I spent most of my Kindergarten recess periods in a plastic cave.
Everyday, before confronting the entropic games of sharks and minnows, I’d scuttle to the small, yellow tunnel at the edge of the playground. Once inside, I would wring my little hands nervously, working up the courage to join the day’s activity.
Actually, “wring” is too generous: I flapped my hands, compulsively and uncontrollably, until I was almost six years old. I barely spoke until I was three. I had no true friends until I was seven. This combination of poor motor control, verbal impediments and social ineptitude earned me a spot on the autistic spectrum by the time I was four.
My parents defied the diagnosis before it was even given. At the first sign of developmental delays, they hired a coterie of experts to improve my speech, motor and social skills, and eventually enrolled me in a school for students with special needs. Some interventions targeted my craving for structure and routine, the slightest deviation from which induced frenzied tantrums. Others taught me to read facial cues, and still others taught me that most other human beings did not find air conditioners as intriguing as I did. (Many autistic people develop a quirky obsession or hobby; mine was window-mounted AC units and large fans.)
Because of these treatments — and, perhaps, divine providence — a team of astonished child psychologists informed my parents that I no longer fit the typical criteria for high-functioning autism just before my seventh birthday. By age nine, I was officially pronounced autism-free. My verbal reasoning skills, once thought to be non-existent, matured rapidly, to the point that I could thrive at a good high school. Social cognition came more slowly, but it did come: By 9th grade, I belonged to a typical adolescent friend group. My lust for order survives, but only in my admiration for the political thought of Thomas Hobbes — my sock-strewn room, needless to say, could use a Hobbesian sovereign. Now, when I tell people I used to have autism, the most common reply is, “You? Really?”
Although my story is unusual, it is not unique. A couple years back, the New York Times published a feature on “The Kids Who Beat Autism,” either through intensive behavioral therapy or just plain luck. Their parents, like my own, chose to give their kids a shot at normalcy, and it paid off.
I say “normalcy” because compulsive hand-flapping, constant sensory overload and chronic solitude are not normal. Nor are they very fun. I remember what it feels like to cringe, and cry, at loud noises. I remember wanting, on some level, to interact with other kids yet being too afraid to do so. And I remember the terrifying cocktail of sensations that accompanied every hug my parents gave me.
Imagine going through life without friends, without rock concerts, without ever making love. Some autistic people do manage to lead lives full of these things. But others don’t. Others can’t.
I almost couldn’t. I was fortunate to be born into a family that could afford expensive therapists, with a brain capable of resisting its own neurological limits. I beat autism, and I am better off for it.
Yet this idea — that autism is something to be overcome if at all possible — has been controversial ever since Jim Sinclair pioneered the “neurodiversity” movement in the 1990s. Sinclair argued that autism constitutes a kind of marginalized identity: “The tragedy is not that we’re here, but that your world has no place for us to be.” Others take this reasoning a step further, claiming that attempts to cure autism parallel attempts to “cure” homosexuality. As Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, put it, “We don’t think it is possible to fundamentally rewire our brains … but even if such a thing were possible, we don’t think it would be ethical.” Brain chemistry, in other words, is an essential part of who we are.
While it’s true that autism shapes identity, the logic of neurodiversity ultimately suffers the same defect as our culture’s knee-jerk ethic of individualism: It fetishizes difference at the cost of genuine understanding.
To those of us who’ve toiled against the yoke of unwelcome identity, paeans to self-actualization can sound less like real acceptance and more like self-indulgent cant, designed to reassure the average Joe that, yes, he really is a special snowflake. “Be yourself” is comforting advice when you’ve never wanted to be anyone else. But what about the men and women who have spent their entire lives striving for sameness and shared experience, the ones that don’t want to return to their little yellow tunnels? What about them?
I worry that the modern preoccupation with self-discovery erases narratives of self-betterment. Because my parents refused to see autism as an immutable part of who I am, I avoided a life of atomization and aloneness. Perhaps that makes me less special. But it also makes me much happier. In our mad dash to affirm identity, we forget that, every so often, human beings get to choose which identities are worth having — and worth sharing.
So this Thanksgiving, I will be celebrating all the ways I’m just like everybody else: I can speak. I can write. I watch fireworks on the 4th of July. I have friends. I enjoy being hugged.
Aaron Sibarium is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .