The Autism Rights movement seeks to establish the premise that autism is a variation in functioning rather than a disease to be cured. It encourages those diagnosed with autism, their caregivers and society in general to think of people with autism as a separate identity rather than people with atypical brain function. It is a social movement that falls within neurodiversity and disability rights movements.
These are all technical definitions of something that has always been incredibly personal.
Spearheaded by Ari Ne’eman, a man who has Asperger syndrome, the movement gained traction in the 21st Century. Only 29 years old, Ne’eman co-founded the Autistic Self Advocacy Network in 2006 and was recently appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the National Council on Disability. He thinks of autism as a neurological difference rather than a medical problem, in the traditional use of the phrase. He was quoted as saying, in an interview in 2009 to Claudia Kalb, “Autism is not a medical mystery that needs solving. It’s a disability, yes, but it’s also a different way of being, and “neurodiversity” should be accepted by society.”
What exactly does all this mean for autistic people?
It means that advocates of autism rights demand that they are included within discussions about their own future, both on the individual and public levels. It means that they want better inclusion and acceptance of autistic people within school and in the workplace. It means that they discourage use of the terms, ‘high-functioning’ and ‘low-functioning.’ TO explain the last: “We oppose the practice of separating Autistics into high- and low-functioning groups, which incorrectly suggests that people function at the same level across all areas. Each of us has a unique set of skills and challenges; a person who requires assistance in one area does not necessarily lack ability in another.”
But the autism rights movements goes back a long way: the first person to articulate the autism-rights position, Jim Sinclair, has produced only a few page-long essays. In his seminal invective, “Don’t Mourn for Us,” from 1993, he wrote, “It is not possible to separate the autism from the person. Therefore, when parents say, ‘I wish my child did not have autism,’ what they’re really saying is, ‘I wish the autistic child I have did not exist and I had a different (non-autistic) child instead.’ Read that again. This is what we hear when you mourn over our existence. This is what we hear when you pray for a cure. This is what we know, when you tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.”
This former statement is incredibly significant as scientists get closer to uncovering the gene responsible for autism. Many critics of the autism rights movement advocate termination of foetuses that have the potential to be born autistic. Their position is that Ari Ne’eman and his supporters are ignoring the severe cases or those higher up in the autism spectrum.