Out of Left Field

What’s wrong with this desk?

If you are quickly finding room for ascetic improvements, back up a minute.  I’m asking a simpler question:  If you need to take a test and you walk into a classroom full of these desks, are you going to pull out your #2 pencil or are you going to tell the instructor you have a problem?

Roughly ten percent of us are going to ask for a different desk – the one in the picture does not work with our neurology.

No worries, right?  Left-handedness is no big deal.  Schools usually have accommodations for Lefties – many desks are universal these days.  Sure, we’re going to leave the test with a big smear of lead across the side of our hands, but no one is going to point at us, stare at us or whisper about our neuro-differences.

But that wasn’t always the case.  It was not so long ago that Lefties were treated severely by educators and even parents until they “learned” to use the “correct” hand.  My grandmother was spanked by a school teacher and had her left hand tied behind her back – until her father marched down to the school and put a stop to that nonsense.  (I think he was a rarity in the 1920s).  I have another relative who was told that her left-handedness was a disability – that she would never be able to drive a car, get a meaningful job, or be able to manage a household.

According to Stanley Coren’s 1992 book, The Left-Hander Syndrome, Lefties have been historically maligned as evil, lazy, neurotic, rebellious or criminal.  Even the definition of the word “left” has negative associations in many languages and cultures:  wicked, weak, broken, inapt, clumsy, inauspicious, illegitimate, doubtful, impaired, handicapped, disabled.

You would think, as a Leftie, I would find this history disheartening.  Actually, it makes me quite happy.

Why?  Because almost no one thinks that way anymore, and I find hope in that.  If within a century, people can change their thinking about the deficits of left-handedness, can’t another century mean changed thoughts about Autism? 

Yes, I know that the challenges of being left-handed are VASTLY different than the challenges of having autism – in degree, depth, severity, stigma and every way imaginable.  My child has autism – I get that it’s not the same thing.  I’m not really trying to draw a direct comparison or suggest that history or even the future will treat the two as perfect parallels. 

However, I do think there are two significant ways in which my analogy can be helpful – or at least hopeful.

First, left-handed people succeed by adapting to a right-handed world.  Maybe it’s not fair, but it IS the way things ARE.  There are all kinds of statistics that demonstrate the seemingly hidden ways in which the constructs of our society are geared toward Righties – including those that suggest an earlier death for Lefties!  So we must adapt to survive.  Whether it’s learning to be proficient in certain skills with our right hands, or creating our own work-arounds, Lefties often have no choice but to modify their actions to fit the right-handed world.  We learn very quickly that the world will never be redesigned to fit the needs of ten percent of the population.

This is the same for people on the spectrum.  We can’t always quiet the world.  There are not always places for stemming, it is not always okay to hum out loud or shout with frustration.  Sometimes that food needs to be swallowed and that shoe needs to be tied.  We teach our autistic kids to adapt to the neurotypical world – when they can and at a rate that they can handle – because it’s impossible to recreate the world for their neurology. 

The advantages are obvious, numerous and exponential.  When I was a child and no left-handed scissors were available to me, I learned to cut with my right hand.  I was clumsy at first and not too happy about it, but I did succeed.  That success made me confident and gave me a skill that many people don’t have – I now am completely ambidextrous with scissors.  Kids with autism can similarly succeed with typical milestones, gain confidence and broaden the spectrum of their own capabilities.  This can, in turn, instill them with talents and fortitude that many of their typical peers will not have.

But there’s no denying that sometimes the world needs to change to accommodate the minority, and that’s my second point.  Let’s go back to the desk.  I can’t use one of those desks.  Being forced to try would damage my ability to learn – my muscles would be strained and perhaps even injured, my mood and concentration would interfere and, ultimately, I would fail to reach my potential – all because a piece of equipment meant to aid my education had, in fact, interfered with it.

Are there standard pieces of equipment, processes, settings, expectations, norms and instructional models that will not ever fit your autistic child?  Of course there are!  These are things we need to work to change, making the world accommodate Spectrum neurology – even though it represents a small percentage of society.

In 2013, left-handed students across the nation are accommodated without any fanfare – with hardly a person noticing.  I have known people for years who will suddenly exclaim, “I didn’t know you were left-handed!”  That’s because it’s now accepted that my type of neurology occurs in society – rarely, maybe, (if 10 percent is truly “rare”) – but frequently enough that people accept it now without a negative stigma.

And, yes!  Society needs to make even greater strides to accommodate those on the autism spectrum.  We shouldn’t expect autistic people to become neurotypical any more than we should expect Lefties to write with their right hands. 

Forward-thinking employers in America are already beginning to make adjustments for their valuable autistic employees – everything from removing harsh lighting over one employee’s workspace to putting another one in a quiet corner so she can work without the distraction of socializing co-workers.  In schools, students with autism are being given space to stem, they are seated closer to the teacher, offered headphones, given quiet spaces for test taking.  IEPs (individual education plans) are created to tailor-fit accommodations for a student’s particular needs – it doesn’t need to be one-size-fits-all!  And as time passes and awareness merges with education and respect, more teachers, therapists and administrators will understand the nuances of the spectrum and more quickly respond to your child’s unique needs.

I know my analogy is not perfect.  Perhaps some even think it’s silly to compare something as benign as left-handedness to autism.  But I hope that, like me, you see benefit to putting aside labels and assumptions that don’t fit and stem from ignorance.  I hope you can imagine a future where autistic kids are given an opportunity to fulfill their potential – without ever being asked to change their neurology.

I hope that a future is coming where those on the spectrum are regarded with the same kind of equal respect that is now typically given to Lefties – as neurologically different, but no less valued as members of our families, society and economy.

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