Bruno Youn ’19

The Identity Crisis of Autism

I was diagnosed with autism at age four (not Asperger’s syndrome, which was still being diagnosed at the time). From a young age, everyone told me that I didn’t have any handicap and that I was simply different. But the widespread perception of autism as a disease says otherwise. Entire organizations have been founded on this mentality. For instance, one of the many rubber wristbands that I saw on the arms of my fellow students when I was a senior in high school read “Talk About Curing Autism,” the name of the group that produced them.

I have witnessed misguided activists declare that vaccines are to blame and that curing autism is as simple as getting rid of them. By and large, people seem to want a cure. This emphasis on eradication became more understandable as I became aware that I am among the most socially functional people on the spectrum. In other words, many who are diagnosed with autism do not have the social capability or practical skills to do well in college, let alone Claremont McKenna. Some cannot speak at all or take care of themselves on a day-to-day basis. I must acknowledge that I am not representative of those diagnosed with autism.

Imagine for a moment, however, that a complete cure for autism, with no harmful side effects, were developed and readily available. I am not certain whether I would accept it. On one hand, a cure would mean that I would be able to recognize people by their face and avoid the endless social faux pas. I would be rid of much of the social anxiety I experience. But it would eliminate a major component of my identity. My mother once described my condition as having a rotary engine for a brain, as opposed to everyone else’s V6 or V8. A cure would mean scrapping the rotary engine and replacing it with a V6 or V8. Perhaps the rotary engine could prove useful to me or to others in ways that other types of engines cannot.

I thus face an identity crisis. Am I disabled or differently abled? How, if at all, should I adapt to a society that was not built for people like me? When I ask myself these questions, two parts of me begin to debate. One, which I will call Collectivus, emphasizes service to society and destruction of the social barriers that autism erects. The other, which I will call Uno, advocates for acknowledging that autism is an essential characteristic of mine. A debate might proceed as follows:

Moderator: You both have 30 seconds to make your opening statements. Collectivus?

Collectivus: Thank you, moderator. We have to acknowledge that autism has hindered our social skills and that we need to refine them. If we help ourselves where autism crippled us, we will preserve our dignity. But, most importantly, we will contribute more to society and have the right to feel proud of it.

Moderator: Thank you, Collectivus. Uno?

Uno: People have noticed and will continue to notice that we repeat ourselves sometimes when it is undue and that we speak in a monotone. Our greatest efforts to learn quote-unquote “proper” social skills have only locked us into a never-ending conflict with society. Our autism is a difference, plain and simple, and anyone who does not accept it as such should not be of our concern.

Moderator: Thank you, Uno. Collectivus, what do you mean by “dignity”?

Collectivus: Dignity is recognizing autism as the burden it is to not only ourselves, but everyone we meet. We are undignified if we use our diagnosis as an excuse to not improve ourselves.

Uno: If we think that we can blend into society while still being ourselves, we are mistaken and arrogant. By conforming to these arbitrary norms, we die. That monotone voice, that repetition, that is who we are.

Collectivus: You wish to surrender, Uno? Surrender to an accident of genetics and environmental factors? How fatalistic are you? What, are you going to say next that there is no purpose in frequenting the gym because genetics partially determine our physique?

Uno: You’re the one surrendering, Collectivus. You’re the one saying that we should conform. What’s so abhorrent about us as we are? Who is harmed when we repeat ourselves unnecessarily? No one!

Moderator: All right, settle down. Uno, why do you think our autism will always be noticeable?

Uno: Do you remember that time when our economics professor asked us if we were okay when we started fidgeting in class? Then, how we explained that we’re on the autism spectrum and that nothing was wrong? She understood!

Collectivus: She meant well. We’re not social outcasts. Nobody knows that we have autism unless we explicitly inform them!

Uno: But not everyone who notices tells us that they do. So who knows how many people see something different about us? Who knows how many see us as a freak, an anomaly? All we need to do is to explain that we have autism and they’ll understand!

Moderator: If I may interject, what’s preventing us from acknowledging that we are different while simultaneously improving the way we communicate? There’s a false dichotomy here.

Uno: If we’re interviewing for a job one day and our body gestures are noticeably odd, how else would we explain it to the interviewer? We have to choose, and the right choice is to disclose. If we let the interviewer know, we’ll be understood. They’ll forgive our idiosyncrasies and we’d be saved so much stress trying to be perfect!

Collectivus: But disclosure works against us! Employers will perceive us as a liability if they know of our diagnosis of autism, and we cannot afford to lose employment opportunities by our loose lips. Every job worth having involves face-to-face interaction, and we will not be hired if employers believe that we cannot socialize effectively.

Uno: Well, they’re wrong. Also, I’m pretty sure that’s illegal!

Collectivus: Legal or not, they will still judge us.

Uno: We can change that! Take that employer to court and —

Collectivus: How would we prove it?

Moderator: Calm down, calm down! Okay —

Uno: You call me fatalistic when you’re the one saying that we’re doomed to be discriminated against? I know what really motivates you, Collectivus. You just want to learn to follow more of these arbitrary social norms so that you can brown-nose your way to some soulless job. Sure, we’d get paid well, but that will mean nothing if we aren’t ourselves.

Collectivus: It’s called networking, Uno. Networking. It is a skill we must master if we are to prosper. By serving society through our work we make ourselves happy as well. Getting paid well signifies that we are contributing to society. Elementary economics.

Uno: No, it doesn’t!

Moderator: All right, this is getting out of control. I advance my point again. Why must we choose between seeing autism as a disability and a difference?  

Collectivus: What I propose is that we become functional by eliminating the aspect of autism that inhibits us. After we do so, we will be indistinguishable from a neurotypical person, one upon whom autism was not inflicted. Even if there is a residual difference, it would be meaningless. There would be no social value in it.

Uno: Wrong again, Collectivus. How many times have we received the compliment that we “see things that others don’t”? So many! That has to be useful to someone! It’s certainly useful to us.

Collectivus: But our autism may not necessarily grant us that ability. It may be some other trait of ours.
Uno: Autism affects everything about us! It has to play some role!

Collectivus: No, it does not.

Uno: Yes, it does!

Moderator: And…done. That concludes our debate for now. We have more urgent matters to attend to; our next class starts in five minutes and we’re still in our dorm…

        I do not fully sympathize with Collectivus, Uno, or even the moderator. To this day, I have not decided whether to erase or embrace autism.