Kill the Autism, Save the Child?

They say history repeats itself… I don’t know if this is necessarily true as much as is the fact that people themselves haven’t changed over time. We have the same problems we did hundreds of years ago, but in different forms. The same flawed ways of thinking but applied to different scenarios. I’m taking US history at my school, and a little bit ago we learned about something that I thought could be used as a good analogy for something I see happening so often in autism circles. I’ll start with a brief history lesson.

The year is 1879, and the United States is continuing its slow attempts to tame the 1,500 miles of American Wild West that lay between Missouri and and the Pacific Ocean. Western cities like San Francisco, Phoenix, Seattle, and my home city of Denver were growing up from small boom-towns and starting to become major economic and cultural centers. The rich natural resources of the West were ripe and there for the taking… except for one just one “problem,” as perceived by white settlers: there were roughly 46+ Native American tribes who called the West their home. Ever since explorers first arrived in the Americas, there has been a long history of sickening injustice for Native Americans. For hundreds of years, Natives had been forced off of their lands as European, and later American, expansionism pushed these tribes further and further west. At this point in American history, there was nowhere left for Native Americans to go, and so they were forced onto smaller and smaller reservations on less and less valuable pieces of land where they could not continue to live their traditional lifestyles.

Children at Genoa Indian School. Native American children were often forcibly taken away from their families and made to attend these schools.

There were people at this time who realized the inevitable clashes this would create, and so they decided the best course of action for the Native Americans would be to assimilate and adopt white American culture so that they would no longer be threatened by the expanding America. It’s hard to believe it by today’s standards, but at the time these people were considered social progressives. Many were former abolitionists. Realizing that assimilating white culture would be difficult for Natives who grew up in their own culture, boarding schools were created where Native American children would be brought up in a white American cultural environment. These schools had a motto: “Kill the Indian, save the child.” Native families were bribed, coerced, and even forced to send their children away to these schools. Despite the obvious racist and nationalist ideas behind these schools, they weren’t even effective at doing what they intended. Graduates of these schools could not join American culture because of prejudice and discrimination they faced, but they didn’t fit into Native American circles either because of their upbringing at these boarding schools.

“So what does this have to do with autism?” you’re probably wondering. I’ll tell you: I see a lot of similarities between the attitudes of people who ran the boarding schools I just described and the way many people today view autism.

When parents first receive an autism diagnosis for their child, they are hit with a barrage of offers for autism “treatments.” Special therapies, special diets, medications, interventions, you name it, it’s there. The people soliciting these “treatments” wait like mountain lions on rocks, waiting to pounce down on their “prey” and sell their therapies. What is the common denominator behind all of these treatments? The common goal? To make the child “less autistic.” “Indistinguishable from their peers” is a statement often used as a goal for these therapies. The mindset is that autism is bad, being different is bad, and that the best hope for a child is that they become as “normal” as possible.

Has this philosophy become “Kill the autism, save the child?”

The administrators of these 1800s boarding schools I had discussed believed that the best thing for a Native American child was assimilate and adopt white American culture, even at the expense of the Native child and their family. I think we can all agree that this practice was awful, and I in no way am attempting to downplay this injustice. However, we are seeing today a similar attitude arise concerning disability, and autism in particular. The belief that the ultimate goal for an autistic person is to look as neurotypical as possible, even at the expense of the child.

So many autistic children are taught, either directly or indirectly, that their way of being is wrong. The are taught that the way they think is wrong, the way they feel is wrong, and the way they move is wrong. They are expected to learn a language that is not their own and communicate in ways that are not easy for them. They then go through life unable to be fully neurotypical, but also unwilling to accept and be proud of their autistic identity because years of compliance training therapies have made them ashamed of who they are.

Autism is not a disease. It is a natural part of human neurodiversity. It is a completely natural way of being for autistic people. Is it really the ultimate good that autistic people look neurotypical?

Therapies that aim to make autistic children “look” less autistic are often criticized my the autistic community for their often abusive practices and goals.

I emphatically argue that no, it is not. The ultimate goal should be that said autistic person lives a safe, happy life on their own terms as an autistic person. Being “less autistic” is not generally part of this. I know of zero autistic people who are completely indistinguishable from their peers. So, instead of reaching for this “goal” of indistinguishability at the expense of the autistic person, why not work towards helping autistic people live the best life they possibly can as an autistic person, not as a fake neurotypical? I would argue that forcing an autistic person to become indistinguishable from their peers is no better than forcing someone of another race or culture to assimilate into a different race or culture.

Now, I am absolutely not arguing against treatments for autism. I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with providing ways for an autistic person to better function in a neurotypical dominated world. Medications that help someone focus, therapies that teach coping strategies, etc. are all important and generally good. However, the moment the goal of your “treatment” becomes “indistinguishability from peers” or “looking less autistic” you’ve taken a wrong turn. The moment a “treatment” is taking a serious toll on the mental health of the autistic person, it’s gone too far.

And before someone goes off about how I’m inappropriately comparing hundreds of years of bigotry, racism, and injustice towards Native Americans to the relatively recent problems of the Autistic community, know that I am simply making the following analogy: we as a society have decided that it is unacceptable to expect or force other cultures to assimilate into another and reduce cultural diversity. So why is it so common today to think that we need to reduce neurodiversity and that the ultimate goal for an autistic person is to look as neurotypical as possible? Autism, though definitely a challenge for autistic people due to living in a world not built for us, is a natural part of human diversity. We are different than most people, but this does not mean that we need to change to fit the neuro-majority.

I hope this has provided some “food for thought” for people to consider when thinking about the way they approach autism. The thought process should never be “kill the autism, save the child.” Autism is an integral part of the very being of that child, as it is for every autistic person, and that is not a bad thing. Be prepared that if you’re trying to “kill the autism,” you’re going to kill the child with it.


2 thoughts on “Kill the Autism, Save the Child?

  1. Let me shout a resounding YES!!!! Living in a world without autistic folks would be like having only one flavor of ice cream. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with vanilla, or strawberry but isn’t it a wonderful world where you can get blueberry ripple chocolate chip? I’m autistic and wouldn’t have it any other way. Anything that seeks to change my essential value to the mix of humanity is flat-out wrongheaded.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I have been thinking about this exact analogy for a while now because I used to work with Indigenous peoples and heard the references and consequences and could see a clear comparison. I just thought to do a search to see if anyone else had and was encouraged by your post. I totally agree, thank you so much for sharing your views on this.

    Liked by 1 person

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