Autistic people are not failed versions of “normal.” They’re different, not less

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When people with developmental disabilities have the support they need to thrive, everyone benefits. In a speech at the United Nations on April 1, Steve Silberman made the case that it’s past time we all learned to honor neurodiversity. An edited version of his text follows.

We are living at a very exciting time — a time of great hope for autistic people and their families. Society is on the brink of a major transformation in its understanding of autism and other developmental disabilities, and everyone on the leading edge of this transformation — whether they’re a teacher, a policymaker, a disability-rights advocate, the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, an autistic person themselves, or several of these things at once — is playing a crucial role at this long-awaited turning point in history.

We’re evolving as a society from viewing people with autism merely as checklists of deficits and dysfunctions — seeing them solely through the lens of pathology, only in the light of the things they can’t do or struggle to do — to viewing autism as another way of being human, with its own distinctive strengths and positive attributes as well as profound challenges.

These strengths offer potential boons to our communities and workplaces, but only if we are able to provide the appropriate accommodations, supports, resources and research to improve the quality of life for autistic people and their families. We’re moving from viewing people on the autism spectrum as failed versions of “normal” to — as the industrial designer and writer Temple Grandin (TED Talk: The world needs all kinds of minds) says — “Different, Not Less.”

It’s easy to misunderstand this approach, which disability-rights activists call honoring neurodiversity, as making light of the very serious, day-to-day challenges that people with autism and their families face, particularly in a society that has barely begun to take up the challenge of building support systems for people who think differently.

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