Different ≠ Deficient

March 12, 2012
Chelsea Budde
Rodin's "The Thinker" taken at the Rodin museum in Paris. Copyright © 2007-2008 James H. Linder

The concrete thinker in every human wants to quantify things.  How many?  How much?  What's the difference between them?  And it's that last question that tends to get us into a pickle.  We want to assign a number to demonstrate the difference -- even when it's not a quantitative difference.  And even if it's a qualitative difference, we concrete thinkers want to have a handle on the disparity.

When it comes to testing and analysis, as in the realm of qualifying for special education services, we have to be specific.  What is the age equivalence for the expressive/receptive language ability?  What is the difference between the child's actual age and the developmental communication ability?  If the standard deviation is at least 1.75 below, then (in the State of Wisconsin) the student may qualify for speech-language services through an IEP.  If not, well ...

Collecting data and searching for patterns is an excellent way to track progress (or lack thereof).  We write quantifiable goals in IEPs so we can tell whether our means for achieving our goal are successful and whether or not we've satisfied the goal.

So I suppose I shouldn't be so ruffled when people look at children with autism and try to quantify their differences.  In some cases, that's warranted for service entitlement.  But as caretakers, we have to stop looking at different as being equal to deficient.  For if different < normal, then it's okay to treat different < average.  When we follow that math equation, different = deficient.  We certainly can't say different = average (although we are all "different" by definition), because then we run the risk of eliminating supports that different requires.  Have I confused you thoroughly yet?

The point is this.  Yes, the autistic brain is different than the neuro-typical (NT) brain.  Its differences lead to altered ways of experiencing the world.  And in order for that experience to be accepted into society at large, both sides of the equation need to make accommodations.  But making accommodations isn't an intrinsically bad thing.  We all make accommodations ourselves and for our loved ones (sharing workloads by managing strengths, using calendars to keep track of appointments, etc.).

If we truly want individuals with autism to be accepted by their (NT) peers, we need to stop measuring those differences and displaying the disparity.  We need to be less concerned about the appearance of difference in inclusive settings and downgrade the importance of blending with NT peers.  Make the accommodations for the student with different learning abilities and explain their necessity to peers in teachable moments as appropriate.  Transparency is a value increasingly embraced in our culture.  If we are hiding difference, we are harboring the sentiment that difference is bad.  And when we allow that sentiment to cloud our thinking, then we perpetuate the harmful untruth that people with autism are lesser than their NT peers.

Think about it.

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