Labels are for Jars, not for People

Last Updated: Thu, Apr 05, 2018 15:43 hrs
11th World Autism Awareness Day

April is designated as the World Autism Month and 2nd April 2018 was marked as the World Autism Day. As part of the World Autism Month, events and workshops are being held across the globe to create awareness and acceptance of those living with autism. 

In India, the Qutab Minar was lit up in blue to mark the day and many schools took the lead in creating sensitization about autism. This is extremely laudable because the first step in any journey is about awareness creation and events like these go a long way to help achieve the same. 

However, let us take a step back and understand what is autism? This word is used rather casually now-a-days and information got in parts from movies, books, the newspapers have all added to confusion about autism. 

First and foremost, autism is not a disease. Autism cannot and does not need to be cured. It is not an affliction that one needs to be ashamed of. It is not infectious or contagious that people with autism need to be shunned or segregated. A person with autism is not a danger to society any more than what a so called ‘normal’ person is. Sadly, incidents of discrimination happen all too often across social settings, often because of lack of knowledge and a wrong sense of superiority.  

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as unique strengths and differences. The term ‘spectrum’ recognizes the fact that there is a wide variation in challenges and strengths possessed by each person with autism.

 Unfortunately, most medical practitioners, therapists, and society at large focuses only on the challenges and forgets that each autistic person also has unique strengths. 

In simpler words, autism is a developmental difference (and not a developmental disability) that affects how people perceive, react and interact with the world around them. Given that they process information differently, they often face challenges as they do not conform to the accepted ‘norms’. But the same difference in processing stimuli also gives them the unique ability to see the world differently and come up with innovations that have the potential to change how we lead our lives. 

Had they been alive today, many of the greatest thinkers and inventors would have been diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum. They lived and worked in times that possibly were more accepting of differences and so while they all faced challenges, they still flourished. Their writings, inventions and thoughts were pathbreaking and each of them left their imprint on the world. They were often called eccentric but never labelled as being ‘developmentally disabled’. 

It is assumed with a high degree of certainty (since an official diagnosis was never done) that both Albert Einstein (Theory of Relativity) and Issac Newton (Laws of Gravity) were on the autism spectrum as they had trouble with conventional academics, social interactions and were often self-engrossed, exhibiting repetitive behavior.  The world of music owes a lot to Wolfgang Mozart – a genius, but one who may have been labelled autistic given his incessant need for movement. Charles Darwin (Theory of evolution) also demonstrated autism spectrum behavior like obsessive attention to detail and difficulties with social interactions. 

But can we call any of them as disabled or intellectually less developed? They left the world a better and richer place, because of the unique gifts they had. 

In more recent times, Satoshi Tajiri, the inventor of Pokemon is autistic. Actor Courtney Love has mentioned that she was diagnosed as having a form of autism in her childhood. Actor and environmental activist Daryl Hannah has spoken about how she has dealt with autism all her life and in her youth, doctors wanted to institutionalize her.  

Most of us lead mundane lives and we will live and die as nameless, faceless people. But because we all think similarly and follow the social norms of behavior, we think of ourselves as ‘normal’ or superior. Can we label people like Love or Hannah as disabled, even though they have achieved far more in their lives than what we can even dream of?

Think about it – what gives us, the large majority – the right to label people as ‘developmentally disabled’? Are we not scarring them for life by our insistence to classify them as being inferior to us? Autism does not define a person. It is one aspect of who they are – it is not the sum of their being. Unfortunately, in our misplaced zeal of helping people with autism, we often end up focusing only on the condition and putting the people under a microscope. Every behavior and every action is over-analyzed and commented upon. We often forget that every individual – including the so called ‘normal’ ones – have their good days and bad days, have their own peculiarities and differences. In fact, it is these differences which make the world an interesting place to live in. Otherwise, we would all be clones of each other and life would be very boring. 

People with autism need acceptance for who they are, support to help them manage challenges and encouragement to further their talents. With acceptance, support and encouragement, they all can and do live a fulfilling life of their choosing. But the onus is as much on us as it is on them – in a society where differences are shunned, only academic parameters define success and people are quick to ostracize others, how does a child who is on the autism spectrum cope? 

Labels are for Jars, not for people and certainly not for kids – who don’t have the emotional maturity or strength to handle this. Giving them a label does not add any value to their lives, but rather limits and segregates them as it defines them only by one condition – a difference in how their brain processes the world around them. 

While it is a good initiative to designate a month to create awareness and acceptance of autism, the true measure of success would be seen when such a month is not needed and the people with autism are accepted into mainstream society seamlessly. In fact, we need to appreciate them for the unique differences they have and the way they enrich our world. 
This approach was best summed up by Jerry Seinfeld (American comedian, actor, writer, producer) when he told Brian Williams on NBC’s Nightly News that he believes he’s on the autism spectrum, “I think, on a very drawn-out scale, I think I am on the spectrum. Basic social engagement is really a struggle. I'm very literal, when people talk to me and they use expressions, sometimes I don't know what they're saying. But I don't see it as dysfunctional. I just think of it as an alternate mindset."
This alternate mindset is what we need to celebrate today and every day! 

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Aditi Kumaria Hingu is a marketing graduate from IIM Calcutta, currently she works in the corporate sector. She comes from an army background.

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