“I usually say to the child, ‘Congratulations, you have Asperger’s syndrome, and explain that this means he or she is not mad, bad or defective, but has a different way of thinking.” Tony Attwood, The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome
Autism (Asperger) is a different way of thinking?
Where once autism was thought to be abnormal (not ruling out that it might still be seen as abnormal by some), what I’m increasingly hearing nowadays is that autism is a different way of thinking. I don’t disagree with that (sorry for the double negative) but I still have a problem with the word ‘different’.
First, ‘different’ according to who? The neurotypicals (NT) see people with autism as strange and different but that is only one side of the coin. Fact is, the sentiment is mutual, autistic individuals see NT to be the strange and different one. What is different depends on which perspective or side you are taking and creates a them vs us divide.
Second, ‘different’ implies that there is a norm, a default mode of doing things. It suggests that there is a right (and wrong) or good (and bad) way. Anything different is frowned upon, if not unacceptable. The default mode is set to the NT way of thinking. These are the societal and cultural norms that govern the society or system people live in. Autistic individuals are often expected to assimilate into the default mode and judged by that standard. What is considered right or wrong is arbitrary depending on what the majority does. People who break the norms are not taken to kindly.
Third, ‘different’ is a double edge sword. On the one hand, autistic individuals are treated as different, if not inferior being, individuals with special needs. On the other hand, the difference is conveniently ignored when autistic individuals ask for accommodation and their problems are dismissed on the ground that they are no less different and “everyone is a bit autistic”. In autism awareness speak, it is awareness without acceptance.
Fourth, in general, ‘different’ suggests something that is out of the ordinary and unfamiliar, which some people may be uncomfortable with or aversive to. For autistic individuals with a preference for sameness, the word ‘different’ may trigger anxiety because it is outside routine and therefore, unpredictable.
a different an alternative way of thinking
Given the above reasons, I’d like to use the word ‘alternative’ instead. Asperger, if not autism, is an alternative way of thinking and doing things.
- deviating from what is normal or usual, typically in a way that is undesirable or worrying (Oxford dictionaries)
- different from what is usual or average, especially in a way that is bad (Cambridge dictionary)
- deviating from the normal or average; unusual in an unwelcome or problematic way (Merriam Webster)
- not the same as another or each other; unlike in nature, form, or quality (Oxford dictionaries)
- not the same. (Informal) used when you think someone or something is unusual or shows bad judgment (Cambridge dictionary)
- not the same, partly or totally unlike in nature, form, or quality (Merriam Webster)
- (of one or more things) available as another possibility or choice (Oxford dictionaries)
- an alternative plan or method is one that you can use if you do not want to use another one. Alternative things are considered to be unusual and often have a small but enthusiastic group of people who support them (Cambridge dictionary)
- offering or expressing a choice; different from the usual or conventional (Merriam Webster)
If it’s not evident from the dictionaries’ definition above, I’m suggesting the word ‘alternative’ because it suggests a different way of thinking or doing without the pre-conceived notions of right or wrong. In this respect, the alternative way of thinking exists as a right in itself, unusual maybe, but not wrong or bad. Essentially, the gist of what I’m trying to say is if we free ourselves of any pre-conceived beliefs and ideas of right and wrong or good and bad, we open ourselves to new possibilities and alternatives and then hopefully, we can understand people with a different/alternative way of thinking in a new light. This might be a good starting point for awareness.
Autism is an alternative way of thinking.