Commodifying Autism

by / 0 Comments / 205 View / April 3, 2015

“It’s a bit of a cliché.”

 “What? Do you mean the volunteer work with autistics? Why? I’m still helping them out!”

We ended my critique on my friend’s college essay with a terse ‘K’ from his end. On the other side of the computer, I merely felt numb. I was blunt, but that was my personality and my opinion. I felt little in common with the emotions of a probably life-changing summer experience helping autistic children read, play piano, or do acrobatics, but that was also my personality, my opinion, and an old, tired irritation.

I’m a young adult with Asperger’s Syndrome, a specific range in the autism spectrum. I am no longer a tiny child, only attractive to the legions of desperate high school students as a temporary student for random talents like reading or horseback riding. Without the fortunate existence of a safety net in a wealthy school district, I honestly would have been consigned to special education, coddled by eager resume-grubbers in youth and forgotten in adulthood. I am lucky to exist on a range – with some practice and awkward stumbles – that is acceptable to the majority. But I cannot forgive the many who extend a hand to lonely children for two months, throw them aside to write their college essays, and forget about the little boys and girls of their summer as they head off to some random prestigious university.

People on the autistic spectrum are not your tools. They are not your trophies of accomplishment and charity. They are not stepping-stones to your dream college. We live and grow with our autism, but your misplaced guilt and pity engenders the same conditions where other children mock and call us ‘weirdos’, ‘dumb’, and ‘retards.’ We are not a hook for your Ivy League acceptance. We are individuals with equally as vibrant backgrounds and ideas as the high school students writing about us.

What makes tolerating, not loving, a person with autism better than any other volunteering extracurricular? A lonely child sees an opportunity for a friend who will listen to them info-dump about sea turtles, who will wait for their clumsy fingers to adjust on a violin, who will seemingly accept them. However, these volunteers, after a tearful, melodramatic goodbye, will fatten their resumes and forget about their little students as the years go by. The alienated child is tossed from the hands of one volunteer to another over and over again until adulthood, an age of no love for autism.

According to a study done by the National Autistic Society, 27% of the respondents believed that autism is merely a childhood condition, magically erased by adulthood. In reality, autism is forever. Many adults with autism, after their primary caretakers pass away, lack the essential support and skills (no, childhood flute lessons do not help at all) to survive individually. Many of us, as we approach old age, are no longer cute to “normals”. We are no longer temporary summertime loves. We are just tolerated by others.

Then why not teach them how to function for a summer? I, on the other end of it, can honestly say it is not glamorous at all. For eight years, my days were filled with lessons on sound pronunciation, correct social manners and scolding for some abnormal behavior, like reading a book during a lesson or ignoring a teacher. I can hardly imagine how patient the special education teachers were when I forgot an hour-long lesson and continued pronouncing my -th sounds like an s. It takes work, patience, and years of time for the instructor to teach the autistic student the ‘right’ way to fit in. However, many of these eager volunteers are not willing to spend their time to teach these crucial life skills and only want a quick emotional gratification by teaching an autistic child ballet or some interesting, but ultimately unhelpful skill.

At the end of my friend’s essay about the boy named Jerry, I wondered what happened to this child in Taiwan. Does the texture of any food irritate his tongue? Does he walk around or bite his fingers to stim? Does he have one love, like airplanes, sea creatures, or boat licenses, or does he jump from one obsession to another? How far do his memories go? Jerry, how are you?

Jerry, how do you like your summertime tutor? What about the next one? And the one after that? And…  (I promise I’ll remember you.)