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September 2011



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September 20, 2011


When I unwrapped my New York Times on Sunday, I was met with a surprise: A front-page, above-the-fold story about a young adult with autism. The story — a must-read, which you can do here — follows Justin Canha, a 20-year old with autism as he stretches towards adulthood and aspires to an independent life. The feature, written by Amy Harmon, who won a National Academies communication award last week for her  “Target: Cancer” series, is beautifully wrought and a joy to read. It’s already been praised as a brilliant and insightful piece of medical journalism on blogs and twitter.


But I want to praise it for something else. Many articles about autism focus on the highest-functioning people on the spectrum, who certainly struggle socially, but who are brilliant beyond average academically or in some other quirky way. (Often they have Asperger’s syndrome, which will no longer be a diagnosis with the publication of the fifth edition of the psychiatric handbook,  the DSM-5, in May 2013, merging into the broader autistic spectrum.) Instead, Harmon celebrates Justin, a young man with a knack for cartooning, but whose autism is more familiar to me than in any profile I’ve read thus far.


And I am quite familiar with autism, as my youngest brother, Jonah, is on the autistic spectrum. There was a point in my life when I had to explain what autism was nearly every time I spoke about him. But I rarely have to do that anymore. As soon as I mention his diagnosis, acquaintances sigh with recognition, as if they know what that means. And, no doubt, they know more than they once did: autism awareness has never been higher, with one in 110 children born now diagnosed. But I wish I were still given the chance to explain. Too frequently, they follow-up with statements about his intellectual gifts — “Oh, he must be really smart then.” — a sign of the influence of the stories about those with high-functioning autism.


I usually laugh, and respond, “ah, yes, he is smart.” But I don’t mean ‘smart’ in any way that society currently values. At nearly 16-years old, Jonah can’t count change or multiply. He has favorite books, but he flips through them too frantically to actually absorb the text. I swell with triumph whenever we have a conversation that lasts longer than 30 seconds, an actual exchange rather than repetitions of his favorite topics, which include pasta shapes, wheeled vehicles, and what we’re having for dinner that night. What I see as his ‘smartness’ is his view of the world, little influenced by the social and societal pressures that feed my own insecurities.


In her article, Harmon gets at that smartness in her descriptions of Justin. It’s very difficult to articulate but, given the expanse of a feature, she was able to do it through dialogue and his interactions with others. And my eyes teared up as I recognized Jonah, the kind of autism that I know and love so dearly, in an autistic character portrayed elsewhere.


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