Recently, I wrote a piece that has been published in an excellent collection of essays entitled The Ages of the X-Men: Essays on the Children of the Atom in Changing Times -- edited by my good friend Joseph Darowski. My chapter is called "Autism and the Astonishing X-Men," and it is a deeply personal exploration of the reasons I think the X-Men serve as a great metaphor for people with autism.
This spring when I presented on Autism in Popular Culture at the UVU Conference on Autism someone asked if I was there as a father or as a professional. I could only answer "yes." It's hard for me to separate these parts of my life, and I think that comes out in this essay. I've tried to write it for a broad audience.
The entire book is really good, and I hope lots of people buy it. Here are a couple of excerpts from my chapter:
Since my two oldest children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) almost two years ago, it has been impossible for me not to notice how many recent fiction films, books, and TV series portray people on the autism spectrum. As a humanist interested in the crossroads of aesthetics and everyday life, I believe that these works have much to offer in the way of understanding both autism and the human condition in general. Recently, however, I have found insight into autism not in fictional representations of people with autism, but in the X-Men -- specifically in Gifted (2004), a collection of the first six issues of the Astonishing X-Men written by Joss Whedon and drawn by John Cassaday. Along with the great writing and beautiful art in this comic, I have gained understanding as I have looked at this story arc through the lens of autism. I believe that there are enough points of contact between the concerns of these Astonishing X-Men and those of people on the autism spectrum to make the comparison worthwhile, and enough difference between the two to know that we are not talking about the same thing.
By way of summary, Gifted is the story of how Dr. Kavita Rao develops a "Hope Serum" that "cures" mutants of their mutations. This is a huge relief to some mutants and humans but causes great alarm in others. Beast (perhaps my favorite X-Man) struggles more than the others because he feels that if he were "cured" of his mutation, he would be able to have better relationships with people. Wolverine challenges this notion as weak.
This is my conclusion:
As is the case with Beast and the Hope Serum, I have my own personal struggles whenever anyone mentions a cure for autism. One of the first things our pediatrician told us when he diagnosed our children with autism is that there is no cure for it. This is something we would deal with our entire lives. Not twenty-four hours went by, however, before well-meaning people started to tell us that the doctors are all wrong. That there really is a cure for autism. If we could just get them into the right school, or get them on the right diet, our children might be cured. If we eliminated gluten, or went completely organic, or if we get our children iPads, or if we did ABA therapy or floor- time, or used the right essential oils or eliminated electronics from their lives, our children could be cured.
The problem is that for every child who sees a dramatic reduction in autistic behavior after a certain therapy, treatment, or lifestyle change, countless children will see little or no improvement at all from any or all of these treatments. The result is often either resignation to the fact that nothing can be done or a frantic search for the next promised cure.
For me, however, talk of a cure always raises deep and intensely personal philosophical questions about what exactly is being cured. The DSM-5’s definition of autism focuses on the negative aspects of autism, but many people who work with autism, and many people on the spectrum themselves, choose to view autism not as a disease or even a disorder but simply a unique way of viewing the world -- a different ability rather than a dis-ability. They may struggle with some things that neurotypical people take for granted, but they also possess a level of intelligence, an attention to detail, an ability to focus on one single thing, a unique set of eyes through which they see the world -- and all of this comes not in spite of their autism but because of it.
Some people may see my exploration of this topic as too reductive, but that is exactly what I am advocating against. The benefit of exploring autism through the lens of something like Gifted is that, as is often the case with the best science fiction and fantasy writing, the distance between the text and the real world liberates interpretation. Because Whedon never explicitly mentions autism, I can identify the moments in which the comparison works and discard those comparisons when they break down. In Gifted, no one protests when Tildie is cured of her mutation. Likewise, one could come up with countless examples of people with autism who would absolutely benefit from some kind of cure because their autism makes it impossible for them to function in society. Some people on the autism spectrum suffer so much -- physically and emotionally -- or cause so much suffering in the people around them, that it would be unethical not to give them a cure if it were available.
In my own case, however, I find that I identify much more with Beast than with the mutants lined up outside Benetech. I have seen plenty of dark days when I would give anything to make autism disappear from my children’s life; but there are other times when, like Beast, I realize just how gifted -- even astonishing -- they truly are.