Autism: Disability or Neurodiversity?Apr 7, 2014
Many people call autism a disability. Someone with autism might instead refer to it as neurodiversity. Individuals with autism have strengths and limitations like all of us. Dr. William McMahon says the way we talk about it makes a huge difference in how individuals with autism are treated and their quality of life.
Interviewer: Reframing Autism. That's next on The Scope.
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Interviewer: Reframing Autism. We're talking with Dr. William McMahon. He's the Autism Community Outreach Office for the University of Utah Health Sciences. When some people hear the word "autism," they think, "disability," but it might not be the best way to think about it. What's a better way to think about individuals with autism?
Dr. William McMahon: Perhaps the best way is to consider individuals with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder are individuals, each of them have gifts and strengths as well as limitations and challenges.
Interviewer: So individuals with skills, talents, and some limitations, that kind of sounds like everybody, really. It sounds like you. It sounds like me.
Dr. William McMahon: Well, we have all gifts as well as challenges. So, yes, people with autism spectrum disorders are just like the rest of us. Unfortunately, many of them are isolated because we have not figured out ways to accommodate them in our society, and they haven't learned how to teach us.
Many people with autism have incredible gifts, and these gifts can be in art, in mathematics, in music, and in any number of things. If we can identify the gifts and overcome the barriers that may be imposed by autism itself or may be imposed by our society and misunderstanding of the individual, then we can all benefit from the gifts.
Interviewer: I find it fascinating that somebody that might be a gifted athlete who is super strong, beyond what most of us are or are particularly large, that is held in high esteem. But somebody that has autism that has different talents that might be very comparable to that in a mental capacity has limitations, and that's considered something completely different. What's going on there? Why is our society like that? That's a big question, isn't it?
Dr. William McMahon: You know, autism raises questions about what is humanity and how we all accept our humanity and recognize our limitations and work together to overcome them.
Interviewer: One of the reframing of autism that I like is we're considered neuroregulars.
Dr. William McMahon: Neurotypicals.
Interviewer: Neurotypicals. And people with autism call themselves . . .
Dr. William McMahon: They can call themselves "Autists" or "Residence of the Autism Spectrum." Some people use the term "Asperger's" and have shortened it to "Aspies."
Interviewer: I've heard neurodiverse as well.
Dr. William McMahon: Yes. Yes.
Interviewer: I like that thought. So it's not a disease. It's just a difference.
Dr. William McMahon: Exactly. And we think of diversity as applying to a racial, or ethnic, or gender kinds of issues, but we should also apply that to the way individuals perceive the world. So our sensory mapping and perceptions as much an element of diversity as the more obvious racial or ethnic divides.
Interviewer: So to a lot of people, saying an autistic person versus a person with autism seems like a minor, small, little difference, maybe a silly, little difference, but it really isn't.
Dr. William McMahon: We are all persons first.
Dr. William McMahon: So it is a small change in language, but it's a very important one because it recognizes the humanity first and the sub-categories of sensory or other sort of diversity categories second.
Interviewer: I think I was in UNI the other day, and there was a picture of a young gentleman. Underneath, it said, "I am an artist with autism," as opposed to, "I'm an autistic artist."
Dr. William McMahon: Yes.
Interviewer: I think that goes, again, to saying, "What's the category first?" He's an artist first, and is somebody who has this condition called autism.
Dr. William McMahon: That's a great way of putting it and respect for the person first. And then, "By the way, I'm left- handed," or "I wear glasses," or "I need a wheelchair," subsequently.
Interviewer: Yes. For a final question, what are the benefits, in your mind, of viewing autism as something other than a disease or a handicap?
Dr. William McMahon: The benefits of recognizing the potential of all human beings are, you know, great, but they both help the individual overcome the barriers that otherwise might impede their progress. But for each of us, it allows us to recognize, "Oh, we can be helpful, and maybe we have limitations, too." And I think that self-awareness by being attentive to the needs of others grows and makes us all more whole human beings.
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