What I've Learned About Autism and Us

At age 12, Ari Ne'eman was diagnosed as autistic. "Initially it was very frightening," he told the Washington Post. "My saving grace was connecting with other autistic adults and finding out that there was this larger community of autistic people who weren't willing to just passively accept how the world defines us."

I first met Ari who by the age of twenty seven had already accomplished more great things than some people more than twice his age. President Obama nominated Ari in 2009 to the National Council on Disability, a federal agency charged with advising Congress and the President on disability policy issues. He was confirmed by the Senate in July 2010 and currently chairs the Council's Entitlements Committee. Ari co-founded his current organization, the Autism Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) at the young age of eighteen. Since then, he has built ASAN into a powerful player in national disability politics.

But there's a reason he has accomplished so much. Possessed with a razor sharp intellect and sophistication, he can deliver, with hardly any notes, incomparably erudite and passionate speeches on disability policy. He has a broad range of knowledge on issues outside of his professional expertise. He simply has an extraordinary mind.

For all these reasons and more, our foundation awarded Ari the Morton E Ruderman Award in Inclusion on May fourth, a $100,000 award for an outstanding advocate for full inclusion in our society.

Often I've wondered if Ari's brilliance is a function of a mind that is profoundly different from the average brain. Might other autistics also be capable of great things, if only society created the space for them?

It's a question that Laurent Mottron, a professor of neuroscience with a specialty in autism at the University of Montreal, has asked frequently in his research. Mottron had his own epiphany about the subjects of his research, which he cited in the journal Nature in November 2011. "In my experience," he relates, "autism can also be an advantage. In certain settings, autistic individuals can fare very well. One such setting is scientific research." Laurent's research group includes four research assistants, three students, and one researcher with autism.

Mottron tells the story of Michelle Dawson, an autistic woman who had been experiencing problems in her job as a postal worker. Mottron recognized her abilities as a researcher and brought in Dawson to work as a research assistant in his lab. They've since co-authored 13 papers together.

Mottron observed that employers often underestimate what autistics are capable of and assign them menial work. Mottron argued that most autistic people are capable of highly sophisticated work, if provided the right structure and support.

Their autism, however, is not merely a disadvantage to be partially overcome, as many often think of it, but a powerful set of strengths. In the sciences, for example, autistics "can simultaneously process large pieces of perceptual information, such as large data sets, better than non-autistic people can," Mottron points out. "They can often have exceptional memories: most non-autistic individuals can't remember what they read 10 days ago; for some autistics, that's an effortless task."

Michelle Dawson and Ari Ne'eman are living examples of the extraordinary opportunity we as a society have in including autistics in all aspects of life. They achieve great things not only in spite of their autism, but because of it.

Many employers have learned firsthand that including people with different minds is not a mere act of charity, but one of profound self-interest. In doing so, they empower people who see things differently than the average employee and bring value in surprising and even revolutionary ways.

Until we open our eyes to the strengths that autistics and people with other disabilities bring to us, it is we, not they, who possess the disability.