Saturday, April 30, 2016
Autism Awareness Month 2016: Closing Thoughts
As Autism Awareness Month draws to a close I have some thoughts I've been reflecting on. Neurodiversity is not actually a new movement. It's at least 100 years old evident by the philosophies and practices of Dr. Asperger and colleagues' work in pre-WWII Vienna:
"Asperger and Weiss worked on a ward at the Children’s Clinic founded in 1911 by a physician, schoolteacher, and social reformer named Erwin Lazar. His approach to special education would still be considered innovative today. Instead of seeing the children in his care as flawed, broken, or sick, he believed they were suffering from neglect by a culture that had failed to provide them with teaching methods suited to their individual styles of learning."[i]
But with the destruction of his clinic his work fell into obscurity and left an opening to be filled by a much darker narrative. For decades Drs. Kanner, Bettleheim, Rimland, Lovaas, (and still today) Wakefield took advantage of a populous that was vulnerable[ii] with agendas driven by ego, money, fabrication, and many more unethical practices.
Dr. Lorna Wing rediscovered Asperger's work in the 1970s and then broadened the diagnostic criteria to include people who were struggling but ineligible for services due to having no formal diagnosis. This led to an upsurge in prevalence but with it more panic. But in reading the forgotten history of autism laid out in NeuroTribes I see it as honoring Asperger by restoring the spectrum[iii] that Kanner artificially truncated. Neurodiversity advocates now are reclaiming/reviving his work. But that leads to some hazards...
"History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes" - Mark Twain
Time and again different philosophies go in cycles, falling in and out of favor. For example: educational constructivism vs. didacticism, medical vs. social models of disability, Dualism that postulates mind and body as separate entities vs. Monism[iv]. This could explain the stigma surrounding mental health when it isn’t seen as legitimate as a concrete physical ailment vs. something in the mind you supposedly control. Far too often people coping with depression etc. are told to “just get over it.”
It has been said that autism is both a difference and a disability. To avoid the vicious cycle of progress/decline we must reconcile all these views. To genuinely help people on the spectrum (and with other atypical perceptual styles) it is imperative to:
1. Identify and mitigate disabling aspects. This must be done in a way that respects individual agency.
2. Educate and advocate for tolerance and acceptance in the public consciousness of benign differences.
3. Above all, the underlying strengths that have been left by the wayside in favor of normalization must be brought to the forefront and nurtured.
With these goals in mind, this year I founded NeurodiversiTC: The Neurodiversity Initiative of Teachers College, Columbia University with the aim of reaching across departmental lines, unifying teachers, counselors, clinicians, policy makers, et al. Where this goes and how successful it will be has yet to be seen. These are not easy questions so we cannot expect easy answers but in laying out the issues we can decidedly work on them.
[i] Silberman, Steve (2015-08-25). NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (p. 84). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
[ii] And even gullible to any so-called expert with the title “doctor”
[iii] Originally phrased as a "continuum" by Asperger’s diagnostician Georg Frankl
[iv] McLeod, S. A. (2007). Mind Body Debate. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/mindbodydebate.html