Disability or difference? When you’re speaking of autism, it’s not just a politically correct distinction, according to filmmaker to Todd Drezner ’94.
Drezner, who addressed a packed Skinner Chapel during convocation this past Friday, brought the troubles and wonders of autism alive in his film Loving Lampposts, which was released in May of 2010. The award-winning film centered around a fundamental question: is autism a devastating sickness that needs to be cured, or is it simply a different way to be human?
Rising rates of autistic diagnosis have made this question increasingly front-and-center, as Drezner explained.
“Some of you may be on the spectrum yourselves or have friends or relatives on the spectrum,” he said. “Some of you may, like me, wind up the parent of an autistic child.”
He underscored the importance of restructuring social norms.
“What I would like to persuade you here today is that yes, autism is a disability, but it is most profoundly a difference.”
Currently, society “sees autistic behaviors as symptoms of a disease that needs to be treated,” according to Drezner.
First, it fails to explain the rising rates of autism in blaming an environmental cause. Autism has always been this prevalent but, “labeling a condition and beginning to look for it guarantees that you will find more of it,” he said.
More importantly, the medical model ignores the context surrounding autism.
“There is a personal reason behind autistic behaviors, the reason is just less obvious than most,” Drezner explained.
He concluded with a discussion of the disability civil rights movement, which seeks to help the public accept, and ultimately accommodate, autistic people.
“The autistic civil rights movement seeks a life for all autistic people,” he said, “That’s a goal that should be universally supported.”
Drezner’s words found a receptive audience.
“I really liked it. I really enjoyed talking to people about it, because everyone else liked it too,” said Mitch Campbell ‘14, co-founder of the Mental Health Awareness Collective.
Polly Durant, a leader of College Buddies, an outreach organization dedicated to those with developmental disabilities, was enthusiastic. “Todd’s speech was right in line with our mission and made all of us proud to know that a large group of Carleton students are already doing what he challenged our school to do,” she said.
Campbell saw parallels between the autistic and other groups who have, in the past, been considered second-class.
“I really wanted to ask him about how his feelings for autism as the next civil rights movement relate to mental illness more generally,” Campbell added.
More than anything else, the speech brought a fresh and optimistic perspective to a discussion usually conducted in hushed tones.
“Todd’s speech made me excited to see what our community can do in the future by way of continuing to increase awareness and build momentum for the disabilities civil rights movement,” Allie Dulles, a volunteer for College Buddies said.
Edward Malnar ’15 said that Drezner confirmed a touching truth society needs to hear.
“Disabilities do not limit us,” he said. “Limitations exist when people fail to give others a fair chance.”