On Friday, I posted a video by an autistic person who shared her unique form of interacting with the environment as evidence that she is also a thinking person. I affirmed how the video emphasizes a basic principle of communication: see it from the other person’s perspective.
I’m troubled, though, by one of the woman’s unspoken assumptions. In short, she’s bought the idea that one must function as a person in order to be one. So she works hard to demonstrate that she is thinking just like any other person. Is it true she has the complex, abstract thinking that many non-autistic people exhibit? Yes. Is that a wonderful new world opened to us as we attempt to understand her? Yes. Is that the thing about her that demands of us basic respect? No.
Sure, we have more affection for her when we can understand what’s going on in her mind, when we can understand why she moves the way she does. But what of the people who we can’t understand? What of the people for whom we lack a youtube video, whose minds and hearts remain a black box to us? Isn’t it a self-centered ethic that demands that someone function a certain way (similar to me) before I will give her basic respect?
Imagine for a moment that basic respect and basic rights depend for their force on functional abilities. In that world, those with more functional abilities have more of what grounds their rights. Therefore, they should be able to oppress those with a lower level of functioning. Yet, we know this result is a false idea. Rights aren’t that sort of variable thing. In that world, you gain and lose your basic rights with changes in functional abilities. Yet, we know this is also a false idea. You don’t gain and lose basic rights. You have them regardless of changes of form and function.
What’s sad is that even though we believe (or say we believe) in the sort of stable rights that are based on what you are and not what you can do, we still act toward some people in a way that let’s them know that we do make distinctions. We do treat them better if we understand that they are like us. That’s why the woman in the video wanted so desperately to share her “language” and mental dexterity. She knows too well that she can’t rely on these abstract rights-ideas I’m claiming we all take for granted…because we don’t live them out in practice. Perhaps we only live them out when they prove convenient. And perhaps we only explicate them when they prove useful to us.
Shame on us. We’ve lied to this woman. We showed her with our actions that she doesn’t deserve basic respect, affection, and community unless she can become one of us (narrowly defined). I suggest we save her the trouble of trying to prove herself and instead seek to know her for her own sake…not for some ability she has that we feel is sufficiently like us to turn our heads and make us take her seriously. Perhaps that’s only a change in attitude, and not a change in action (we should still watch her video and try to understand her language, after all).
Practically speaking, I think it would mean in certain situations that we beat her to the punch and reverse the order. We ask her to share with us just because we want to know her. In other situations, it would mean we communicate with our eyes, time, words, and body language that she is one of us even if she seems totally different in the externals.