‘The world needs all types of minds.’ –Dr. Temple Grandin
It is a word that communicates so much confusion to most of us. Unless we have a specific experience with someone who is autistic or we have turned our minds to understanding the complicated reality that those on the spectrum face, we can often jump to generalisations and stereotypes to fill in the blanks.
This week, Belgrave Heights Christian School (BHCS) Alumni, Tashi Baiguerra, took to an international stage and gave a riveting TEDx talk about autism. At BHCS, we remember Tashi as a gifted and artistic student who excelled at Dance and Visual Arts and we are thrilled that she has been able to make a successful career in the UK in her chosen field.
With the moving theme: ‘My Brain isn’t Broken’, she challenges many of the assumptions that have been cultivated in relation to the autism spectrum and bravely shares of her own diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome. Tashi describes how ‘so much of my life makes sense now: my strange intensity in social situations, my weird obsessions that never go away, my failed attempts at friendships, my tendency to cry and panic and hit myself and stay non-functional for hours afterwards.’
As a society, we have been slow to understand autism, due in part to the preference of the work of Leo Kanner (in the 1940s-1970s) who proposed that autism was very rare, while recognising only the most severe of cases. He saw these people as broken and shipped them off to institutions where they became invisible to the rest of the world. It wasn’t until the 1970s that a very different reading of the spectrum came to light when the work of Hans Asperger was translated. He viewed the diverse continuum of autism as a ‘lifelong, polygenetic disability that requires compassionate forms of support and accommodations over the course of one’s whole life.’ In fact, he believed that ‘for success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential.’
It hasn’t helped that there has been much debate over the causes of autism, from patently false speculation over a vaccine trigger to abandonment by parents, so much misinformation has been spread which greatly harms the affected and their families. In fact, research has been unable to provide a single answer for the cause at this point. Geneticist, Wendy Chung shares that ‘just as autism is a spectrum, there’s a spectrum of etiologies, a spectrum of causes.’ While the paternal age of the father can be a factor, and certain medications taken during pregnancy, ‘current estimates are that there are 200 to 400 different genes that can cause autism.’
What is clear, and what Tashi so openly admits, is that no matter the cause, ‘the autism spectrum seems so vast, so scary and so very lonely.’ Challenging the pervasive view of viewing autism as a line from ‘not very autistic’ to ‘overwhelmingly autistic’, she encourages us to see the spectrum as a colour wheel, with each colour representing a trait or experience that may function differently (such as visual processing, sensory information, etc). Because while Tashi is confident enough to be able to present on a stage, and is aware that her condition might be seen as mild, she cautions, ‘I don’t experience my autism mildly.’
With a significant increase in risks of self-injury, sexual assualt and suicide to the autistic; it is so important that we take this seriously. Part of the problem, Tashi argues, is that society views the autistic brain as broken and that ‘when the world treats someone like they are broken, that person will slowly come to accept that brokenness as fact.’ What we can do, is to ensure that we participate in creating a future where ‘people who are different are treated with the respect and understanding that they deserve. Our diversity, that is our strength.’
In fact, if we can truly come to value the gift that people with autism have to offer, the world will truly be a better, more functional and intelligently designed space. Like Dr Temple Grandin says, ‘what some of the research now has shown in autism is there may by extra wiring back here in the really brilliant mind, and we lose a few social circuits here. It’s kind of a trade-off between thinking and social.’
If you want some tear-jerking inspiration of how brilliant this can truly be, check out Kodi Lee’s incredible performance on America’s Got Talent which has been viewed over 33 million times so far. Or, sit down with the family this weekend and watch the Temple Grandin movie starring Claire Danes which is the story of an incredible autistic woman who revolutionised the practices for the humane handling of livestock.
We honour Tashi’s courage in standing in the gap and admire her tenacity for facing this challenging issue and inspiring others to do the same. Please go and watch her video and send through a message of support.
Want more? Check out these links:
Meraki Lane hub for Autism (collection of quotes, articles and research)