Today’s guest post is part of a series by Neurodivergent K on the educational diagnosis “indistinguishable from peers” as used by UCLA’s Young Autism program of the 1980s. This series was originally published on the author’s blog at Radical Neurodivergence Speaking and is reprinted with permission. An introduction to the series can be found here.
Indistinguishable from peers means: You don’t have autism related problems anymore
If you are declared indistinguishable from peers, which, as you may recall, is basically an educational diagnosis, people mistake this for not being Autistic any more. It is presented as such so of course the adults around the “indistinguishable” child act like this is the case, yes?
There are some problems with this. The one I’m talking about today is very practical: what ends up happening when the child inevitably has problems.
An Autistic child is vulnerable to a lot of problems-even an academically at grade level Autistic child. Perhaps especially an academically at grade level Autistic child. We are targeted for bullying by both students and teachers–we are not socially indistinguishable, just academically. We have high rates of anxiety and depression. We, like all people, get frustrated when we are misunderstood or misunderstanding. We have executive functioning difficulties that lead to problems with homework. Even if we are on grade level, we still have difficulties that the language of “indistinguishable from peers” ignores.
So, it’s K’s overshare time again. I was academically indistinguishable from peers. I have been to a number of psychologists and other people who think they know brains since childhood, because the issues I was having could not possibly be autism! They were everything but autism! Let’s see if I can get their NOT AUTISM hypothesis in chronological order:
-I was emotionally immature and bored
-I wanted attention
-I wanted less attention
-“maybe she’s still autistic” (that one got fired)
-I wasn’t adjusting to my youngest sibling
-I was struggling with my mom & last name donor’s divorce
-I was having a personality conflict with my teacher (all of them?)
-I was having a personality conflict with my last name donor’s wife (technically true. But it was my fault because I was the child)
-I wasn’t as smart as we thought I was
-I was twice as smart as we thought I was
-I wasn’t doing homework as a way of seizing control
-I wasn’t doing homework because I wanted the attention not getting homework gets
-I wasn’t doing homework because of a fear of failing at it
-I was refusing to get along with stepparents and parents because of deep seated resentment of…they were never quite clear
-I was oppositional defiant
-I had ADHD
-I liked the attention being bullied got
And the constant refrain of “the common denominator in all of these problems is you.” Constant refrain. The guy who billed himself as a problem solving expert. The guy who said I was too social to have ever been autistic because I had a friend. The guy who I never looked at ever but his name was Mike. All the parental units who were local to me.
The common denominator in all these problems is you.
Turns out adults who were indistinguishable as children have a really high rate of depression and suicide attempts. We tend to run pretty suicidal as children, too. It’s logical, isn’t it? If the common denominator is us, if we have issues related to a disability that we no longer have, isn’t the way to end the problems to take out the common denominator? Everything that goes wrong is a function of bad choices we are making, everyone has a hypothesis on them, but we cannot make them stop because our neurology does not work that way. It is a choice that makes sense and a choice that would make it all just stop.
And that doesn’t go away when you turn 18, or when they say “ha ha my bad, autism is lifelong and indistinguishability doesn’t mean what everybody thinks it means.” Those years of being the least common denominator and of all of those hypotheses being applied to you? They stick. Forever.
The ‘residual deficits’ that were referred to in Lovaas’s 1987 paper are way more life-impacting than anyone wants to believe. You can’t sell “we might be able to get your kid educationally mainstreamed, and that kid might end up there anyway, but said kid will still have autistic traits because they are still autistic” the way you can sell “indistinguishability” and just not mentioning it what it actually means. And damn the long term effects. It’s not like autistic folks are actually people, but that’s another post.