All the talk about how Autism diagnoses have skyrocketed in the last 30 years, overlooks one key factor:
Once upon a time, the Autism Spectrum wasn’t pathologized. It was developed.
It was very much a part of life, and there were institutions and mitigators in place to help weave that neurotype into the overall fabric of life.
I was raised in an area that’s chock-full of Autistic folks. Is this abnormal? Not on your life. In fact, it’s the norm. And every aspect of growing up is/was geared towards training individuals how to be responsible members of the community. It helps that it’s a rural area, where everybody has to pitch in, no matter what, so nobody gets a pass to completely drop out of society because of any difficulties they may have. Society needs them, it’s made clear. And whatever they can do — in whatever measure — is not only needed, but required.
Take my aunt, for example. She just passed away last year, and she was probably one of the most “obviously” Autistic persons I’ve ever met. All the classic behaviors, all the classic traits… that was Aunt M. She definitely did not have an easy life, but she lived by a code that placed others first at all times. She had a quote on her dresser that effectively said, “Whatever sufferings I may have, others have it even worse. And in the end, the question is not how much I’ve gotten out of life, but what I’ve given to those who are struggling more than I.”
That’s the ethos I was raised with overall, and I can tell you that Aunt M personified that, each and every day. She had her challenges, of course. My mom had to constantly watch out for her, from the time they were both young girls, till the day she died. She was bullied, she was threatened, she was abandoned. And she had intense issues with anxiety and social interactions.
But she lived her life. She lived by principles. And in the end, he had such an important place in life, her funeral was attended by close to 100 people, many of whom relied on her for many things throughout the course of her life.
I was raised in the same way — principles. Be a responsible member of society. Put others first. Realize that others have troubles, too, and rather than thinking about what I need to get out of the social equation, I need to put myself out there and be as helpful to others as I can. It’s not about me. Yes, I have intense suffering and challenges at times. Yes, my life is a non-stop parade of pains and joys — often so intermingled, it’s hard to tell which is which. But in the end, what I contribute to the world is far more important than what accommodations I get to secure my own happiness.
Now, you might dismiss this as being some lofty approach by someone who’s not impacted all that heavily by Autism. But you’d be wrong about that. Everything I have, everything I can do, it’s all been hard-won and paid-for at a steep price. And I’ve been around long enough to realize what a toll it’s taken on me, over the years.
Does that toll matter? Nope. The bottom line, for me, is what I add to the overall human equation. I’m responsible for my corner of the universe. I have to keep it clean and orderly and do my best to not be a liability towards others. I have to keep my own suffering out of view, because what I have to give is far more important than anything I feel I need to take.
All those years, when I was in excruciating chronic pain and some days couldn’t get out of the bed… the short time I was homeless… the times when I’ve had to quit jobs and move on, because the environment was so painful I couldn’t tolerate it anymore… Through all the meltdowns, the shutdowns, the touch-is-pain moments… The one thing that kept me going was that it wasn’t only about me. I had to get up and go to work to support my household. And if I couldn’t manage a full-time job, then I had to find a regular source of income that let me work part-time and still make enough to pay my rent.
The thing that carried me through all those years of intensity and hardship, was my upbringing by parents, grandparents, and a wider community who were all Autistic. Who knew what it meant to struggle, and who still pressed on and pushed me to deal. They didn’t let me off the hook. They kept at me, and kept reminding me of what was Right, what was Wrong, and urged me to do the Right thing. Even when it was impossible, they still demanded that I do my best. No excuses. Just get on with it. Yes, life is painful and awkward, but that’s what teaching and training were all about. I had to learn. I had to be taught. I had to be raised.
There was never the assumption that kids already inherently knew the right thing to do. There was the assumption that adult life is challenging and requires skill, and like any skilled endeavor, that takes training and practice and continuous discipline. The skills I have now, which have allowed me to live a really full life and experience so much that many people only dream about, they didn’t magically emerge from my pristine primal state. They were abilities that were identified, prioritized, and emphasized as the sort of thing that all adults do.
And there was no argument.
Yes, it was tough. Yes, it was challenging. Yes, I still have leftover “stuff” from all those years of training. I was enculturated into an Autistic society, and there were Rules and Regulations for everything. It was rough, at the time, but all the hard lessons have made it possible for me to live my life… regardless.
The skills I developed at just getting on with things, for putting others first, for making the effort to be a contributing member of society — even when I was disabled — made all the difference in the world. Society has a way of looking out for those who support it and contribute, and that’s always been my “safety net”, if I even have one. I make myself useful to others. I contribute. I’m not perfect, I’m pretty weird at times, I’m Autistic, I can be pretty off-putting at times. But in the end, my goal is to make myself an asset to the world around me, not only devote myself to getting my needs accommodated.
That’s all because I was raised by Autistic folks. Those were the Rules.