by Sofia

Just read this article on autism and I can’t help but think of how similar the concept is to Deaf culture. I was surprised at how articulate this woman expressed herself, but more so at how important her message is and how clearly it shows the disease model created by neurotypical minds as blatantly ethnocentric. From my Cultural Anthropology textbook (emphasis mine):

Ethnographic studies of the communication practices and wider culture of people who are deaf have great importance and practical application. First, this research demonstrates the limitations and inaccuracy of the “medical model” that construes deafness as a pathology or deficit and sees the goal as curing it. Instead, anthropologists propose the “cultural model,” which views deafness simply as one possibility in the wide spectrum of cultural variation. Studies clearly show that deafness leaves plenty of room for human agency. The strongest evidence of agency among people who are deaf is sign language itself, which exhibits adaptiveness, creativity and change. This new view helps to promote a non-victim, non-pathological identity for people who are deaf and to reduce social stigma related to deafness (Miller, Van Esterik and Van Esterik 287).

Several things stand out to me. Could it be that both these conditions could simply be at different points in their course to being recognized as different and not messed up—autism barely on its way and deafness farther along? The points towards the end of the article about understanding the very real limitations are critical to think about as well, but the task is not so daunting if we look at the very real advances made for deaf people. Naturally, there would be a need for creation of very different accommodations and norms for autistic people (as there has been for deaf people); doing so would be culturally relativistic in giving them the opportunity to express themselves on their own terms, rather than making them fail by trying to do so on ours, and opening the way for them to be understood and respected as people, too.