When I was diagnosed with Aspergers I went on a mission (in true Aspie style) to find out everything I could about it. Just a short spell of Googling revealed that there was a thriving industry of retrospective diagnosis. Einstein, it seemed, could have had Aspergers; so could Mozart, Newton and a whole host of other luminaries.
Initially I felt a vicarious thrill of pleasure – I belonged, it seemed to a clan of geniuses. For a time I practiced saying it in my head: “Oh, you know Einstein – he was one of us”, a shameless piece of name dropping for a party which, thank god, I would never be going to anyway. The more I read, the more I realized that Spot the Dead Aspie was a thriving pastime. Names proliferated across the arts (Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson), science and invention (Edison), computers (Alan Turing), popular entertainment (Hitchcock, Schulz). There was, it seemed, no area of culture that might not have been touched by solitary geniuses who might qualify for what was starting to look like a rather exclusive autism club.
After time, and as I settled more comfortably into my own ASD diagnosis, I began to view things differently. Apart from the absurdity of trying to diagnose someone from a very different cultural milieu and time, not to mention there being no body or brain around for the autopsy, I was starting to think so what? Spot the Dead Aspie may have some marginal entertainment value but the fact is that geniuses are actually very rare. Most of us on the spectrum are just people trying to live lives under unusually trying circumstances. Yes, we’ve most probably got special skills, interests and talents. Some of us – like Temple Grandin – might get a career out of them. But geniuses or savants we are not.
British comedian John Williams in his performance “My Son’s not Rainman” puts his finger on it. No, his son isn’t Rainman, he says, and why should he be expected to be just because he’s autistic? It is just another unrealistic and uninformed assumption about autistic people which creates yet another burdensome pressure – if we’re not geniuses, should we feel bad about that too, have we failed to be properly autistic in popular imagination?
Maybe in the early days of diagnosis parents and individuals find that telling themselves Einstein was autistic sugar coats what can seem a bitter pill to swallow. Anyone who is diagnosed with autism is facing a lifetime of challenges in a world which is not geared to their needs, wants and aspirations. It is not unheard of for professionals to offer the same sugar coated pill – in the absence of any proper resources at their disposal this may be all they have to offer.
And yet, ultimately, I can’t help feeling that the genius tag does more harm than good. Coming to terms with autism means accepting who and what you are, recognizing potential limitations and embracing the special talents and world that it can bring. And more and more, it is about the neurotypical world learning tolerance and acceptance – that there is more than one way of being which may have equal worth and validity. To those of you out there on the spectrum who are geniuses, good luck, we salute you.
The rest of us would benefit more from just being accepted as who and what we are.