Originally published on September 4th, 2013. Featured again on February 8th, 2014.
September 4, 2013: It is long past time for us to modify our perceptions about the uniqueness and creativity of those with autism, just as it was in the 1950s when left handedness was seen as abnormal.
In fact, the notion that there was something wrong with me, and different than my fellow students, was brought home to me on my first day of Kindergarten.
I was colouring something when the teacher, who was slightly behind me, suddenly whacked my left knuckles with a ruler.
Of course, I screamed and cried but all the teacher could say was something to the effect that I shouldn’t ever use that hand again — that from now on I had to use my right hand.
Talk about prejudice and what would be found out later, an unfounded one.
Anyway, the long term result is that, while I write better with my right hand, I can write with either hand in a pinch! And, besides handwriting, I do everything else with my left hand.
Anyway, my left-handed point is that what is seen as inappropriate or weird by one generation is not necessarily so in later generations. Without a doubt, that is what is happening now regarding some types of autism. Behaviours that were considered wrong or weird before are now being referred to as simply different or genius.
Any doubts? Read Paul Well’s article in the current Macleans about Jacob Barnett, a boy who has both autism and genius (H/T Jack’s Newswatch) and is currently attending the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario.
Truly amazing. Jacobs’ supportive parents and siblings, but particularly his mother Kristine Barnett (who wrote “The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius”), seem to have awakened the broader ABA (behavioural counselling) and publicly funded education community, to new ways of planning for, and accommodating, children and youth with autism.
My title is on purpose. Is 15-year-old Jacob Barnett a genius because of his autism spectrum disorder? Or, is he a genius in spite of his autism? My point is that it doesn’t really matter. He is who he is.
There is also the question: Is Jacob’s gift indicative that he is a savant? From a professional perspective I would say no. Why do I say no? Because Jacob is not gifted in a single area, such as remembering numbers, calculating multiplication and division in his head or composing music. He is gifted in all areas of science.
As this Daily Mail column states: “The boy wonder, who taught himself calculus, algebra, geometry and trigonometry in a week, is now tutoring fellow college classmates after hours.”
Yes, savants are wonders, and I have written about them before, but savants are usually developmentally delayed in all areas except the one area of their gift. For sure, savants don’t finish Master’s and Ph.D degrees — as Jacob apparently plans to do.
It is true, however, that for some families and children diagnosed with a severe ASD (autism spectrum disorder), the repercussions of the disability is difficult for everyone involved and support and housing is a lifelong requirement.
Similarly, it is true for individuals who are even marginally disabled with an ASD (such as my adult son), because they and their families will also have to depend on government benefits and independent living assistance.
Nevertheless, as Jacob’s example shows, just as many, if not more perhaps, of people who are diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s, are essentially normal or, in some cases, gifted — they simply show their creativity and genius in different ways.
So, in my opinion, the crux of the matter is that Jacob’s case is a call to arms to the autism support community — such as behavioural therapists, school administrators, special education teachers and regular classroom teachers. That call means it is long past time we started looking at children and youth with autism in a way that encourages them to be who they are, not what we want them to be.
Update Thursday, Sept. 5th, 2013: For those who would like to follow Jacob’s story, here is the link to Jacob’s website and blog.
(1) Full disclosure. Up until recently, I believed that autism at all levels was, at the very least, a disorder, if not an outright disability. However, over the last few years, I have modified my views somewhat and understand what the disagreements were all about. However, I realize that my changed views do not alter the challenges my adult son has to go through or those who are severely autistic. But, and this is a big BUT, I DO realize why some high functioning autistics resent the constant negative labels and why the education system has to find ways to accommodate those changed realities.
(2) I have now read Kristine Barnett’s book. See my review and recommendations here.
(3) This article was cross-posted at Jack’s Newswatch. So, Jack’s regulars should look for it there as well.