Autistic People Don’t Need to Be Cured

It’s a simple but powerful statement, one that apparently flies in the face of much of the conventional wisdom about autism: autistic people don’t want to be cured. We don’t want to be cured.

I never became autistic; I was born this way. The fact that I could hide it better at certain times didn’t change that. The status of being diagnosed didn’t change that. Most narratives you hear are about being diagnosed as a toddler, and that being the beginning of conflict in the “story”. I didn’t have that experience. I didn’t know for years; nobody did. I didn’t find out until I was sixteen, and I wasn’t formally diagnosed for several more years. I was autistic before those points.

What do people even mean by a cure? How would a cure even work? I’ve never seen much thought put into those kinds of remarks. Do they think an autistic person can be altered into an “acceptable” form? The genetic roots of autism are well-known at this point; how do you “cure” the genetics of someone already born? Or do we mean pre-natal affairs? Because that has no bearing on the millions of autistics alive today, and every call for a cure always invokes sad images of us, our stories distorted to derive pity for our existences.

Autism is part of my identity. It is not a disease, it is not an affliction, it is part of who I am. A cure mindset exists as the violent opposite to this reality. It is based on the belief that I am not entitled to my own body, a neurotypical is. It is based on the belief that my mind is not legitimate, but a neurotypical’s would be. It is based on the belief that my DNA is a bastard in my own body, a squatter to be kicked out so the proper tenant can take his place.

And you know what? I like who I am. I like being passionate about things. I like having a level of separation from peer pressure. I like thinking in ways and about things no one else would have. I like the man I’ve become, the people I’ve met, the life I’ve made. I wouldn’t want that taken away from me, now or in my past.

The issue of a cure is a false dichotomy. Being autistic isn’t all sunshine and roses (a situation which could, ironically, be a sensory issue), but there are resources and reasons to hope. Let’s start with the Americans With Disabilities Act. The accommodations you have for classes aren’t pity, they are your right to an appropriate education and for the tools to succeed in obtaining that education. And it’s not a polite request for your professors: it’s the law. I’ve written previously about how college can give you a fresh start with friendships. When nobody knows anyone, everyone is looking to make new friends, and previous reputations are far away. As you pick your classes (and you will likely get to pick your classes), you’re going to get to follow what you decide is your passion further and further, and meet people who feel the same way too. This is especially true in STEM fields, which is structured around fields and subfields.

At first, it may be socially difficult or even uncomfortable, especially when it comes to being paired up with a lab partner; a “stranger” that you will have to work closely with. Maybe you’ll decide to disclose to your partner about being autistic, and the ways you excel and struggle. Maybe you’ll choose to reveal something less personal, such as where your strengths and weaker points are. You may want to decide to discuss the lab partner with your professor prior to the start of the semester and ask for assistance with pairing up. Whatever you decide, know that you have support.

Colleges have other resources available for all students that you should take advantage of. Many schools have programs offering writing assistance, and even some introductory classes. Perhaps more importantly, schools will have a counseling center of some kind. Mental health is a very real thing, and yours matters. Don’t be afraid to use it. College can be stressful at times; there are people on hand with experience helping others navigating it. These kinds of programs are available to all students. You’re already in that system, and as my history advisor said regarding these kinds of services, “College is expensive enough, so you should get your money’s worth.”

But to take a step back from the practical reasons, I’d like to end on what I consider the strongest reason to reject the idea of a cure. I’ll say it again: autism is part of my identity.

I don’t deserve to exist because of my powerful memory. I don’t deserve to exist because I can write this article. I don’t deserve to exist because I can pretend to be neurotypical, keeping my hands still and pretending to make eye contact (because I can’t actually maintain eye contact). And I certainly don’t deserve to exist because of my grades. I deserve to exist because I am a human being, endowed, as the Declaration of Independence says, with certain unalienable rights. The same principles that underscore the belief in universal human rights, validate our existences, full stop.

You can probably tell how this makes me feel. I’ve had over six years to think about this. If you count the time where I didn’t know about autism, but still knew I didn’t belong, far longer. In that time I have had to both defend who I am against overwhelming peer pressure and come to terms with my own genuine issues. Over that time, I’ve finally learned to accept the person that I am. I still thrive to grow and do better, but at the same time I am at peace with who I fundamentally am.

I do not want to be altered; what about you?

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Justin Robbins is currently interning with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation in Florida, where he works in the Wildlife and Habitat Management Program. He is a recent graduate of Tufts University, having double majored in biology and history. In addition to being an advocate for other autistic people, he enjoys modern board games, great worldbuilding, and truly awful puns.

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