Prejudice & Autism

Emma and I have been discussing the civil rights movement and the events throughout American history that led up to it.  We’ve discussed the word segregation and what it means to a society when we isolate a group of people and how people come to form opinions about other people they’ve never met.

We have discussed the word prejudice  and how it is preconceived opinions based on an idea rather than factual.  We’ve talked about how those preconceived ideas almost always do harm.  We’ve discussed oppression and how many who’ve been oppressed internalize that message and how it changes how they then view themselves.

Emma has asked to read a biography of Harriet Tubman and we have been discussing the importance of Rosa Parks and her decision to not give up her seat on a crowded bus in Montgomery, Alabama.  We have not yet talked about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Thurgood Marshall, though Emma wrote that she has heard of the first two, and for all I know, may know of all three.

When I asked Emma to write something about Harriet Tubman, she wrote, “defender of freedom.”  This was a couple of months ago and I was shocked because the only time I’d mentioned Harriet Tubman to Emma was about three years ago.  I had read one of those beginning readers to Emma about Harriet Tubman before bedtime. And while I always hoped she might be listening, even if only a little, I wasn’t convinced she understood what I was reading.  This was during those years before I realized Emma understood everything.  It was during those years when I believed what I was being told, that my daughter was only able to understand the most basic concepts, and even those, it was often questioned just how much she understood.

Prejudice is when we form opinions about people, that are not based in fact. Prejudice makes us blind, it twists our minds into thinking we understand or know, even when we do not.  It can make us deny facts, or decide that what is true, is not real.

As Emma never indicated that she was listening, much less taking everything in, I often wondered.  But a couple of people had encouraged me to “act as if” and so I did my best.  I remember when I read the biography of Helen Keller and later she asked me to read it to her again.  Still, despite the now obvious evidence, I doubted and even when I wasn’t actively doubting, I wondered.  Often.  It was as though I could not make the mental leap to believe what increasingly seems obvious in retrospect.  Prejudice is like that, it fools us into believing we understand things about a group of people that we do not.

As James H. Cone writes in his book Black Theology & Black Power – “How should I respond to a world which defines me as a nonperson?”  And later in the same book, he writes, “A man is free when he can determine the style of his existence in an absurd world; a man is free when he sees himself for what he is and not as others define him.”

Emma in Colorado - 2010

Emma in Colorado – 2010

18 responses to “Prejudice & Autism

  1. “A man is free when he can determine the style of his existence in an absurd world; a man is free when he sees himself for what he is and not as others define him.” James H. Cone is right. Your daughter is gifted and she is a gift. You are both very blessed. It is so important, not to get trapped into a victim mindset. It is easy to let other people’s prejudices define our response to the world around us. It is much more freeing to choose whether we are going to teach or ignore the ignorant prejudices around us. Saying “Whatever” and moving on can be just as healing as saying, “My daughter has autism, what can we teach you about it?” or some other kindness. Do whatever works for you. Staying calm and realizing that some behaviors are going to seem strange, confusing, and sometimes annoying to others, will save you both from cortisol overload and eventual health concerns. Since Emma is so aware, you might be able to explore with her which behaviors she wants to keep and which behaviors she might be willing to change. I love this blog. Emma is truly sharing hope.

  2. If you don’t mind my asking, which Helen Keller biography did you read? There are SO many different ones and I’m ALWAYS looking for new books to read Mia. If you have a chance let me know. Thanks!!

    (And, as usual, this post is brilliant.)

  3. “How should I respond to a world which defines me as a nonperson?”

    James Cone is a dear friend of ours and he’s been over to our house many times for dinner. I asked him to “say grace” at Thanksgiving this year because “you seem to know what you’re doing.” We also hosted a book party for his last (amazing and powerful) book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”. It’s a very tough read. When I saw him I said, “You know James, after reading this I just don’t feel so good about being a white man anymore” which cracked him up.

    In all seriousness, his life growing up in the Jim Crow deep south is truly inconceivable from this white man’s perspective. Imagine living day after day with the fear that you could be tortured, tarred and & feathered and lynched at the whim of a mob for whatever reason they saw fit (sometimes just “looking the wrong way” at a white woman). James has spoken with us at length about these experiences and about the prejudice against people like our daughter. Autistic people. Particularly, autistic people who are non-verbal or speech impaired.

    If you don’t think the parallels are apt, this video about the Judge Rothenberg Center is convincing:

    It’s an extreme example of where the “non-person” perspective leads: dehumanization=persecution. It extends far beyond the horrific cases of autistic kids who were electroshocked for tearing a paper cup apart. I can’t go for a walk anywhere outside the house without Emma being subjected to dirty looks from people for her atypical behavior. And that’s in New york City, with supposedly one of the most liberal/intellectual populations in the world!

    When Ariane and I got beyond the “cure” mode and found acceptance, it was like a huge weight had been lifted from us as parents. But there’s still another huge weight holding Emma down, and it’s not her autism. It’s the prejudice of others who think of her and treat her as “less than,” as incapable, as mentally impaired (speech impaired does NOT equal mental deficiency)–as a non-person.

    • Richard, I was just talking with a friend about this the other day–how often, when someone is defined as “severely” or non-communicatively autistic, it is NOT actually that fact that denies them quality of life–because most of those difficulties can be at least mitigated to some extent–but that everyone around them has decided that they’re not a real person and that they don’t need to be treated like a real person.

    • We are really lucky to have so many amazingly brilliant people in our lives, James being one of them.
      Whittling away at prejudices one blog post at a time… 🙂

  4. There was a (in my opinion) wonderful documentary about the Disability Rights Movement made by PBS. It’s called “Lives Worth Living”. It is about folks with many different types of disabilities, but it definitely speaks to the ideas of prejudice, power and civil rights. Might be something you’d like to check out 🙂

  5. My 2 yr old grandson seems to understand things very well, but does not talk to us. Do you think he might be autistic?

    • Linda it’s impossible to say. You might want to find a good pediatrician who can help direct you to people who could get him evaluated. A good neurologist, one who knows about the work by the neuroscientists, Henry and Kamila Markram would be ideal.

    • Also a simple precursor is to run through the free M-CHAT screening test online, takes 10 minutes.

  6. Ariane, I work in a school district which does not allow us to use FC or RPM because they are not ‘evidence-based’. They hire teachers right out of ABA graduate schools. However, they hired me as a DIR/Floortime specialist and I am working hard to change the culture. I do presume competence and I believe that the students do understand everything we adults say, soI strive for quality in my interactions. However, I am constantly wishing I could do more, or motivate the parents to do more!

    • It’s unfortunate that “evidence-based” does not include the way hundreds of kids are learning and writ ing, as Emma is learning to do. It’s incredible to think that all those kids – Ido, Nick, Joey, Oliver, Phillip, Jack, Sarah, Naoki and countless others are all being dismissed because what they are writing is apparently not “evidence”. We live in such a ridiculously messed up world… it’s incredibly depressing.
      Good for you for striving to do what you can in such an environment.

  7. It’s so inspiring that Emma demonstrates not only that she is learning facts but that she is understanding the implications and thinking about what they mean. That isn’t taught in schools. It’s neglected although I believe it is the most important skill of all: to be a critical thinker, to evaluate what you encounter against the filter of your own knowledge and morality. To acquire that takes a combination of innate intelligence and a stimulating environment. It is clear to me that you are feeding Emma’s mind a healthy, balanced diet and she seems to be thriving on it.

  8. beautiful post 🙂

  9. Reblogged this on Spectrum Perspectives and commented:
    “Prejudice makes us blind, it twists our minds into thinking we understand or know, even when we do not. It can make us deny facts, or decide that what is true, is not real.” Ariane Zurcher

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