The slogan of the Autistic Strategies Network is #OptimiseAutism.
After I coined this slogan back in 2014 or so, a few other organisations, including the Incredible Minds Adaptive Learning Centre in Durban, adopted derivatives of it as well. (What’s not so nice is that one of them — not Incredible Minds, they’re cool — subsequently decided that therapists for ‘severe cases‘ need to be trained in ABA.)
By 2015, a few people were conflusing my writing about nutrition with ‘biomedical interventions for autism’. Perhaps this was because in one of my videos I made reference to some doctors who understand a few things about autistic people’s health issues even though they are horribly ableist and dismissive or autistic people’s own views on autism.
So, to clarify what I meant by optimising autism, I wrote the essay below on the Autistic Strategies Network’s Facebook page.
When we talk about optimising something, it’s always in the context of some kind of system. A system is a union of interdependent parts, and optimisation is about making all the parts work together better to serve the aims of the system. So, ‘optimising autism’ means making autism work better.
This does not just apply to what we do inside our bodies.
In fact, optimising autism is not just about autistic people. Autistic people share a world with other people and other animals. So, optimising one system does not go without involving other systems.
Optimising autism includes helping other people to interact more effectively with autistic people, as they all work together towards a common goal. The common goal may be, for example, an environmental goal, a social goal or a work goal. Optimising autism in the workplace could involve employing autistic people for specific things which they can do better than other people can do, and adapting the environment to help them do their work effectively. Optimising autism in civic society may include getting autistic people’s unusual perspectives on how systems could be changed to make the world a better place for all creatures. Optimising autism may involve an non-verbal person with a gift of soothing others, holding an anxious person who has had a hard day at work, helping him calm down.
Optimising autism includes ensuring that autistic people who do not speak, have a means of communication that works for them. Their opinions matter. Their lives matter. Their thoughts matter. Their feelings matter. They have a contribution to make. The greatest disservice to autistic people is to deny them the possibility of making a meaningful contribution to others.
In all of this, the idea is to use autistic traits to their best potential. Optimising autism in society is not about one-size-fits-all approaches, such as employing autistics only to be product testers, without ascertaining whether they have the required aptitude or interest. Autistic people can be very different from one another. Some have very varied interests. One person have an exceptional intellect, but be mute. Another may speak fluently, but find it impossible to keep her space organised. Some may be brilliant at art, but be unable to manage money. So, one person’s area of strength may be another person’s area of weakness. The principle is not very different from optimising non-autisic people in society!
Optimising autism is also about personal choice. For example, a certain autistic person who suffers from sensory overload may try to do all he can to reduce this sensitivity, by wearing earplugs, taking electrolytes, changing his diet, and ensuring that he receives just the right amount of exposure to sensory inputs. He may do this not only because he wants to overcome the discomfort, but also because he wants to be able to interact more with other people.
Another person may choose to retain some of her sensitivity, even if it means not interacting so much with others, and being a bit more edgy. She may do this so that she can be very good at detail work, and experience heightened sensory pleasure, even if it means that she cannot go out so often.
Is this similar to ‘healing autism’ or ‘overcoming autism’? No. In fact, it’s the opposite: it’s about fine-tuning autism, and using autism to work effectively in the body, in relationships, in society and nature.
Why, then, do some people who try to optimise autism in their bodies and minds use some of the same techniques that are employed by people who talk about ‘defeating autism’?
The answer is fairly simple, but it takes a bit of explaining:
The formal definitions of autism are all negative. Hence, genuine physical problems are lumped together with social judgements of autistic people’s differences under a single derisive, medicalised definition of autism. Traditionally, ‘biomedical interventions’ aim to heal the body and thereby also to get rid of the differences between autistic people and average people. It’s like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
The idea of optimising autism is based on a different definition of autism. When we aim to optimise autism, we are not assuming that autism is either a good thing or a bad thing. We are recognising that some traits of autism can be useful if the system is fine-tuned or changed to make use of them.
We are also recognising that some aspects of autism can be disabling in certain situations. This disablement is sometimes because of health issues within an autistic person’s body, and sometimes because the environment (including the social environment) is not well-suited to accommodating and integrating the autistic person. It can also be a combination of these factors. Most autistic people have a very narrow band of optimal operability. In other words, some autistic people are like a rare species of fish which lives in harmony with its environment in a single pond in a distant canyon. If the fish are moved to a different pond, where the temperature, pressure, pH and electrolyte content of the water, the number of hours of light per day are slightly different from the first pond, a place where they cannot feed on the unique mosquito larvae which grow in their original pond, then they lose their scales and sink to the bottom.
For this reason, many autistic people need to be very particular about what they eat, and about how and where they live and interact with others. There may be some common trends in the talents of autistic people, and commonalities in the medical problems experienced by autistic people, but every person is different, and there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all ‘autism diet’ or an ideal ‘autistic lifestyle’. There are, however, numerous directives in this regard that could work well for whole clusters of autists.
If we are going to optimise autism in our society — that is, to make autism work as well as possible — we have to destroy something. What we have to destroy is not autism, but the overwhelmingly negative, judgemental, unscientific definition of what it means to be autistic. Nobody would want to optimise a bad thing, unless they are filled with mischief and malice. We have to destroy the definition of autism which is communicated by most of the major well-funded autism organisations throughout the world. We have to replace this definition with a balanced representation of autism, that recognises what it actually feels like to be autistic, and how autism can work in favour of a person and of society.
Many autistic people and their families accept the damning definitions of autistic identity unquestioningly, because they are issued by learned people in positions of authority, published in hardcover manuals and distributed via mass media as part of awareness campaigns. As a result, many autistic people suffer from what is known as ‘internalised oppression’: they believe only bad things about their autism, they see themselves as inferior, and because they do indeed have some of the struggles described in these definitions, they do not realise that many of their finest qualities are also manifestations of autism. And so, paradoxically, they sometimes support the very campaigns — autism walks, blue T-shirts, pitiful lists of the suffering caused by autism — which damn them in the eyes of the world as miserable wretches, and which create prejudice against them. They never realise their own autistic strengths or become aware of their potential for optimisation.
Ironically, the pathologising definition of autism often also works against efforts to ensure that autistic people are healthier and better supported. People are told that autism is ‘a lifelong developmental disorder’. The autism industry is full of psychiatrists and therapists who make a living from this damned-for-life subset of the population. In spite of all the amazing medical studies on autism, few people are actually putting the findings to use to make life better for autistic people. Instead, because they know that there is no cure (and ignoring the idea that autism doesn’t actually need a ‘cure’ in the first place), they continue to prescribe the same set of medications and behavioural therapies, without actually reading what science tells us about how the bodies of autistic people typically work, and without listening to autistic people’s explanations of why some of these behavioural therapies are so very destructive to the best which can be offered by the autistic mind.
At worst, some parents become desperate. The years of hopeless expensive treatments along with the depressing no-cure message, becomes unbearable. It’s all too complex, too sad to bear day in and day out. Unwilling to accept ‘weird’ as OK, seeing some of their children’s struggles and desiring some easy-to-understand hope, they open themselves up to mountebanks and miracle-peddlers who sell feel-good hysteria. Their solace is in the social validation of their constant misery. And so they find a haven in a supportive, validating community of deluded crusaders who squirt bleach up their children’s anuses, allowing the children’s lips to turn blue and their gut lining to be excreted in ribbons, all in pursuit of a cure. Within the cult, they have family, affirmation, encouragement, belonging.
The pathologising definition of autism which appears on every major autism Web site embodies the underlying paradigm which gives rise to every evil done to autistic people in the name of good.
Optimising autism is not about focusing on strengths to overcome autism and in so doing, to fit in with the rest of the world.
If anything, it is about using autistic strengths to make the world a better place for all.
The women’s liberation movement was not led by men. The black consciousness movement was not started by whites. The redefinition of autism will not be undertaken by those who continue to benefit from telling us that autism is a quadrant of impairments, a row of red flags, and a dearth of dysfunction, disability, disorder and deficits.
See your beauty. Define yourself. Optimise autism.