May 23rd, 2017
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.