Several years ago, I was in Pennsylvania, and a man approached me in a grocery store parking lot. The man had buzz-cut gray hair, a few days’ growth of beard, and shabby clothes. Clearly homeless. He walked with an odd gait, didn’t make eye contact, and he said, a little too loudly, that he would like some money for food or for the bus as a cold wind swirled around both of us.
My heart twisted inside my chest. It was clear to me the man was autistic. After living with my son Aran for so long, I recognize the condition elsewhere in seconds. I realized I was staring at my son’s future.
When people think of autism, two images spring to mind. The first is of a cute child with a piping voice who probably gets bullied at school. The second is of a super-hero.
We see on TV shows and news stories about autism a lot of children who need help. The children are adorable. They say odd things or act in odd ways, and the adult viewers think, “Oh, that poor thing. We need to help!” Once they know a child is autistic, they show patience and understanding. They want special education services in the schools and other services beyond the school.
We also see on TV shows the image of the autist as super-hero. Adult autists, both real and fictional, show amazing powers. Temple Grandin designs animal-friendly cattle chutes, sees the world in visual chunks, and goes on speaking tours. Kim Peek (on whom RAIN MAN was based) has an eidetic memory. Sheldon Cooper from THE BIG BANG THEORY (who has never been officially acknowledged as autistic but who shows all the symptoms) is a world-class physicist.
Here’s the problem. The media always–ALWAYS–want to show people as getting help or as succeeding. No one wants to end the broadcast on a downer: “And, despite everyone’s efforts to help, Alvin is now homeless, begging for spare change at the bus station.” The children we see on TV shows inevitably get help, and the viewers are left with the vague idea that they’ll be all right in the end. Autistic adults are portrayed as having successful full-time jobs where they’re such highly-regarded experts, everyone is forced to accept their odd behavior. They even have friends and a social life. And the audience says, “Well, see? Autistic people do just fine. They have super powers.”
The problem is, they don’t.
Only a few autists actually have a savant talent, and the majority of those talents don’t lead themselves to a successful career. Aran, for example, has perfect pitch, but that won’t land him a job anywhere.
In fact, less than 10% of adult autists actually work at all, let alone full-time. It’s hard for autists to find work–most can’t get past the job interview. The hiring manager might be the nicest person in the world, but she’ll still be put off by someone who strides into the office and booms, “This is my new job!”
Most adult autists live on disability, or with relatives, or both. Some live in group homes or institutions.
And a big chunk are homeless.
Aran can live with me for as long as he needs to, but I won’t be around forever, and I’m watching the social safety nets in this country disintegrate a little more every day. Although there’s a lot of help around for cute autistic children, these children grow into less cute teenagers and then full-blown adults, and there’s very little help for them.
While the media have helped bring autism into the spotlight, they have also given many Americans the false impression that with minimal help, autistic children grow into slightly odd but perfectly functional adults. They don’t. They often need help and supervision all their lives, and that costs money. The trouble is, these autists aren’t adorable children with big eyes. They’re adults moving into middle and old age. They don’t dress fashionably, they walk funny, and their voices have a strange lilt. And when it comes to adults, we have this idea that they should shape up, try harder, do the right thing. They’ve had a lifetime to learn how. Why don’t they? It must be laziness or foolishness that makes them that way.
If you ask people flat-out if they believed the above, they deny it, of course, and profess compassion or pity. But left to their own devices, they’ll sidle to the other side of the room and avoid, avoid, avoid.
I took the man from the parking lot inside the grocery store and bought him a hot drink at the bakery, then gave him $20. It was all I could do for him right then. He shouted a thank-you and shuffled down the cookie aisle. I watched him go, thinking of Aran and trying not to cry.
One day Aran will graduate high school. I don’t know what’ll happen then. He says he wants to go into finance or manage a hotel. If he can get through college and survive a job interview. Perfect pitch won’t help him.
There are no autistic super-heroes.
I posted this column on my blog, and this story was pointed out to me.
This man’s experience is eerily similar to mine. It’s not me, however. This writer lives in Ohio, and I’m a Michigander. The incident above happened to me five-odd years ago when I was visiting Pennsylvania for a graduate school residency, and didn’t happen in my home town. However, I wonder how often this story has repeated itself elsewhere, and sadly, it only underscores my point.
–Steven Harper Piziks
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