Apr. 30th, 2012 01:40 am (UTC)
Re: Reality
I'm so sorry to hear this, Sandy. It's a really bad disease.

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