Look to the Autistics

The autistic brain is not malformed nor diseased. It isn’t something to be pitied or corrected. Our brains just happen to be different from yours. That doesn’t make the autistic brain wrong. It does, however, make it somewhat incompatible with a world, a society, constructed by human brains.

Is it any wonder that the autistic brain–and the person containing it–can sometimes struggle? We’re plaid, trying to exist in a striped world. We clash a little. Both patterns work. They’re just slightly incompatible. And there’s a lot more of you guys.

When you go out looking for a chicken and you find a duck, you wouldn’t say, “Well, that’s an odd looking chicken. Poor thing.” It’s not wrong. It’s just not what you were expecting.

Embrace the duck.  Listen for the quacking. It can be a nice change from all the clucking going on in the human hen house. Not only that. We may not lay eggs as efficiently as you. But man, can we swim!

Autism is classified as a disability, and in some ways, in this human world, it is. But I encourage you to, at least, also consider it to be a hyperability.

We autistics can see patterns and details you likely miss. We can think thoughts and devise solutions that might never occur to you. We’re mental bulldogs. Once we latch onto a problem, we won’t let go until we’ve got the answer. And usually that answer will be elegant, logically consistent, presented in a manner that is visually stunning and, not coincidentally, deeply satisfying to us. When it comes to problem solving, our minds are all in, no matter how long it takes.

You might be concerned when we disappear into a cave, sorting facts, looking for patterns, weighing options, perceiving hidden threads and discovering optimal pathways. We could be silent for hours, days, or weeks–not coming out into the sun–as the solution holistically self-assembles in our brains. Often the most difficult part is devising the means to explain what’s now obvious to us to humans.

We may not show intermediate results, or give a sign that we’re making progress. But be patient. Be accepting of a different kind of problem solver. And be prepared to be amazed.

And expect candor. Autistics are not very good tongue biters. We tell it like it is–the unvarnished truth. Plain facts are gorgeous compared to nuanced posturing, better than messages shaped to be palatable to the audience.

Expect that. Appreciate that. Want that. And encourage that.

I have some advice for the US Congress. You’ve got big problems to solve. Look to the autistics. For businesses, struggling to cope with the challenges of the global economy, I offer the same: we, your autistic colleagues, can help.

If you are looking for novel ideas, look for someone who thinks differently than you–not someone who holds a different opinion, but someone who literally thinks differently. That’s the path to innovation, to solutions you would never consider.

If you need to think outside the box, find somebody who studies boxes, who observes them in minute detail, who collects and catalogs them. Look for someone who has a profoundly different view of the world, who appreciates not just vast categories of information, but the categories themselves, who sees the fine structure others overlook. We see the connections, the dependencies, the consequences. We see the trees without losing sight of the forest. We see the details you miss. Trust me, I know. I’ve spoken with you.

We’re already in your think tanks and congressional budget offices. We’re the analysts and wonks you depend on. We’re your engineers and designers. We see through your posturing and wishful thinking, your self-delusion, to the facts. We know that to solve any of the real problems, everyone has to sacrifice something, but that there is a point of optimal balance and it’s not always in the center.

We can compromise, but not for political expediency. We do it because no one stated position is likely to be the best. We don’t care if we’re the ones to blink first, because solutions are just about the facts. Evasion and lying don’t come naturally to us. We’re not good at politics because that sort of compromise is about appeasing non-rational feelings of humans, not reaching an optimal middle ground on the merits.

While Congress might be much more effective if there were a significant autistic population there, it isn’t likely to happen. Beyond electability, political life is not attractive to autistics. Dealing with people all day–constituents, lobbyists, the press, other politicians–while possible for an autistic who has studied human behavior and knows how to play the game, takes enormous energy with little personal reward. That’s not to say there aren’t good autistic leaders. Forthright vision is nobody’s exclusive domain. Power is broadly attractive. Autistics, though, would much rather be accepted, recognized and elevated because we’re correct and effective, rather than because of posturing or political maneuvering.

Would autistics make good politicians? Could one ever be elected president? I hesitate to say never, but we come with particular baggage. A presidential candidate today is likely unelectable if he or she simply passes through a room recently occupied by a mental health professional, let alone having an acknowledged brain disorder. I can see the negative campaign ads now: Who do you want to be woken up in the middle of the night: candidate Gladhandy or the other guy who will be fascinated by the shape and color of the nuclear button and forget to press it? Who do you trust more, the smiling, warm person who kisses babies or that misfit rocking himself in the corner?

Autism, in reality, is not a spectrum, but rather a landscape. There isn’t a single autistic dimension. We’re all over the map. Some of my brethren in this varied, uneven terrain are unable to participate at the level I’ve been speaking of. I grieve for them. The lives of most can improve, often significantly. We need to give them and their families all the support they need. But, for those who are currently capable, either marginally or robustly, society misses out on a ready, willing resource by overlooking us.

Drop your misconceptions. We’re not all Rain Men or startling social misfits. Some of us even pass well for humans. Beneath the veneer of the socially acceptable persona some autistics have been able to construct, lies an opportunity for everyone: a different mind.

Here’s the catch. There’s a good chance we’re not going to volunteer. Seek us out. We might try to fade into the woodwork, to find our little comfortable niche and toil there, industrious and undisturbed. Don’t let that happen. Find a way to include us, gently, with understanding. Treat this valued resource as a delicate treasure, one capable of contributions literally beyond your imagination. I am not asking you to do all the work. We’re ready to work with you, if you but look for us. Open your mind to another sort of mind. I promise, you won’t regret it.

[Note: I don’t usually speak for a group, as neither I nor anyone else can be considered representative of the autistic community. Everyone is different. This piece clearly makes generalizations. My goal is to highlight the positive aspects of autism, to shine a light on some neighborhoods in the autistic landscape. No offense is intended, especially to those whose struggles are profound. I want to be able to say positive things about autism. This is but a start.]

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11 Responses to Look to the Autistics

  1. Gwennifer August 21, 2015 at 8:35 am #

    Another great post. Six years ago when my son was first dx’d by his pediatrician, there was no point of view I could relate to on the web. Fortunately my husband and I saw my son for what he was, the latest version of us. It’s finally nice to have blogs like yours, books like Uniquely Human to read.

    • Jim August 21, 2015 at 9:52 am #

      Thank you, Gwennifer. I’m glad I can help provide some of that balance.

  2. Bek August 26, 2015 at 12:36 am #

    Yes! Yes! Yes! Thank you for this piece. positively energizing!

    • Jim August 26, 2015 at 6:51 am #

      I’m glad it affected you in that way, Bek. I do occasionally try to focus on the positive, rather than my challenges, or those of the larger community. Every piece I write is a distorted view of the universe through a particular lens. But then, the same is true for anything ever written, spoken or remembered by anyone. We only glimpse.

  3. Anonymous August 26, 2015 at 10:47 am #


  4. Barbara August 26, 2015 at 9:37 pm #

    Such a beautiful piece – thank you so much! My 17-year-old son has high-functioning autism and I believe my husband does also, although never diagnosed. I love them both dearly and greatly appreciate their special gifts, and we laugh at our different views. I so agree with appreciating differences.

  5. Karen August 29, 2015 at 1:34 pm #

    We recently confirmed what we already kinda knew. Our 5 yr. old daughter is autistic. I am scared of how this world that chews up “normal” people will treat her but I know she is destined to be someone amazing. I love her unconditionally and I am up for the roads ahead since this is all new discoveries for me. Yes, I get really exhausted and yes I know I have a lot of crying and anxious days to come but I will take them for the little victories like finding her a good school and seeing her dimpled smile and hearing her sweet candid observations. Onward we go…

    • Jim August 29, 2015 at 3:07 pm #

      Karen, it sounds like your daughter is lucky to have someone so unconditionally in her corner as you. Good luck to all of you as you go onward. Stay connected. There are plenty of people willing to share this journey.

  6. Elly September 24, 2015 at 2:10 am #

    Thank you for this post, it is so encouraging. My little almost-7-year old is autistic and I love her to pieces. I love the way she thinks, speaks, communicates, creates – everything is so precious and unique. I find autistic people to be very endearing and interesting. Thank you for sharing this!

    • Jim September 24, 2015 at 5:53 am #

      I’m glad this encouraged you, Elly.

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