As the first openly transgender pastor ordained in the Lutheran Church, I know the difficulty that comes from judgment, fear and bad science. Having spent the past thirteen years primarily working with the homeless and hungry in San Francisco, there have been moments when my family has raised eyebrows and perhaps wished my life was safer or easier to explain their Midwestern neighbors and friends.
As I slogged through the hard won battle with the Lutheran church to recognize LGBTQ pastors fully, there was something comforting about knowing there was a large community walking with me, supporting me and praying for me. Yet, as I listen to GOP Presidential hopefuls, conscientious objectors to vaccinations and chirpy talk shows blithely validate parental desires to prevent, repair or erase autism; I wonder where my community is.
Diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, with what used to be called Aspergers, my autism is one of the best things about me. While Aspergers is considered mild on the autistic spectrum, I believe my autism makes me more ethical and better at my job.
The ability to hyperfocus makes me extremely good at research and sticking with a task until it is complete. In 2014 this gift helped me publish 3 books, create an award winning illustrated documentary and create a succulent labyrinth garden at the church.
My literal thinking and joy of following ethical rules means problems society has unnecessarily complicated seem simple to me. I believe the solution to homelessness is housing and to hunger is food. These naïve assumptions compelled me to do my part and in 2014, I helped get nearly 1,000 homeless individuals eye exams and prescription eye glasses and received an honorable mention as an Unsung Hero of Compassion by His Holiness the Dali Lama.
There are countless examples of people who excel at their jobs, because of autism. Having a brain that sees the world differently, may annoy and scare parents, but it helps our world become more innovative. Parents may wish their autistic kids were more social, but in a work situation these same behaviors might help a brilliant worker stay focused when office mates are gossiping and wasting hours on social networking sites.
If you’re still not on board with my ethical argument for autism, consider these two examples. First, consider the ethical impact of exposing children to the world’s most infectious, preventable disease. Now consider the ethical impact of an autistic child. Jenny McCarthy, the notorious parent of an autistic child, during her Dirty, Sexy, Funny show on Sirius XM, reported that her autistic son called the police on her when she was illegally texting and driving. McCarthy was unremorseful and shared that instead of ending the dangerous habit of texting while driving; she instead threw her son’s phone out the car window.
Rule following, when the rules are deemed ethical, is one of the “symptoms” of autism. Sounds horrible, right?
It took decades to discredit reparative therapies that sought to erase or retrain sexual and gender identities. Similar therapies for autistic children mask or hide characteristics of autism without the consent of the children living with autism. While it may be important for the parents of autistic children to force their children to be more sociable and to learn eye contact, we should also be able ethically talk about the harm this can kind of therapy can cause.
For example, some individuals with autism experience touch as painful. The therapeutic method sometimes used to eradicate this “symptom” from children is to hold them tight and not let go. The idea is that the child can learn to endure the pain. This method is repeated until the child stops exhibiting a negative response to being held.
We’ve decided it’s abusive to inflict physical pain on adults to get them to stop having a gay identity, why is it ok to inflict pain on children to prevent their autistic identity?
Some may argue that my space on the mild end of the autistic spectrum clouds my judgment on this issue. They may be right. But until autistic children are given the ability to advocate for their own needs and wishes, it may require high functioning autistic adults “coming out” to raise awareness on this issue.
Minimally, we miss the point when we limit our conversations about the measles outbreak to the question of whether or not parents can choose to vaccinate their kids. We must ethically question the motivations those of the parents, who go to dangerous lengths to try to eradicate autism from their children's lives. Like so many other kinds of diversity that teach us about what it means to be human, we should instead ask how we can learn from people living on the autistic spectrum.