Thursday, December 17, 2009

Exciting News!

I got a job! Well, I already had a job, but now I have a REAL job - I'm the newest Special Education Teacher at Akins High School! I will have my own Life skills classroom that focuses on vocational training and skill development with an awesome group of students. I have been blogless the last few weeks partially due to preparing for this career leap: getting a portfolio together, interviewing, and now filling out the mountains of paperwork. There is no time to waste since I start as soon as I get back from Winter Break. I'll try to have a more detailed and thoughtful post in the next few weeks . . .

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Is Diversity Always a Good Thing?

Autism is either an epidemic or the most under-diagnosed mental condition in history. Currently 1 in 150 children born are diagnosed with some form of Autism. This is remarkable and alarming because medical science has almost no understanding of either the cause of the disorder or how to successfully treat it. We are truly in the pioneering stages of autism research - basically starting from scratch. One reason why autism is so puzzling is because it is so varied. Some individuals with autism are extremely intelligent and successful at school and work, but others are non-verbal and unable to live independently.

Autism is also extremely complex - some people have incredible abilities in certain areas (such as math savants [think Rainman] who can do incredible calculations effortlessly) but are unable to engage in a simple casual conversation. That is one of the fundamental commonalities of individuals with autism - difficulty with social communication. Understanding the perspective of others and successfully interacting with them is the biggest daily challenge for most people with autism, something most people take for granted every day.

Autism is usually viewed as a "defect" or "deficiency" by the medical and academic establishment, but there is a growing group of autistic individuals who are challenging this view. This movement is known as "neurodiversity" and has created the term "mentalism" to describe the discrimination experienced by those with cognitive differences. They argue that not only are individuals with autism not deficient, but that an autistic mind may actually be beneficial in a more technology infused world in which a logic-based calculating intelligence is valued and social interactions are mediated by text rather than natural language. In their view autism shouldn't be cured, it should be valued and supported as other kinds of diversity are valued.

One of the leaders of this movement is Amanda Baggs, a woman with autism who is an internet celebrity due to her prolific blogging and the youtube video below. She is a major contributor to the Neurodiversity website, which has a lot of interesting information about autism and mentalism.

Temple Grandin is a very different sort of autism celebrity. She is a successful author and has a doctorate in animal science specializing in humane treatment in slaughter houses. Here is a video of her describing her work with animals and how autism affects her life.

After years of interaction with autistic individuals, I don't know if I agree completely with the neurodiversity view, but it is very thought-provoking and it challenges many of the assumptions that educators and health professionals have about the condition. Maybe all forms of diversity, even cognitive, should be cherished rather than treated and eliminated.