If you’re a fan of 1980s soft rock music, the title of this blog entry may sound familiar to you. Does the band “Bruce Hornsby and the Range” ring a bell? It should. “The Way It Is” was a number one hit in North America in 1986. The song depicts a time prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when people were segregated from others due to the color of their skin. Those who were discriminated against felt that things would never change. They said that’s just “the way it is.” Eventually, the Act would become law. Over fifty years later, progress has been made in the area of civil rights to varying degrees.
How does this relate to autism? Soon after Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the tools to diagnose autism were made available to the American public. As the 25th anniversary of the ADA’s passage occurred last year, Autism Speaks announced that the next wave of youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) would become adults within the next ten years. Not just any wave of youth becoming adults, but a tidal wave of 500,000 youth with ASD. One of these children may be someone you know – your own child, a relative or friend’s child, or a child you might know from the within the same school system, place of worship, or somewhere else.
These children will become adults with ASD one day. I personally know of a number of these adults in the Chattanooga, TN and North Georgia areas. They have dreams, ambitions, hopes, and aspirations of living a full and meaningful life, just like adults who are not on the autism spectrum. However, the adults with ASD can relate to the pain that people faced in the song, “The Way It Is”. The discrimination and marginalization they face are due to (1) their challenges in communicating well with others, (2) employers and others not understanding those who are “different” from themselves, (3) employers who do not effectively capitalize on the skills, knowledge, and abilities that those with ASD “bring to the table” (especially outside the tech sector), and (4) people having preconceived notions that are perpetuated about adults with ASD.
Way back in 2008 (when the rate of children being diagnosed with autism was less than what it is now), ABC News came out with a list of “10 Myths About Autism”1. One of the myths was regarding the inability of people with ASD to create social relationships that work for them. Relationships are the foundation of human progress, in business, the arts, and in education. If the myth were true, then ASD adults would not have a role in making society a better place. If the myth were true, then these adults could not learn how to develop their own support systems. My organization, Greater Chattanooga Aspies, has seen numerous adults and young adults with ASD build their support networks as a result of meeting others like them at support group meetings and social events. However, the myth is not true, and adults with ASD are capable of doing great things.
Children with ASD need good examples in their lives – parents, role models, and yes, even adults with ASD. Parents of these children need to understand that adults with ASD (like me) want to help give the parents hope for their children. They want to assure parents that life for their children as adults won’t be the same as in “The Way It Is”, where everything seems to be the same because nothing changes. Parents have several ways to take action to help create positive change for the future of their children. First, they can find a support group or social event that is geared towards adults and young adults on the autism spectrum. This would give parents the opportunity to connect with these individuals. Second, one of the parents might suggest to the group’s facilitator about having a potential adult/young adult with ASD panel discussion. A discussion like this could give parents insight into the lives of each panel member from childhood into their adult years, including better ways for parents to communicate good examples to their children with ASD.
In conclusion, this country has two choices with the increasing number of children being diagnosed with ASD. Either, the USA can become like South Africa of the 20th century, with apartheid taking aim against future adults with ASD. Or, the USA can learn to accept change (as difficult as that is), and realize the contributions and differences that these future adults will make in this country. This is not about whether societal change will occur with ASD in this country, but when. Given the two options, let us hope that a revolution is not needed to bring about the necessary transformation for future adults with ASD to thrive.