There is this thing that happens sometimes.
Parent has an autistic child. Autistic child doesn’t speak, or their speech isn’t an accurate window into what they are thinking. Autistic child is presumed to be very significantly intellectually disabled.
Years later, a method of communication is found that works for the child, and it turns out that they are in fact very smart. Very smart! The parents are overjoyed. They begin talking about presuming competence, the least dangerous assumption, that not being able to speak is not the same as not having anything to say.
They are so, so excited.
And they start talking about all the incorrect assumptions they had. If we’d known, they say, we wouldn’t have done X. If we had known they could read, think, hear us.
And it’s a big problem, because the way they talk…..they think the problem was that they treated their child like they were intellectually disabled, and they weren’t. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that they thought their child was intellectually disabled, and so they didn’t treat them like a person.
These revelations, about presuming competence, human dignity, and the least dangerous assumption—they don’t apply only to kids who are secret geniuses. They apply to everyone. They are the most important for the kids who really do have intellectual disabilities, who really can’t read or use full sentences and who really do need extensive support. The people who came up with these terms came up with them for a population where there is very little doubt that significant disability is a factor. These terms don’t mean assume they aren’t actually disabled. These terms mean assume they are a person, and remember what you don’t know.
When the neurodiversity movement first got its legs, oh so many years ago, we got a LOT of pushback from people who thought we were denying disability. And we had to be clear that we meant everyone. And I worry, more and more, that certain very academic circles have left that behind, in practice as much as in theory. It makes liars out of the rest of us, and it makes a lot of work very, very difficult.
If I told the parents in question that I am thinking about this, they wouldn’t understand. They’re not saying intellectual disability doesn’t exist, they would say. But the truth is, they’re either saying that, or they’re saying thank god, it wasn’t my kid.
And it’s a slap in the face, every time.