Autism Acceptance Month

by Andrew Thorn

Friday, April 2 is World Autism Awareness day. If you are reading this on April 3rd – fear not! You may continue to become aware. It’s not going anywhere. In fact, according to the CDC, prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has gone from 1 in 150 children to 1 in 54. This is due to several things (none of which are vaccines, damnit). A common notion is that we, as a society, are getting better at recognizing the signs. Early intervention is very helpful. Unfortunately, this again highlights the race/ethnicity disparity in our society. Studies have shown that potential barriers to identification of children with ASD, especially among Hispanic children, include:

  • Stigma 
  • Lack of access to healthcare services due to non-citizenship or low-income 
  • Non-English primary language 

There is a saying (5 points to anyone who Googles it and drops it in my mentions) that, “Ifyou’vemet one person with autism,you’vemet one person with autism.” Everyone is different. There is no single definition or experience. If we want to understand it, we must get up close and get to know individuals. As my father was fond of saying, “You can’t get to know someone from a distance.” Now, he told me this to encourage me to go talk to girls, as I was (and continue to be) powerfully shy. “What’s that?!” says everyone who thinks they know me. “You…. Shy?” It’s true. And also illustrative to the notion that humans have layers and cannot be easily grouped. Something in the Marketing world we seem to be in the habit of doing. So, go talk to your Strategist or MarTech representative about the ROI of “personalization.” There is a Hobbesian view that if you strip away someone’s individuality, you take away their humanity. Perhaps, as Marketers (not to mention humans) we can help preserve and restore it. 

Here are a few folks identified as being somewhere on the ASD spectrum; Dan Ackroyd, Tim Burton, Bill Gates, Thomas Jefferson, Steve Jobs, Stanley Kubrick, Michelangelo, Mozart, Sir Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, my son Marshall. When I told a friend that Marshall was identified as being on the spectrum, he said, “Oh I’m so sorry. That’s too bad.” While I deeply appreciate the initial nurturing instinct to provide comfort, I thought, “Sorry? Sorry?? That’s just getting a label on something to make it easier to get help. Do you see that list? One day he’s going to change the world. What’s there to be sorry about?” 

This got me thinking about the oft bandied about idea of innovation. I have found when someone asks for innovation, they’re really asking for something that has already been done successfully. Just not in a way that is widely known. It’s paradoxical. But I understand because most folks are risk-averse, and innovating requires taking chances. It’s scary and unfamiliar. So is ASD. Like navigating some poorly lit, out-of-the-way part of a city you’ve never been to. “Gee,” you think, “I’ve lived in the city all my life, but I’ve never seen THIS place.” 

Innovation is driven by circumstance. Like, you met someone at the party in that part of the city you had never been to and decided you’d leave together to “get a coffee.” And, if you study the circumstance of that innovation you may reveal some fantastic life lessons. Like, on your way to “get that coffee” in the poorly lit part of the city you’d never been to, you happened upon a red door which beckoned to you both.  

This, it turned out, was an after-hours club where the two of you sat and talked until the sun came up. In turn, you made a far more intimate connection than the two of you ever could have made “over coffee.” 

Now, I don’t mean to suggest innovation is the result of some fated coincidence. What I am saying is that the circumstances we find ourselves in, and the way we respond is highly correlated.  

Consider the case of the great composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and his Piano Concerto #2—with apologies to LL Cool J—the greatest comeback in history. Science has shown him to be the most innovative composer (for the piano) of all time. (Ping me, I’ll shoot you the reference.) Whether or not you go in for this musical style, you have to tip your cap for a few reasons. First, everyone knows this piece. Even if they don’t know that they do. The second movement shows up in film all the time. David Lean’s brilliant “A Brief Encounter” used it extensively, as did the Marilyn Monroe vehicle better known for the “wind from a sewer blowing up her dress” scene, “The 7-year Itch.” Also, that staple of soft rock and easy listening radio “All By Myself” all but directly lifted the melody. But I digress. 

Let’s talk about why it’s innovative. From the musical perspective that cadenza at the end is a beast. Rachmaninoff had Marfan’s syndrome, a disorder of the body’s connective tissue, which allowed him to play 12ths. One’s hand must span 12 piano keys at once in order to do this, which is no easy trick. This allowed him to compose incredibly difficult things to play, that just weren’t being done. So, first lesson —Don’t let personal challenges be a limiting factor, instead turn them to your advantage. 

However, the thing that really impresses me is that Rachmaninov wrote the master work on the heels of a colossal failure. His First Symphony in 1897 was a stink bomb of epic proportions. I mean, oof… He sank into a deep depression. No one would have blamed him if he disappeared into oblivion.  He, thankfully, found Dr. Nicolai Dahl, a Russian neurologist. Between hypnosis and therapy, Dr. Dahl was able to help Rachmaninoff rebuild himself to the point he could compose again. Second lesson — Don’t let your failures consume you, that’s when its time to get help. You are never alone. 

I would suggest, as Marketers and more importantly, humans, we should not expect perfection, but learn to embrace failure — because from the ash will arise the greatest inventions.  

But there is a larger point here, and it is where we started. It’s the beginning of Autism Acceptance Month and for some ridiculous reason ASD, mental health and a host of other conditions STILL have a certain stigma, misperception and intolerance associated with them. And that’s just not good medicine. There are a number of amazing organizations to reach out to, to learn more. for one: 

As my father would say, it would be even better to get involved. Because, individuals are, by very definition, individuals…and you can’t get to know someone from a distance.