By Hal Walter
In the wake of the recent election, I found myself pondering the future and reading a book called Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.
We’ve all heard of the Holocaust in which six million Jews were killed by the Nazis. One piece of history I was not aware of is that the Nazis also exterminated more than 70,000 disabled people, as many as 3,500 of them believed to be autistic.
Through a program called Aktion T4, the Nazis carried out their ideology of “eugenics.” Part of this was the notion that those who could not work were a burden – “useless eaters” and unworthy of life. This involuntary euthanasia program targeted mostly disabled or mentally ill people, primarily children, who were put to death by lethal injection, gassing, starvation and shooting. In many cases, parents were urged to send their disabled children to an institution and were later sent a letter saying their child had died of natural causes.
Also killed under this program were some political dissidents, including artists.
Since publishing my book Full Tilt Boogie two years ago, I’ve been going around giving talks about autism and the challenges of parenting a disabled child. Initially this was all about selling my book. This transformed into an effort to raise awareness about autism and neurodiversity, a term I prefer because it is more inclusive and less of a label. This theme has further evolved to a concept I call Endurance for Life, which refers to physical and emotional strength and determination, and embraces the gifts of patience, humility and empathy.
One of the points I include in these discussions is the social impact of autism on communities and the larger economy. An MIT researcher predicts that half of all kids will be autistic by the year 2025. That’s only about eight years away. What if she’s only half-right, and “just” 25 percent of kids are autistic in less than a decade?
Many people ask how this could be. What’s causing this? The MIT scientist believes the phenomenon is statistically correlated to glyphosate contamination. Glyphosate is more commonly known as RoundUp and is used widely in conjunction with genetically engineered crops. It is found in a strikingly high percentage of water and breast milk samples in the U.S.
Even if this MIT researcher is way off on her prediction about autism, we are talking about huge numbers of people who may not be able to attend a regular school, may never be able to live on their own or have a career. People who may need public assistance. People whose parents will eventually die hoping that their kids will have a place in this world.
Another statistic I like to quote is that more than 70 percent of autistic adults are unable to live on their own, and the economic cost is catastrophic. The Centers for Disease Control recently reported that placing an autistic adult in a group home costs an average of $50,000 a year – more than a year’s tuition at Stanford.
For someone like my son Harrison, who is 12, I can only hope that maybe, just maybe, he’ll be one of the few who finds a niche in this world and excels at something. The jury is out.
• • •
One idyllic fall evening following cross-country practice, one of the boys on Harrison’s team tossed a frisbee my way. I caught it and tossed it back to him. Micah and his brother Elias are both Ethiopians adopted by a local family from an orphanage when they were very young. Micah tossed the Frisbee back to me and then we just tossed it back and forth over and over for several minutes.
Meanwhile, Harrison stood nearby engaged in his own world.
Micah threw long passes and I ran for them, catching them over my shoulder, or reaching outstretched to grab them. I threw some long passes to him. Harrison nearly got beaned by one of these. We threw some flat-trajectory zingers in between the long bombs.
Micah’s accuracy and distance throwing the frisbee, and his ability to run down and catch even my poorest throws, drew sharply into focus the difference between his motor and sensory-processing skills and Harrison’s, not to mention the capacity for a simple game of catch. How rich and blessed I am that a boy from an orphanage in Ethiopia could provide a glimpse of something that has been denied to me as a father – the simple joy of playing catch with a frisbee. Somehow, this play allowed me to reconcile the contrast between how things could be and how they really are.
• • •
As time goes by I’ve realized that neurodiversity encompasses a wide variety of neurological differences. In addition to the autism spectrum, these can also include dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Tourette syndrome, sensory integration disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
We tend to think of the autism spectrum as being linear. On one end of this spectrum is not autistic, or less autistic. And on the other end is very autistic. In the middle is “moderately” autistic. However, the notion of a linear spectrum is a vast oversimplification. In reality the spectrum is circular, with shaded areas spreading out from the center to different points on the circumference that may include traits like language skills, motor skills, sensory filters, perception, social skills, executive function and impulse control.
While my son has sensory processing problems and behavioral issues that are sometimes over the top, this same kid goes to a regular school and gets A’s in some classes, can play the piano and sing before an audience, and runs on the school cross-country team.
Is he a larger burden requiring more resources than a neurotypical child? No question. He takes far more effort and energy for the school staff to manage. He also requires an inordinate amount of energy at home. Recently, someone who works as a counselor in the field of autism support, told me: “You are not in any position to have a real job.”
In Nazi Germany, that might render me a “worthless eater,” and since I write and speak out about this subject, I could also be considered a political dissident and artist.
Which brings us to the recent election. The outcome was not a vote for patience, humility or empathy. Even more disturbing, it only served to embolden those who repudiate these qualities. The empowerment of those aligned with the alt-right is not encouraging for those who believe in the same freedoms and liberties for everyone, and it seems we find ourselves on a very slippery slope.
Meanwhile, I will continue to speak truth to power through the sharing of my human experiences in hopes of helping prevent history from repeating itself. To borrow from a famous wizard, “It is the everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.”
Hal’s books Full Tilt Boogie and Endurance are available from The Book Haven in Salida.