And I am quite familiar with autism, as my youngest brother, Jonah, is on the autistic spectrum. There was a point in my life when I had to explain what autism was nearly every time I spoke about him. But I rarely have to do that anymore. As soon as I mention his diagnosis, acquaintances sigh with recognition, as if they know what that means. And, no doubt, they know more than they once did: autism awareness has never been higher, with one in 110 children born now diagnosed. But I wish I were still given the chance to explain. Too frequently, they follow-up with statements about his intellectual gifts — “Oh, he must be really smart then.” — a sign of the influence of the stories about those with high-functioning autism. I usually laugh, and respond, “ah, yes, he is smart.” But I don’t mean ‘smart’ in any way that society currently values. At nearly 16-years old, Jonah can’t count change or multiply. He has favorite books, but he flips through them too frantically to actually absorb the text. I swell with triumph whenever we have a conversation that lasts longer than 30 seconds, an actual exchange rather than repetitions of his favorite topics, which include pasta shapes, wheeled vehicles, and what we’re having for dinner that night. What I see as his ‘smartness’ is his view of the world, little influenced by the social and societal pressures that feed my own insecurities.
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