Autistic adults hoping to change narrative around disorder in York
April is Autism Awareness Month, but a group of local adults with autism say they want acceptance more than awareness.
Luke Anderson, an adult with autism who works at a bookstore in Springettsbury Township, started Advocates for Neurodiversity of South Central PA a few years ago as an opportunity for the local autistic community to advocate on its behalf.
Neurodiversity is a concept that neurological differences — which could lead to disorders such as autism, dyslexia or ADHD — should be recognized and respected along with any other human variation such as gender or race. People without such disorders would be considered neurotypical.
The group is loosely affiliated with the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, an international self-advocacy organization.
Anderson said the purpose of the group is to promote a better view of autism and change the narrative that he believes other advocacy groups promote: autism is a burden on families, and we need to find a cure.
"It's about uniformity," Anderson said of the negative view surrounding autism. "It's not something that kills you, and I doubt there's a cure."
Michael Bomberger, an man with autism from Lancaster, said he respects other people's opinions about his diagnosis, but he doesn't feel ill at all.
"If people feel the need to call me autistic, that's fine, but that should be followed by acceptance, and that's not always the case," he said.
Bomberger, who was diagnosed at 30, and Anderson, who was diagnosed at 24, both recalled being bullied a lot when they were kids.
Bomberger said many of his relationships, particularly in high school, seemed to be out of pity and were often short-term and disingenuous.
In an effort to help the development of the next generation of children with autism, Bomberger said he is working with a group based in Philadelphia to develop a peer-to-peer curriculum that he hopes will help children with autism build more social skills.
Anderson said part of the issue comes from a tendency of parents with children with autism to make cultivate a sense of dependency.
He said part of what AND wants to do is educate the public not to limit their expectations of autistic children.
"It can make things more difficult, but it doesn't mean you can't have a happy, successful life," Anderson said, pointing out that he went to college, has a job and lives on his own.
Bob Wood, an man with autism living in York City, said the autistic community is largely split into two paradigms, and York County is still stuck in the old paradigm.
Under the old paradigm — which he relates to Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of an autistic man in the 1988 film "Rain Man" — autistic people are pitied and donations are often made toward treatment or family support.
Under the new paradigm — which he relates to "Neurotribes," a 2015 book written by Steve Silberman — autistic people are accepted as equals, and advocacy is focused on education and employment skills.
Wood pointed out that other parts of the country and world have come around to the new paradigm, and he specifically referenced Silicon Valley in California, where autistic adults are sought after as employees for their difference in perspective and tendency to be more detail-oriented.
Julie Rasmuson, a longtime board member for Autism York, agreed that acceptance is what's lacking for the autistic community in this area.
Autism York is a support group and ally to individuals and families affected by autism, Rasmussen said. The group plans community events and support groups, and the organization held its 13th annual Walk for Autism fundraiser on April 14.
Rasmuson noted that they are not a service provider, and there are not enough support services offered to autistic people in this area.
Bomberger said it's important that any programs developed be catered toward acceptance rather than just awareness.
"The general public should just accept people as they are," he said. "Not trying to bracket people off."
Anyone interested in joining or learning more about AND can reach Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Reach David Weissman at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.