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When People Talk About Autism 'Risk'

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There have been a great many news articles lately saying that fever, anti-depressants, etc. during pregnancy are shown to increase “autism risk.” As an avid reader — hyperlexic, in fact — I understand the words “autism” and “risk.” What I do not understand is seeing those two words presented together, in that order, as if they go paw in paw. “Risk” is something most people associate with heart attack, stroke, cancer, ALS, falling from a great height, etc.

When exactly did autism become a deadly disease?

The only time I can think of when autism has caused a fatality is when autistic people take their own lives because of bullying, prejudice, and stigma — because they’re so sick of the rest of the world looking down its nose at them, treating them like they’re a plague to be wiped out. Society has failed to remind them that autistic people are just that, people. Not a plague; not even to neurotypicals who view our existence as a complication, an anomaly, a rattling board that needs to be nailed down.

Thankfully, I saw another article recently which eschewed “risk” and employed the far preferable term of “chance.” Yes, I said to myself. This is terminology I can repeat without hissing. “Chance” makes it sound a lot less like autism is a deadly, terrible affliction and more like it’s just another state of a human’s being that happens to depart from the usual. It even implies that if you bear an autistic child into the world, that child has a “chance” — not only to exist, but to do something unforgettable for the world.

That’s where being autistic, for me, intersects with being a Real Life Superhero.

There are hundreds of RLSHs around the world, both autistic and neurotypical. Most of us adopt alternate personas — even costumes — as we go out into the world to help countless thousands of people who are homeless, impoverished, marginalized, or just in need of some human compassion. I joined the movement not only because I wanted to take part in making the world a better, happier place, but because I felt I had the wherewithal to make a positive change. It goes without saying that none of us have superpowers; but some of us do have special abilities.

In my case, because I’m autistic, I have very sharp senses — my eyesight and hearing consistently score well above average. This is also why I identify closely with cats, and chose “Black Wildcat” as my superhero moniker. My high sound sensitivity means out-of-place noises bother me to no end. Is it a pain? It can be at times. But more often than not, it’s a benefit instead of a risk.

So is hyperlexia. So is keen mathematical talent. So is a profound understanding of mechanical engineering, theoretical physics, animal science, even an encyclopedic knowledge of world history. Despite the incomprehensible acres of autism stereotypes autistic children and adults constantly face, not one of them should be forced to feel like they’re any less important or effective than anyone else. Instead, they just need someone to understand them, to believe in them, to work with them in discovering — and developing — what they’re capable of. This is the focus of my superhero efforts, besides neighborhood watch and homeless aid.

Don’t agree? Ask that kid in your math class who never says a word but is always scribbling numbers. Ask your neighbor whom you hardly ever see, but when you do see him, he’s inventing some never-before-seen gadget. Ask that girl next door who behaves like a cat and claims she’s a Real Life Superhero. Are any of them trying to hurt anyone, ruin lives, or destroy the world with their autism? No matter what you’ve been told by wider society, that’s two intercontinental flights, a long-distance train ride, a 10-mile traffic jam and a very long walk away from the truth. Quite to the contrary, many autistics, whether through our abilities or our advocacy, would just like to make the world a better place.

Is it really such a big deal if we’re a little difficult to talk to sometimes? Isn’t that an acceptable price to pay for the difference we’ll make in the world one of these days?

None of us is trying to wipe out the world. Just to be part of it… and while we’re at it, maybe make it a nicer place for everyone to live.

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Originally published: October 16, 2017
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