Disability isn’t just physical

This morning (as I write), on World Mental Health Day, I watched a YouTube video.

The content of the video is largely irrelevant to this blog post, but what is relevant is what I saw when I scrolled down to the comments and had a read. It seems there are still people using autism as an insult. As someone with Asperger’s, a form of autism, I can’t begin to describe how deeply this angers and saddens me.

Imagine if someone accused someone else of being physically handicapped because of

The Brain
Disability can affect mind as well as body (Credit: J E Therlot)

something they said on the internet? People (quite rightly) wouldn’t stand for it. So why is mental health and mental illness apparently ‘acceptable’ for use as an insult? These people (and fortunately it is a select few) can surely have no idea of what autism is, or how it affects those who suffer from it. I am fortunate enough to have a mild form of it, but many others don’t – and even with me, my immediate family/friendship group know exactly what I can be like.

I don’t have as much control over my emotions as ‘neurotypicals’. Sometimes (rarely), if I get upset, I get really upset. Sometimes, if I’m happy, I’m absolutely, unashamedly, ecstatic. In the case of the former, these days I tend to shut myself in my room for a bit and keep myself from other people, so as to cause them as little stress as possible. My family certainly haven’t had it easy, and neither (at times) have my friends. Those who have seen me like that will know what I am talking about. I also can’t deal with certain social situations – clubbing, for instance, is something I tried once. Needless to say that, while it wasn’t nearly the worst experience of my life, it’s just not my kind of thing. Loud, thumpy music, flashing lights, lots of people; I find it a little overwhelming.

I am however fortunate enough to live at home with a very caring family and at university with friends who understand me, and don’t pressure me into doing anything I don’t want to do. But it seems that certain people are not so understanding.

Don’t get me wrong, I act ‘normally’ most of the time. I am perfectly capable of looking after myself (with a little support from home); I can wash, feed, dress myself; I am lucky enough to have (most of the time) fully working limbs; I am doing an Astrophysics degree, in a decent city, in a wealthy, ‘first-world’ country; I have a father, mother, sister, who all care about me; there are people I know (and this continues to surprise me) that may or may not regard me as a friend; I am not in any way unfortunate. Indeed, I am actually extremely lucky, to have been born and to have lived in a safe, rich country, to caring parents, where (as long as I do my work, and study my chosen subject) I can be almost anything I want to be.

But nevertheless, it should never, ever be acceptable to use disability as some form of insult. I have been happy in the past few years that autism and Asperger’s syndrome are appearing more and more on mainstream TV – ‘Chasing Shadows’ and ‘The Autistic Gardener’ to name 2. Books, as well – ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime’, and the extremely enjoyable ‘The Rosie Project’ – both feature main characters with Asperger’s. ‘The Big Bang Theory’ (a favourite of mine for so many reasons), whilst not openly admitting it, evidently features a main character with Asperger’s. Needless to say, I recognise bits of myself in Sheldon on an almost episodic basis. My family probably do too.

Speaking of ‘The Big Bang Theory’, having something like that be popular feels fantastic to me. For there to be a show with a main character like Sheldon is brilliant. The fact that it is now in its ninth season, and generating almost 20 million viewers in its home country per episode – that’s astonishing. It’s a mind-boggling number of people. And all of them, perhaps without quite knowing it, finish each episode with a slightly better understanding of Asperger’s.

I know that Sheldon’s behaviour is used for jokes. Him, and the comedy based on and

The cast of The Big Bang Theory
A simple spot on the sofa is crucial to Sheldon’s (second-right) wellbeing (Credit: Colorinchi)

around him, are the driving force for the show, and have been since the pilot. Yet I feel no annoyance at the show, no anger for them having used Asperger’s to make a joke. When people laugh at Sheldon’s antics, I laugh with them. Because it is funny, but also (more importantly) because it is true, at least to a certain extent. Sheldon’s possessiveness over his ‘spot’? I get that. For people like me and Sheldon, who don’t deal well with change, that spot is crucial. For me, that spot is my room at home. For Sheldon, it’s a seat on the sofa. In an ever-changing and confusing world, it is, in his own words, “Zero-zero-zero-zero.” It is the one thing he can rely on to stay constant.

Asperger’s, and autism, are not necessarily debilitating ‘conditions’ (and I use the term in the least negative way possible). Yes, sometimes I may act a little ‘odd’, I may not do things in the same way to other people, but what I definitely am is a completely functional human being. I am happy when things go well; upset when they don’t. I get stressed over deadlines, I occasionally procrastinate too much, I eat far too much chocolate. I continually struggle to get out of bed for 9am lectures. I deal with the same issues as everyone else. I just react differently to them sometimes.

So on this World Mental Health Day, I would ask anyone (if they so happened to be reading this) who has used autism as an insult to think about what they are writing/saying, and to think about those less fortunate who are actually on the Autism Spectrum. It is in no way fun to see someone use something that you were born with, that can’t be helped, that is (occasionally) extremely hard to cope with, as an insult. As the title says, disability isn’t just physical. Thanks for reading this blog, and in the words of another favourite comedic character of mine, “This is Dr Frasier Crane, wishing you good mental health.”

All credited pictures from Flickr, used under the Creative Commons license found at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode