But what is equal treatment? This question raises the “dilemma of difference,” as legal scholar Martha Minow explains. “When does treating people differently emphasize their differences and stigmatize or hinder them on that basis? And when does treating people the same become insensitive to theirdifference and likely to stigmatize or hinder them on that basis?”[i]
At Aeon, Bonnie Evans writes:
The diagnosis gained a foothold at the end of the 20th century not only because it ensured special educational services. It also slotted neatly into new models of social and economic liberalism in the 1980s and ’90s that aspired to dismantle systems of social welfare. Neoliberalism has arguably led to the ‘death of the social’, as the British sociologist Nikolas Rose noted in 1996, because it encouraged individuals to engage in a market for welfare products in order to boost their own advantage. In the case of autism, the diagnosis protected certain people from the mass demolition of social welfare systems in the 1980s.
It should be no surprise, then, that the most unwavering support for the autism diagnosis occurred under the UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the US president Ronald Reagan. It provided a kind of protection for citizens who were considered ‘impaired’ in their social function, and thus entitled to support in a way that others were not. In other words, autism as we know it today grew up as a kind of resistance to a neoliberal agenda, a tool for sheltering certain people from the growing challenges of global capitalism. And in the years since, it has become an important means of affirming identity.
Is there really an autism paradox? Or is this actually a paradox of human difference, and of what it means to delineate human types while also offering people the best opportunity to thrive. If we are to think creatively about how to identify difference without stigmatising it, it pays to think historically about how autism research got us to this point. Such history offers a rather humbling lesson: that it might very well be impossible to measure, classify and quantify an aspect of human psychology, without also muting attempts to tell the story differently.