Today, we have two days seemingly in conflict. We commemorate the suffering and death of Our Lord. The secular world also has the annual world autism awareness day. I am a Christians first so obviously Good Friday is a focus but as I prayed today, I was struck by an odd connection to these two days.
This Lent, I’ve been going through Henri Nouwen’s Show Me the Way: Daily Lenten Readings in my prayer. Today he notes the huge cross they brought out at L’Arche, then thinking of the sufferings of Jesus, he was struck by the sufferings of those around him. He mentions, “Jacques, who bears he marks of suffering in his face,” and “Edith in her wheelchair.” These were the members of L’Arche which is a community for the disabled and those who dedicate their life to care for them.
This reflection is a reminder of St. Paul in Colossians 1:24: “I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” When we see the community come up to venerate the cross on Good Friday, we see all their different sufferings.
It made me think of our autistic sufferings. How often we suffer from misunderstandings, from sensory issues, from loneliness, and from an inability to understand or communicate in ways most humans consider normal. Our sufferings are often invisible to others.
We suffer those things with Jesus and can offer them up for the Church.
Autism Awareness or Acceptance
This leads to autism awareness and acceptance. Today is world Autism Awareness Day, but, at least in the USA and Canada, I think few are unaware of autism exists and at least some caricature of it. The question is where do we go from here and what suffering that may cause or alleviate.
Often people use symbols like puzzle pieces which end up causing more suffering as they indicate either we’re missing a piece or we’re a puzzle to understand. A 2018 study analyzed 400 random people’s reaction to puzzle pieces and summarized the results:
Puzzle pieces, both those used as autism logos and those used more generically, evoked negative implicit associations (t(399) = −5.357, p < 0.001) and negative explicit associations (z = 4.693, p < 0.001, d = 0.491). Participants explicitly associated puzzle pieces, even generic puzzle pieces, with incompleteness, imperfection, and oddity. Our results bear public policy implications. If an organization’s intention for using puzzle-piece imagery is to evoke negative associations, our results suggest the organization’s use of puzzle-piece imagery is apt. However, if the organization’s intention is to evoke positive associations, our results suggest that puzzle-piece imagery should probably be avoided.
If everyone is aware of autism but has an overwhelmingly negative connotation of it, I’m not sure how much of advance we have gotten. Honestly, seeing these is a huge additional cross for many autistics. A nonscientific survey of parents and autistics showed almost no autistics prefer it, with some having a visceral negative reaction.
Yet it continues. Why do we keep using a symbol that increases autistics’ suffering?
Sure, we can offer up our suffering with Jesus but why increase it?
I see people who I assume have a good intent doing some autism awareness with a puzzle piece. We can do better. I use a variation of the autism infinity symbol I made myself but I’m not opposed to other options some have proposed.
Caricatures and Stereotypes
We have similar things with the caricatures many have of us autistics. Many of the caricatures or stereotypes of autism can cause suffering as people will assume we are like that when often we are not. I know many have the idea from some “We are autism” ad that scared them or have an idea of some kind of savant. But if people only give one or two version of autism, they can tend to assume things that cause us more suffering.
One thing to remember is that although neurotypical brain connectivity is pretty standard, autistics connectivity is not. We vary a lot from neurotypicals and from each other. One study found the variation among autistics is greater than the variation among all neurotypicals. Some have more connections in one region and less in another and others vice-versa.
A better way to look at it is to note the specific difference of a specific autistic person both in strengths and difficulties. This comic is probably the easiest guide I know of in this regard. Each autistic has different struggles in different aspects of our life we need help with to reduce suffering.
The message of Good Friday is that all our sin and suffering is nailed to the cross and dies with Jesus so he can set us free from all that evil. This year it matches autism awareness day which should lead us to look at ways to reduce autistic suffering. This should include reducing symbols or caricatures that perpetuate our suffering. Instead let’s look for ways to accept and include autistics, not just know we exist. Let’s try to understand those on the spectrum and accept them, not just be aware we exist.
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