Reporter's Notebook

The Brilliance of Autistic People: Your Stories
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Ron Fournier, whose son Tyler has autism, is compiling stories and reflections from readers on the spectrum and from their loved ones. Reach out to Ron here with your own experiences. And be on the lookout for his new book, Love That Boy.

Show 6 Newer Notes

Are Subminimum Wages for the Disabled Ever a Good Thing? Cont'd

I think what we’re seeing playing out in this Notes thread is the division within the autism community. It’s a divide (if I might over generalize for the sake of the discussion) between those focused largely on high-functioning autistic people and the support they need and those geared more toward low-functioning autistic people and the need for research.

Into that breach comes Ari Ne’eman, a person with autism and a mission: He’s a zealous advocate for services that support people on the spectrum. It was Ari who pointed me to Hillary Clinton’s remarks on the subminimum wage. I asked him to respond to the readers defending the exemption for certain employers who hire disabled people, namely in “sheltered workshops.” Ari directed me to two long posts he’s written, here and here, under the title “(Almost) Everything You Need to Know About Sheltered Workshops.” First, here’s Ari with an overview of the places we’re debating about:

Sheltered workshops are work centers which exclusively or predominantly employ people with disabilities. Many hold 14(c) certificates, so named after the section of the Fair Labor Standards Act allowing certain employers to pay disabled workers less than minimum wage.

Today, approximately 228,600 workers with disabilities are paid under 14(c), the majority of which are paid less than the minimum wage (a minority of employers also use 14(c) certificates to pay under the prevailing wage rate required by federal contracts). While there are more workers than that in sheltered workshops, the population covered under 14(c) tends to be the most focused on by advocates, as many garner little economic benefit from their work, some making less than a dollar an hour.

From Ari’s section, “What’s the problem with sheltered workshops?”:

At a basic level, sheltered workshops suffer from a fundamental conflict of interest.

A reader emailed me a reasonable dissent over my piece cheering Hillary Clinton’s push to end subminimum wages for disabled workers:

My brother-in-law has Down’s syndrome, and he works jobs for less than minimum wage. He does not really understand numbers, and he has minimal verbal skills. He frequently does not talk at all.

I remember he once came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder; he wanted to show me (wordlessly) that he had two dollar bills. At the time, he did not understand that they were worth less than a 20 dollar bill. He may understand the difference now.

In spite of his profound disabilities, he can clean and do laundry. It means the world to him that he earns his own money; it makes him like his (able) brothers. And the jobs that hire him do not get $7.25/hour worth of work. I think we are all happy with the arrangement.

Several other readers provided more smart pushback in the comments section, and my colleague Chris edited together some of the best responses below. This first reader insists we need to draw more distinctions in this debate:

Fournier’s post seems to throw all people with disabilities into one pot. Some disabilities (say, sitting in a wheel chair) may be a handicap for some jobs, but there are plenty of other jobs where a person with this disability can work just as well as someone without disabilities. Paying the disabled person a lower wage is unfair.

But there are also people with much more severe (in the sense of hindrance to work) disabilities.

Here’s another powerful story for our ongoing series. This reader asked to remain anonymous “because most people who know me in my adult life don’t know about my diagnosis”:

I’ve been following The Atlantic’s coverage of women on the autism spectrum. There’s a particular problem, as you all rightly point out, for autistic women/girls because there is not enough research in the area. Because of this, it is very hard for people like me to find information about ourselves, and it is both jolting and relieving for me to find descriptions that mirror my own experiences with autism (or Asperger’s, as I was originally diagnosed).

That was particularly the case when I read Wildhood’s recent article about “looking autistic” and the trouble with passing. She covered a lot of the feelings that I’ve had when somebody denies my autism (I don’t really tell people about it anymore, because those interactions are too hard and, actually, shaming).

I’d like to talk a little bit about why it’s problematic to try to make an autistic person “normal.”

Our latest reader contributor and parent of an autistic child strikes a chord with me and my family: Late diagnosis. Check. Solitary life. Check. Crushing rejection. Check. A parent’s desperate dream: “I wish more employers could see past the facade of autism to recognize the smart, hard-working people who simply have minds that are wired differently from the majority of the population.” Here’s our reader in full:

Thanks for sharing so many of these stories. My daughter had some of the typical autism traits as a preschooler, but she was so intelligent, we didn’t think she possibly could be autistic.

That’s how reader Gary describes his three amazing stepkids:

I was touched by the note about your son Tyler as I read it this morning. It was forwarded to me by my wife of nine years whose three children have all been diagnosed with ASD [autism spectrum disorder]. Her oldest son is 26 and seeking a bachelor’s degree in mathematics with plans to attend graduate school. She has 13-year-old twins who are seventh graders at a public school right now. One of the twins and the oldest son have Asperger’s while the other twin has a more severe form of autism with speech problems and more challenging behavioral issues.

My wife has struggled tirelessly to help her three kids adjust, adapt, and grow into the wonderful human beings they can become. They are so much better off because of their mom. She has faced many obstacles with each child, yet through her fiery determination and strong will, they have overcome those obstacles and were strengthened as a result.

Your note came at a particularly challenging time for her. Last night, as she lay in bed, she told me that she was not a good parent and that she had failed her younger son.

Two readers responding to my note on autism reflect two disparate vantage points. The first is a 66-year-old Georgia man with Asperger’s Syndrome, a retired Army officer who has struggled socially his entire life. His subject line: “On the Spectrum.”

[B]oth parents and teachers must understand that not all young people are cut out to be “the leaders of tomorrow”—that some individuals will make their greatest contribution as tinkers or inventors or mechanics or engineers or programmers.

To quote Popeye the Sailor: “I am what I am and that’s all that I am!” And I’ve done okay.

The second is from an elementary school teacher who has taught children on the spectrum. Keith Bohlender of Toronto is neurotypical:

I read “My Little Dandelion,” as well as the Wildhood and Garcia articles, with great interest …. My wife is a speech therapist whose clientele is made up of pre-school children. Many of these children have very recently received diagnoses, or are facing the very real prospect that their beloved child may imminently be diagnosed with ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder]. My wife is in the exceedingly difficult position of being able, after many years of experience, to expertly recognize the markers that are described in these articles.  

She cannot, however, make a formal diagnosis—even when tearfully begged to do so by parents. So, she encourages the parents to seek an opinion from a medical professional.

I am sending all three of these articles to her, with the thought that she may be able to pass them on to some of the parents of her clientele. It may give them comfort and sustenance to read of how adults with ASD are able to cope, contribute and thrive.

Also worth checking out is the video seen above, on how creative expression can help kids with autism. And keep the emails coming—if you’re autistic or the parent of an autistic child and would like to share your story.

I used to dream my son would be an athlete. Now I enjoy watching Tyler chase his own dreams to be a history teacher or comedian. One thing I never considered my boy to be: a dandelion.

Not until I read a Forbes profile on a new acquaintance of mine, Thorkil Sonne, who uses the analogy to describe the brilliant uniqueness of autistic people—like his son and mine:

To most people, the dandelion is nothing more than an annoying weed – something to be rooted out of our lawns and flowerbeds. But what a lot of people don’t know is that, when cultivated, the dandelion is one of the most valuable and useful plants in nature. In many parts of the world, the dandelion is known for its nutritional, healing and medicinal properties. The value of a dandelion is very much dependent on our knowledge and perception of its value.

Most of us don’t want dandelions in our lawns – they don’t fit there. But if you place a dandelion plant in your kitchen garden, and cultivate it, it can turn out to be one of your most valuable plants. Dandelions are used to make beer, wine, salads, and natural medicines. Quite simply, if you choose to cultivate dandelions, you will reap their rewards. So, is a dandelion a weed or an herb? You decide. The same can be said for individuals with autism. The value of what you see depends on your level of understanding and accommodation.

The article describes Thorkil’s efforts to link autistic people with employers who need the distinctive skill sets that come with autism. Most employers don’t know what they’re missing. People with autism aren’t defective; they contribute a special sauce to the human experience. Steve Silberman puts it this way in his book NeuroTribes:

One of the most promising developments since the publication of “The Geek Syndrome” has been the emergence of the concept of neurodiversity: the notion that conditions like autism, dyslexia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder [ADHD] should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture, rather than mere checklists of deficits and dysfunctions.”

After my son’s diagnosis six years ago, I slowly came to the same conclusion and wrote about it here, here, and here. But there is only so much I can do to help the cause—to help neurotypical people understand what it’s like to be autistic and to realize the value autism offers society—because I’m not truly a part of it. Because I am not autistic.

Autism needs more spokespeople like Eric Garcia, a former colleague of mine who wrote an essay for National Journal last year called, “I’m Not Broken.” Last week, for The Atlantic, M.Nichole.R.Wildhood wrote a first-person piece called, “What Does It Mean to ‘Look Autistic.’”

The perspectives I have on people and the world I’ve interacted with thus far in my life are necessarily informed by my [Asperger’s], whether it looks like I’m an Aspie or not. Ultimately, when my friend told me I don’t look autistic, he was essentially affirming my constructed normalcy, my ability to fake it. In high school, I would have relished in this aptitude to appear “same,” and would have taken his remark as a compliment. But I’ve come to realize that each attempt to somehow make myself more “acceptable” to someone else, more lovable, has left me with what is, in the end, a false connection. I don’t want to be judged based on my [autism] alone, but nor do I want it to not matter. I may not “look autistic” from the outside, but if you see with my eyes, I do.

Please read the powerful stories by Wildhood and Garcia, and let me know what you think. And if you’re autistic or the parent of an autistic child and would like to share your story, I’d love to hear from you as well.

Tyler accept his autism far better than his father once did. “It’s a part of me but I don’t find that it’s a big deal, that I have to be talking about it every five seconds,” he says in a video for Autism Speaks that will be released next month with my parenting memoir, Love That Boy. “Like blue eyes: I don’t talk about how I have blue yes. I have autism, that’s it.”

One person’s weed is another person’s flower.