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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Writer/Curator/Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project. Contributing Author to Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood, and Concepts of Normality by Wendy Lawson, and soon to be published Gravity Pulls You In. Writing my own book. Lecturer on autism and the media and parenting. Current graduate student Critical Disability Studies and most importantly, mother of Adam -- a new and emerging writer.

“There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.” -- Baruch Spinoza

Thursday, February 23, 2006


Deconstructing A View Continued: Autism as a Gift

Kev of Left Brain/Right Brain made a comment about Sigourney Weaver's "autism is a gift" statement in reference to her newly released movie "Snow Cake" where she plays an autistic woman. Weaver talks about how she came to talk to autistic adults and observed a greater appreciation, in them, for the details of life -- a child-like view and a sense of wonderment as Einstein once stated. While I initially thought of Weaver's comment that "autistic people are gifted" a little naive because it is a generalization, I have to rethink this in terms of the pool of humanity -- each of us having inherent gifts within us.

In our society, which values homogenization -- a mediocratization of humanity and its manifestations, the idea of giftenedness is translated into genius. The two are connected, but not the same. I prefer Michael Fitzgerald's definition of genius which states that a person with it must alter the way we view the world. Giftedness can be viewed as having a special ability or talent. In this wider definition, we can view everyone as gifted in one area or another. In short, it is a similar concept to "different intelligences."

Jasmine O'Neill, author of Through the Eyes of Aliens: A Book About Autistic People, and herself autistic, seems to also view autism as a gift:

"I believe there are intelligences that cannot be measured. I believe Autism is one of these. Autistic people must be discovered [Donna Williams' version of the "cat" mentioned earlier].They must be coached to reach their full potential. They are worth much more than being subjected to idiotic theapies, which push them to repeat endless tiny tasks. Use tiny tasks as stepping-stones to mysteries beyond. Autistic people must be allowed to live their lives the way they please. They need to feel happy about themselves and be proud of who they are." (pp 56-57)

In this mornings post of mine Asking the Questions -Deconstructing a View that I wrote while packing my bags this morning, I ask the question of what we are teaching to autistic people is right. Is acceptance about transforming autistic people to our way of responding to and acting in the world?

"Their [autistics] gifts are formidable assets. Even autistics who aren't savants have special gifts, which aren't present in non-autistics. Autistic people naturally are better at simply being themselves. They are not magicians. they should never be criticized or called stupid because of the way they live. People who are adept at focusing attention like a laser beam are people who can retain details. The tiniest details they notice escape other people's attention. Minute details are important too. They exist. Plus, they can build up one another to create big details.

Savant gifts are present from birth. They are honed, as the person grows older. A misconception is that only mentally slow autistics can be savants. I am a savant in music,writing poetry, drawing and some electronics. Savants are amazing, fascinating people. They may never be able to live independenly. Some of them never grasp the complexities of regular human life enough to be able to drive a car, or look after a bank account by themselves. Yet, they have one or more very superior gifts which they can perform better than other people can. Also, there are those svants who do very well at many things; they have their specific savant abilities, combined with a knack for picking things up rapidly (one sign of the type of intelligence measurable in IQ tests), and they are whizzes at various things. They thirst for knowledge. They are insatiable.

Contrary to waht a few teachers still believe, most autistics enjoy learning. There are many examples of this. If an autistic is interested in learning, but is unable to get others to teach her, she will find a way to teach herself. Sometimes, communication skills aren't developed enough to tell others what she wants to learn about. Other times, too many surrounding people don't have faith in this `autistic cripple.' If other people are condescending, and have no faith in the special child or adult, he will begin picking that up and have no faith in himself." p.57

In my post called Sensing the World Into Existence, I entertained this notion of intuition and exceptional sensing by Adam. The way he hones into my emotions in a split second, the way he inherits them as his own and is so sensitive to people in general -- there are many times I believe that his sense about people is much more acute than mine (and I like to think I'm pretty intutitive). There is just as much, if not more value in this way of living, and like Weaver suggests, and the way Albert Einstein stated, our society no longer values the child-like perspective, the sense of wonder that gets lost in the face of the quest for the material, the quest to be like others, and hence, nothing.

I hope this extensive quote from Jasmine's book further suggests that autism is a gift, and further, how we may be misguided in our approach to teaching our autistic children. If we take this view, perhaps we can create learning environments that nurture inherent strengths and talents instead of focussing on the negative, on remediation (sorry, there's that word again), and on changing autistics to be like us.

(I'm in Florida now and can't yet figure out how to make links for you on this computer...bear with me!)


Blogger Kev said...

Who's this 'Keith' person? :o)

A very thoughtful post Estee, as usual. I think I still stand by by statement that autism itself is not a gift (unless we mean in the sense that life is a gift and autism is just another form of life) but I certainly agree that autism and the state of being autistic can confer gifts and has gifts as an intrinsic experience for a lot of autistic people.

An example - my daughter has an exceptional singing voice (I know all parents think their own kids are special) and to hear her sing is to truly be thankful that she has that gift that a lot of autistic people apparently have - perfect pitch and tenor.

3:55 AM  
Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...

OOps. I'm rushing as usual, sorry Kev!!!! :)

Thanks for your thoughtful reply,


9:03 AM  
Blogger Kristina Chew said...

I noted this on Wade's post about Snow Cake, namely that "gift" is German for poison and perhaps the word captures the range, the spectrum, of responses we feel when we hear the word "autism." Myself, I hear "Charlie" and his perfectly tuned voice.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Kev said...

"OOps. I'm rushing as usual, sorry Kev"

Don't worry about it - I get it all the time ;o)

I think its something to do with the nearness of the 'Ke' of 'Kevin' and the 'iet' in 'Leitch' that causes it - a literary optical illusion :o)

10:58 AM  
Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...


Exactly right. Something like paralexia.

I speak german (did grad degree in Germany). It's's difficult for me to write and speak about "gift" without thinking of the German translation. "Geschenk" is the German work for present or gift.

Nonetheless, in terms of gifts, we are all special and gifted in the eyes of diversity.

Final note, Thanks to Zilari so so very much for taking the time to start writing her posts on How and What to Teach in response to my request. In my recent philosophical questioning about what acceptance really means and how this may or may not conflict with how and what we teach in the autism realm, I find this very helpful and I hope that others do too.

Thanks to all for helping me learn,


4:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your quest is intelligent and admirable.

4:31 PM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

With my three children I have been priviledged to see autism on very different points in the spectrum. My oldest, Willy, was initially prognosed as so severe that the doctor had the gall to recommend we institutionalize him. He's now mainstreamed in first grade and doing wonderfully. Whereas Alex, who was prognosed as being less severe, is really struggling to connect with the way we perceive the world (I equate it with crossing a bridge), and yet Alex is also the happiest individual I have ever met that isn't on medication. And Ben, the youngest (who hasn't been through all the diagnostic ringers yet), is in between them both, very happy, seldom frustrated, yet completely detached from "normalacies" like wearing clothing and staying safe.

Watching them grow and develop can be very frustrating, but it's also very rewarding.

Is autism a gift? I guess that depends on how you choose to receive it. If you will not accept autism as a facet of your child or yourself, then no it's not. But that's a choice. If you embrace and work to cope with the difficulties it represents, then it can be an excellent gift. It's a choice we must make moment by moment, and sometimes we don't choose wisely, but overall, my family accepts autism into our life, for the good, the bad, and the amazing.

3:13 AM  

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