Autistic Future
May 23rd, 2017

Temple Grandin has Opinions

This past April, Dr. Grandin sparked con­tro­ver­sy by opin­ing again, though many of her Autis­tic peers wish she would refrain from being so vocal. When she express­es her­self, it’s some­thing of a head­line with­in Autis­tic cir­cles and, often, out­side. This is because out­siders fre­quent­ly per­ceive her as an expert on Autis­tic expe­ri­ences or com­mu­ni­ty leader, although she has delib­er­ate­ly avoid­ed liv­ing in the Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty. Dr. Grandin is rare, and jus­ti­fi­ably admired, for being well into mid­dle-age and open about her dis­abil­i­ty. In an ide­al world, younger Autis­tics could ignore her occa­sion­al, out­landish state­ments and respect her for sur­viv­ing the bad, old days just as many of us do around hol­i­day din­ner tables with cer­tain relatives.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the undue weight neur­toyp­i­cals place on what­ev­er she says, and the chance of younger advo­cates per­ceiv­ing her as a role mod­el, makes it dif­fi­cult not to respond. The para­dox of Dr. Grandin-as-autism-pun­dit is that, while her self-imposed exclu­sion from Autis­tic cir­cles leaves her out of touch with the expe­ri­ences of many who share her dis­abil­i­ty, she is an astute observ­er with a keen intel­lect. Her recent state­ments about younger, Autis­tic adults have not been entire­ly wrong, but she missed or ignored impor­tant fac­tors that con­tribute to some of the prob­lems she described. 

The lat­est ker­fuf­fle was over her harsh words about unem­ployed, Autis­tic adults. Dr. Grandin has expressed per­plex­i­ty at peo­ple’s dif­fi­cul­ties find­ing work where they are what she would term “high-func­tion­ing.” She has treat­ed unem­ployed, low­er-sup­port Autis­tics with anger and dis­gust and accused par­ents of caus­ing our high unem­ploy­ment rate by teach­ing learned help­less­ness. This caused an out­cry. Peo­ple were upset that Dr. Grandin had passed harsh judg­ment on those who can’t find work, but it should hard­ly have been sur­pris­ing. It was­n’t the first time she has belit­tled unem­ployed Autis­tics with­out rec­og­niz­ing the bar­ri­ers to employ­ment which prove insur­mount­able for all too many.

Part of the rea­son that peo­ple, espe­cial­ly neu­rotyp­i­cal par­ents of Autis­tic chil­dren and adults new­er or less con­nect­ed to the com­mu­ni­ty look to Dr. Grandin as an exam­ple is that she is a best case sce­nario for Autis­tic out­comes. She is wrap­ping up a long career in a field she likes. Between her wise deci­sion to pick a field aligned with her tal­ents, her good for­tune in hav­ing mar­ketable tal­ents, and her strong work eth­ic, she excels. She is finan­cial­ly self-suf­fi­cient. She has the inde­pen­dent liv­ing skills to live a self-deter­mined life in soci­ety as it exists, with its many imper­fec­tions as to dis­abil­i­ty support. 

Dr. Grandin seems jus­ti­fi­ably proud of her hard-won achieve­ments. She is prob­a­bly not wrong that her strong work eth­ic, deter­mi­na­tion to do for her­self, and will­ing­ness to bend some to accom­mo­date the neu­rotyp­i­cal world have helped her thrive. She is not wrong that some par­ents are so risk-averse that their chil­dren have dif­fi­cul­ty grow­ing, mak­ing healthy mis­takes, tak­ing charge of them­selves, and build­ing the best lives they can. Prac­ti­cal­ly every advo­cate iden­ti­fied with the Neu­ro­di­ver­si­ty Move­ment has a sto­ry about a par­ent thwart­ing a teen or adult child’s inde­pen­dence. How­ev­er, just as many par­ents over­do it in the oth­er direc­tion in hopes of a cure or in per­fect­ly rea­son­able fear of a life spent in the catch-22s and enforced pover­ty of dis­abil­i­ty sys­tems. Teach­ing the will to try is impor­tant, but what Dr. Grandin often fails to rec­og­nize is that it isn’t enough.

If she had not inten­tion­al­ly exclud­ed her­self from the Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty, she might have encoun­tered more Autis­tic peo­ple and learned that the road she trav­eled is even hard­er for oth­ers. She might have heard about how far few­er options would have been open to her if she had, for instance, nev­er learned to dri­ve, either because of a gen­uine impair­ment in that area or because of a fam­i­ly too fear­ful to let her try. Could she have fol­lowed her gift for cat­tle as far as it would take her if she had been trapped in urban areas with good pub­lic trans­porta­tion, or would she have been locked out of her dreams, stuck in jobs for which she had lit­tle tal­ent? Had her par­ents been poor­er, would she have end­ed up in edu­ca­tion­al envi­ron­ments where her poten­tial was rec­og­nized and supported? 

If Dr. Grandin lis­tened to Autis­tic mil­len­ni­als as much as she lec­tures, she might have dis­cov­ered that increased aware­ness and the dis­clo­sures that come with today’s legal pro­tec­tions for dis­abled peo­ple are dou­ble-edged swords. In the right envi­ron­ment, they leads to more sup­ports. In the wrong ones, they make the indi­vid­ual more vul­ner­a­ble to dis­crim­i­na­tion. The econ­o­my is harsh­er these days, espe­cial­ly for young peo­ple. Real wages are low­er these days. Sta­ples of get­ting by and get­ting ahead, such as access to edu­ca­tion and health­care, are more cost­ly. Many entry-lev­el jobs require expe­ri­ence in the form of unpaid intern­ships. Per­son­al­i­ty test­ing and an employ­er focus on ‘fit’ can be hard on Autis­tic job appli­cants.

The obsta­cles that Dr. Grandin over­came to suc­ceed, includ­ing fla­grant gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion, were very real. So, too, are the obsta­cles younger Autis­tics, but Dr. Grandin seems unwill­ing to rec­og­nize that. If peo­ple do give up, it is some­times because they are exhaust­ed from fruit­less striv­ing. The crit­i­cism Dr. Grandin received last month may seem harsh. Some of it was, but it is like­ly to con­tin­ue until she decides to stop being a pub­lic fig­ure or put her plat­form to bet­ter use. Autis­tic adults, espe­cial­ly those who are finan­cial­ly strug­gling, are jus­ti­fied in their dis­taste for her as long as she refus­es to lis­ten to the peo­ple for whom she claims to speak. She will be a divi­sive fig­ure until she either gains the exper­tise she claims to have or sticks to the field in which she is already world-renown.