In the past weeks blogs everywhere have been exploding with critiques about the group I refer to as Voldemort Speaks. While it’s enjoyable to see more metaphorical allies take the field embedded in a disturbing number is the notion that one of the reasons what is being said about autism is wrong is that it is a spectrum disorder. Which it is but that doesn’t make it an ethical point.In the worst case scenarios some go on to say some people with autism lead productive lives.
I say worst case scenario because the group I don’t name is an offense to humanity. If I never wrote a single thing, or read, and if my diaper had to be changed and so on any portrayal of my life as a catastrophe, an affront, something to stop would be wrong. If I, improbably now wind up with a PhD someone pointing to me as a beacon of hope would actually be quite wrong. It isn’t usually thought of that way but it would be.
It may be an advantage of black and white thinking to see that. Every time someone refutes not only Voldemort Speaks position this way but other like minded groups, they are shoring up some disturbing notion that there is a line a human can draw at which point another human life no longer has value. I never did master the complex social skills that lead to procreation. I have though hunkered down wrapped around lives that most would view as pure misery, Wrapped around quite literally in one case as the level of uncontolled seizures that his body endured could break bones. He was at the limit of anti-convulsants that wouldn’t also kill him so there some person had to lie. He had to be held always for the same reason. He could not see, hear, speak or move in any non seizure related way. I hate to think what Voldemort speaks would say about him but thankfully he didn’t fall in their area of non-expertise.
His family, while capable of the humour that goes along with the notion that their son’s only activity was seizure activity, always treated him with such dignity and respect. They belonged to a culture where as the eldest son he had a status over his siblings and they were affluent enough to purchase the trappings of a little prince for him. He was treated that way. His father would dress him in silk pyjamas and read to him as if he could hear (many years later when fMri’s came along it would be concluded he did indeed hear something against the expert opinion until that day) I had become as someone young, and strong, with experience with medically challenging children the last hope often of any rest from truly around the clock care. I saw lots of people in situations who if anyone could lay claim to the catastrophe vision of their kids lives those people could. Yet they didn’t. While that boy occupied and extreme so too did his family. The presumed competence well before anyone was urging people to. They did it naturally it seemed. They were worn out and tired and hoped for the sake of their other children to be able to close the door on their son’s room knowing someone quite literally had his back.
I don’t know what private demon’s they had fought to reach that state in the face of everyone telling them otherwise. His father asked me once if I had seen “My Left Foot”. I said I had. He went on to say it could be possible that trapped even more deeply inside his son there could be a genius. His father was a brilliant man. He and his wife could no doubt produce one and nurture one but the neurological reality for his child was even if that had been the case new destruction was being done constantly. The human brain is resilient but actual genius is a territory rather rigidly defined and while I had absolutely no argument with treating every human as if they may be one on principal as being preferable to defaulting in the opposite area the notion he could be and would never have the physical capacity to use even the most futuristic technology to express it was a horrifying one for me. Not clearly for his father so while I found it a scary notion I didn’t question why he wanted to think that. It worked. It was his son and his view of his son and not mine to question even in the awkward position of someone point blank asking me if I agreed and being truthful to my bone I couldn’t really have an argument about it then beyond the nagging voice that wondered and if that wasn’t possible what then? As the movie was recent back then I suspect they would have been as steadfast but logical people tend to need a reason so my suspicion is they would have found another but I cannot know as I was not them. I would not presume to know what it was like to be them. I could only know what it was to care for their son. It was inspiring but not because he was rising above anything in inspiration terms. He is not much altered now from how I first met him beyond being older and now with hearing aids.
They were the most unquestionably, loving parents I had ever encountered. It no doubt helped them when staring down any expert that they were both well educated. I was troubled by the hint that some of what drove his father may have been the notion his boy could be a genius but it seemed unlikely that was anything other than a new motivation as he had asked if I had seen it not read it and they were clearly practiced in the art of presuming competence. They were the only family to ask I attempt to teach a second language to their child. I was used to having to defend wanting to teach the alphabet which didn’t seem like an option here as his hand could not be dragged though anything without caution.
They explained they had noticed their son was his most relaxed during his bath so during that time if I could work on 20 key words from their native language that was likely the best time. I was dumbfounded really. He had at the time no receptive facility at all let alone an expressive one. Years later with a lot of amplification some sound was getting in. I didn’t even work with him by then as he was too much of a challenge for my arthritic body early on even though I very much wanted to. My longest term client remarked to me having somehow remembered that I had worked with him as that had been at a time, when no one thought she herself was taking much in, that he could hear now. I asked her for details which she couldn’t really provide. She said well he has hearing aids now and sometimes he smiles when you talk to him. They like all the chocking risk students ate together so she knew this and was willing enough to talk to him although until that year it had seemed an exercise in futility. His bath had been the only thing to previously get a smile out of him so this was news indeed.
The catastrophe model of disability would have both the client who provided me with an update and the boy she described essentially as only burdens. That one did learn to talk, read, and write and use the computer in no way says to me that her life has more value than his. That I can talk most of the time if I talk at all does not make me better, that I can express my thoughts does not devalue the lives of those who cannot.
Both these children met ethical criteria for being euthanized at birth. They never called it that though. They always said that they would be kept warm and clean until nature took it’s course. That they would be hungry and thirsty never seemed to bother people. The client who was by far my highest achiever had a father who wanted this for her. As far as I know his position on it never changed. He had declared when her mother said no that should she survive he would never spend a dime on her care. Oddly enough this very position made him quite motivated to make respite care easier to access and funded. He was loving in many ways, devoted, but stubborn on the whole should she ever have lived concept.
I couldn’t grasp this either. Not because at the time his view point was first articulated she seemed necessarily likely to “amount to much”. I suppose to some degree my failure to grasp it may have come from having been another devalued life but not entirely. She was my first respite client and the author of my future years with children quite a bit more severely challenged than she was. She was also my last, despite a desire by the agency that employed me to cough up kids and adults more suited to my physical needs recently.
I never encountered any who were not human. That seems obvious but clearly not or why would anyone seek to lay out criteria by which they could simply be left to die of thirst or the consequences of treatable medical issues? Right now somewhere on the planet people who meet the dubious criteria of being high risk for having a child with autism are being urged to abort sons. They ignore the science that would suggest that very high risk group has as much as a one in two chance of having an autistic daughter. That anyone would think it was anything but an exercise in pseudoscience to tout this as screening for autism when it is nothing other than selecting based on gender will no doubt fall apart in the court of law in a few years when someone files a wrongful life suit. I use risk only because that is how it is described. Not that I agree with the terminology.
Wrongful life. I am told I could get some compensation from the producers of a pharmaceutical my mother took to ensure I was not miscarried. I could get more than most I am even told but to do so I would have to say I fall into a category of people who never should have been created. That the deficits linked to this medicine one of which is fairly central to who I am mean I should not have lived at all.
Since I snuck into the world seeming like a miracle as no one thought I had survived what looked like a full miscarriage made my parents so happy for not very long. I was escorted home gift wrapped in pink. My father had told the neighbours if a pink flag went up to come for a party but if a blue flag did I was a son. My brothers are typical or at least fairly typical. The lack of celebration for a son was not due to any fear about what that might mean but simply they had tried for a daughter. My mother wanted a daughter an unhealthy amount no doubt. She had visions for me like I suppose all mother’s do that I would never meet. She was worse than most about hiding that but did improve with time. A long time. A life time but effort is valuable.
My mother was more prone to believe what people thought about people like me which at the dawning of the 70s was not much better and in no way more accurate than the current catastrophic narrative. Having read I was incapable of loving her I may not have seemed worth much investment. It did to be sure make my own journey with what love means considerably longer. While evidence of my developmental delay can indeed be found in my pediatric chart so unpalatble was everything that went with having autism that I learned after her death my mother who had never uttered the word had told some people in recent years I had Asperger’s. For her that was progress and no doubt she viewed that as less grim despite every bit of science saying in people like myself there is no identifiable difference within diagnosed populations. Even if there was so what? They have changed what they call me 5 times now in my life if we count the flirtation with notions of residue. How would you like to be summed up as that? It seems a word usually used in unflattering ways but to be residually autistic was supposed to be great. That there was no actual thing didn’t seem to bother people or dawn on them. It was a brief experiment. That annoying people like me back skid into the more obvious variety pretty constantly even if they could read and had periods where they seemed almost undetectble from peers must have been annoying.
Back sliding is really the terminology they used as if being normal is some fixed point. As if enjoying yourself in a meaningful way were a return to something less desirable. Yeah so what. I stare at my dolls and stack my coins. If you want to extract a lack of imagination or play skills from that question your own competence. I said this in much more academic terms in a review on the literature on wheel spinning (I would have looked at play more widely but such a staggering amount of time has been spent trying to work out how to teach kids to push a car rather than spin their wheels it would not have been possible to get an A plus if I ignored the vast quantities of research there. )
I would never have taken it up with my mother how there was no better, and that to grow up knowing you had somehow failed by simply being given a label was an actual burden not the hyperbolic variety. A child even one who people doubt their ability not only to recognize emotion but to have them, is not oblivious to the pain they seem to cause their mother. That’s the problem really as much of the pain is purely imaginary. I could in fact love her. I do love her. She has died but despite being labelled in scathing ways by many she was the only mother I can have. I have had other, healthier maternal figures who did model unconditional love for me but she bore me and lived with the pain of a constant anxiety about my well-being. That much of the initial confusion about what I could and couldn’t learn was founded on ever changing notions doesn’t undo the harm those notions taking root causes.
Like any mother she did her best. Like any mother she was subject to notions of what goes with what people think about her kid. It’s definitional for mothers. Not that they go blindly along with it but that they do care. That my brother could handle a full table service before the age of 3 was also something that mattered to her. He had to as his was a more elegant time and place.
Having autism has more often than not been too hard for me. The most successful thing I did this week was a mad dash into a store to buy the three items I could get without risking coming so undone someone thought something needed to be done about me. A real risk as I was not capable of meeting any social convention beyond sticking my debit card in the machine and hammering out my pin before fleeing. I am not so oblivious as to not notice in my peripheral vision that makes people uncomfortable. I no longer care as their social discomfort at having to see me is nothing akin to needing to go there. My doctor had urged when trying to be useful to me that if crossing the street and entering the store was too much I could go to Subway (a sandwich place) and get enough for three meals at a reasonable price and safer. He too is not oblivious to having to dispatch me almost without useful support, week after week. His concern when laying out the whole so you will cross the street, enter the store, get a, b, and c, pay, leave and go home plan was evident and he faltered and offered up the alternative. I said in the kind of comment often taken for humour that for the kind of heroic effort entering anywhere was going to be I was not coming away with three meals worth of food.
This was hard. This is the sort of difficulty though that could be remedied with resources that do not seek to change me beyond making things less stressful and healthier for me. A single hour a day of someone who was actually allowed to help me shop or go shopping for me would be life altering. The only way to get that right now is to enter a program that would entail a change of doctor. He mistakenly thinks I have an abandonment issue rather than a change one. Pretty sure I do know the difference and I do honestly think he is right to think he is more useful in his usual area of expertise. He just has the misfortune of being the only hired help person to not have changed in the past 20 month so to me changing him out at a time I can’t even be counted on to do something so routine as crossing a street and entering a store seems like asking for new complications.
I’m an adult. Most people with autism are. When I read notions of not being able to house autistic children becoming adults from my slummy place it’s hard to understand where people are coming from. I am not cute. I am downright rude at times if a person opposes me in a fundamental way. I have needed to be. I am not all that sorry as it has been a useful skill.
Like every adult I was a child but unlike every adult sometimes people still do treat me like one. Sometimes it is needed. I was not bothered by my doctor taking more pains with my plan for the immediate future as someone could come along and question his competence if I had managed to die in pursuit of bread and milk and bananas. I was happy to see some sign he recognized this would be hard as sometimes I feel like I say things are hard and he says I know but nothing changes. This at least laid out some of the trickier bits. Acknowledged that the bigger store might be well beyond me. It was since two days later I consider myself to be recovering from that. It had to be done though.
No doubt someone is wondering how the heck can I say all I do here and not be able to do something “easy”. What’s easy is always in flux. Usually hanging out with my dog and computer are the easiest things of all. I actually had a home supporter worker (I get 100 minutes in theory a week) asked if I had eaten today which in 18 months of having them this time, no one ever had. Her time was up but she asked and asked if she could make me something. Technically without having bathed me anything I couldn’t make for myself she is not allowed to do. Strange and arbitrary but true. I am also in theory supposed to help her but while that was always emotionally exhausting now that it is also physically so I get a pass on that one. Since my beloved dog is a safety hazard, and must remain in another room at all times merely because he is a dog (imagine if a dog could have autism. Oh the never ending supply of untruths they could rain down on his tiny head) and I am not willing to subject him to the torment of having me out of his sight bathing even when it was needed is not going to happen. I fell a scary amount of times a few months ago because my little safety hazard needs to see me but he is my primary support I almost said person… He is my constant and devoted companion. In a world that looks at me strangely, views hospitalizing me when I get sick enough from totally avoidable stressors as somehow more the done thing than say providing more and much cheaper support, my dog is the most useful support I have. Don’t tell my doctor but my nagging abandonment issue is based on Shadow’s furry life span issue not any human being coming or going especially those the government pays. I tell him he could have done better for his human. I secretly do doubt that though as I sometimes also joke if not for the spiritual and logistical issues with being reincarnated as my dog that’s what I would be in my next life.
The problem is like for every human I know of 100 percent for sure this is likely the only life I have. It is because of that sacred. My casemanager was a bit flumoxed when trying to bring visions of eternal damnation into play should I think of killing myself when I said oh technically Jews are a bit vague on the afterlife and there was no such thing as eternal damanation for us. She seized on G-d as if thrown a lifeline despite her professed lack of belief. I had to explain well yes of course belief in G-d was fundamental but not this weird one you couldn’t fight with about things. That by definition a Jew struggles with G-d so in theory I didn’t need to submit to some other person’s version as G-d as the struggle is the point. Yes we have a few rules. All of which can be broken to save a life. There is no added exemption clause for a life like mine. I am here so my life is sacred period. No buts.
Without my faith and it’s community I may have killed myself or died from contemptible neglect of society to my needs. Sadly they use the fact my faith community so strongly helped me when it was most needed to actually further excuse any assiseance that I am technically allowed in policies that are enshrined in law.
My life, however hard, is not just as a spiritual matter worth saving but as an ethical one. As is every life. On a purely spiritual level life or the worth of a life is simply not ours to decide. On an ethical one that works for me too actually. Any slide from a position that all of humankind is equal and equally deserving of the things that sustain life if not one that people subscribe to as part of their spiritual journey, is it too much to hope some of them appreciate the danger they put themselves and others in when they depart from that point?
Returning to autism. The fact that some do become taxpayers is not the reason we say to Voldemort Speaks that no you may not catastrophize our condition and rob us of our humanity. Please no one ever think I am more deserving of not having my humanity ripped from me than someone lying on a mat in a developing country who never says a word. If you wish to oppose this group please do so but don’t grasp at things that by your having reached for them devalues people.