The Next Civil Rights Movement

Differences in thinking is the next area in which there needs to be social reform. We rightly insist that people accept women, racial and ethnic minorities, gays, transgendered people, and cultural differences, but at the same time, people continue to insist that everyone think exactly the same way.

I am not talking about ideology here (though there is a case to be made for more ideological heterogeneity in many situations, such as the social sciences and the humanities). No, I am talking about truly different ways of thinking — what we all too often call mental disabilities.

Of course, we once considered homosexuality as a mental illness. Sexual orientation has since been normalized. We need to do the same with a variety of mental differences, and ceasing to call them mental disabilities is a step in that direction. Of course, mental differences result in differences in behavior, the same way that differences in sexual orientation result in differences in sexual behavior.

A person who has autism is going to behave differently from someone who is neurotypical, yet everyone expects people with autism to behave like everyone else, and to respond in the same way as everyone else. But those are completely unrealistic expectations. Of course, there are degrees of autism. There are people you may not suspect of being on the spectrum (I present myself as Exhibit A), but who clearly are if you fully understand the features of autism, the behaviors that result, and the interactions with others as a result (which very few do).

These — people with Asperger’s or who are mildly or moderately autistic — are people who could contribute in fantastic ways to society if just given the chance. But too many are not given the chance. Or, given a momentary chance, find themselves without a job without understanding why. And given all of the barriers our governments create to prevent people from starting new businesses (and given the fact that people on the spectrum are easily discouraged), alternatives to working for others are all too often far out of reach. I understand this first-hand. I have had a difficult time keeping a job.

On paper I look great (except to those who do not understand what they are seeing when they view my C.V. and my odd set of degrees and publications), and yet I have a hard time keeping a job. I never quite understood why, until I read a book about work and Asperger’s. That book was practically a catalog of all the problems I had in every job I ever held. All to often I found myself without a job without understanding what happened. But now I know.

Now, you would think that knowing would help, but as it turns out, knowing you do certain things and being able to do something about it are quite different things. This is why it’s important to have workplaces where people are prepared to deal with and interact with people on the spectrum. This is important not just because only about a fourth of people who are on the spectrum are even working and only a fourth of those working are working full time, or because people on the spectrum are almost twice as likely to get fired from a job as anyone else, but because they bring traits that ought to be of great value to a business. I have some recommendations along these lines on my autism blog, An Intense World.

People on the spectrum have a lot to offer the world, and it’s a real shame that the rest of the world is almost completely unaware of that fact. Part of it is that most people are truly afraid of anyone who thinks differently than they do. It is the last allowed and allowable prejudice — to such a degree that if you tell your boss you have something like Asperger’s, you can find yourself let go. And the person won’t think anything of it. They would never fire someone because of their sex or race or sexual orientation, but if they find out you are on the spectrum, you could in fact get fired (I would know). But at the same time, if you don’t say anything, you could end up getting fired anyway because of your differences in social behavior, learning, and thinking.

We hear a lot of lip service about the importance of different kinds of thinking, of creative thinking in the work place. We need more “diverse” work places to ensure we have a more creative environment. But in fact the vast majority of businesses want nothing but identical ways of thinking, so they hire people who will fit in perfectly, provide the same ways of thinking, and not rock the boat at all. This would be fine if we did not have laws on the books that enforce this prejudice throughout society. That they target what could be some of the most intelligent, most creative people in society — in no small part because they are too often labeled as mentally disabled — is all the more shameful and harmful to society.

While I have talked mostly about autism, since I know most about it, this is also applicable to many other mental differences, from dyslexia to bipolar to schizophrenia. Many such people could be contributing members of society, if only people accepted their eccentricities more. True, at the most extreme, help (like medication) may be needed by many of the kinds of people I’ve discussed here, but at the same time, one has to wonder how much better many of these people’s lives would be if we simply accepted them as they were and accepted them into society, cherishing their different ways of thinking. How many of their problems with living in society would disappear if the stigma associated with their differences in thinking were no longer stigmatized?

This is a civil rights issue. And we who are heterogeneous thinkers need to make it a civil rights issue. Like others who were Others before us, we need to stand up for ourselves and insist that we be treated like fellow human beings — albeit differently-thinking human beings. We have much to offer, and there is nothing more shameful than the fact that practically everyone keeps rejecting the gifts we offer.

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