Imagine for a moment what it would be like if medical practitioners talked about red haired people the way they talk about autistics. (Stay with me.)
A description of a redhead might go something like this:
Nearly 2% of people worldwide suffer from redhead disorder. Symptoms include abnormally pale skin, unusually thick hair follicles, hyper-sensitivity to changes in temperature and excessive freckling. There is no known cure.
Within the redhead community, a debate might ensue about the relative merits of identity-first language (‘redhead’) versus person-first language (‘person with redheadedness’). Some people might get in a lather over whether those with strawberry blonde locks were ‘ginger enough’ to be included in the definition of ‘redhead’. There might even be an ethical debate about whether it was right to seek to eradicate the ‘disorder’ by testing prospective parents to see whether they were carriers for ‘the ginger gene’.
Redhead advocacy groups would lobby government for recognition of their rights, with posts appearing on social media inviting you to sign and share a ‘titian petition’. Celebrity parents of flame haired offspring would be popping up as ‘Auburn Ambassadors’. We would hear inspirational stories of redheads who succeeded against the odds, despite suffering from their terrible affliction, and lists would be compiled of famous redheads from history.
It sounds a bit unlikely, doesn’t it? Actually though, the comparison is not quite as farfetched as it might at first seem.
For starters, redheads have been persecuted and misunderstood throughout the ages. In the Middle Ages, red hair was considered a sign of witchcraft. Judas Iscariot was portrayed with a red hair or beard in artwork, as a sign of his untrustworthiness. The ancient Greeks believed redheads would turn into vampires when they died. Even in these (allegedly) more enlightened times, kids are still teased or bullied for being a ‘carrot top’ or ‘ginger nut’ and prejudice against redheads has been compared to racism. They are stereotypically portrayed in the media as ‘fiery’ or ‘quick tempered’.
It’s estimated that redheads make up around 1-2% of the world’s population – a statistic remarkably similar to the figures that have commonly been quoted internationally for autism prevalence.
In response to the residual negative connotations associated with what is, of course, a naturally occurring variance, Ginger Pride events have been taking place in the UK since 2013. And so, while redheads may not (nowadays at least) be regarded as being outside the ‘norm’ to quite the same extent as autistics, you could say they have been on their own journey towards acceptance and understanding.
Now what about lefthanded people, who make up an even bigger proportion of the world’s population? Most estimates say around 10% of us are ‘lefties’. Did you know that hand preference is controlled by the wiring of the brain and is thought to be the result of a mix of genetic and environmental factors? (Remind you of anything?)
Lefties inhabit a world that is set up for the right-handers and are expected to fit into it. In the past, left-handed kids were forced to write with their right hand so as to conform with what society regarded as ‘normal’—an early example of behaviour modification techniques being used in a damaging way on those who were simply neurologically different.
Again, there are myths and misconceptions aplenty about left-handers. In medieval times, lefties were thought to be in league with the devil. Historically, they’ve been looked upon as gauche, clumsy and unlucky. Once again, left-handed people have felt the need to huddle together for comfort, and International Left Handers Day has been running since 1992.
Autism is arguably on a similar journey to both these groups.
The social model of autism posits that it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon, as opposed to something from which we ‘suffer’. Proponents of the social model (also referred to by some as the cultural model) argue that the clinical (or medical) model overly pathologises autism, in a similar way to how homosexuality was once seen as a mental disorder—5and, incredibly, homosexuality was only declassified as a mental illness by the World Health Organisation in 1990.
Of course, autism is not without its challenges but, as with other types of difference, often the problem really stems from societal attitudes and prejudices.
Maybe autism is approaching its own age of enlightenment. Maybe one day we will even have a world that just accepts difference, shows respect for diversity in all its forms and celebrates the rich tapestry that is humankind.
A girl can always dream…
About Maura Campbell
Maura is from Northern Ireland. She lives with her husband Stephen, her son Darragh, Ash the assistance dog and Baz the cat in the rolling countryside of County Down. She is a senior manager in the Northern Ireland Civil Service and served as a board member of Specialisterne NI from 2014-2016. Maura has spoken publicly about autism in both a personal and professional capacity and guest lectures at the University of Ulster once a year. She was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in 2011 when she was 44 years old. Like many adults on the spectrum, she sought the diagnosis after learning that her son had autism .