To See Autism as a Civil Rights Issue

Discoveries at the U of M are helping people with diverse neurological conditions reach their full potential

There’s a stigma attached to autism. Some people would say autism is like cancer and needs to be cured. Yet some with autism would reply, “No. This is who I am.”

Jigna Desai Jigna Desai, Professor

Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies

Dr. Jigna Desai is looking for ways to break down the barriers that prevent people with autism and other marginalizing conditions from reaching their full potential. “The difference is between ‘curing’ something, which is eradicating it, and actually supporting people,” she says.

“I think a big part of liberal arts inquiry is to understand and imagine the world differently.”

Neuroscience has tended to divide people up into those with normal brains and those with abnormal ones. Desai is among a growing number of researchers who advocate for “neurodiversity”—the view that diverse neurological conditions appear as a result of normal variations in the human genome.

Children on playground running towards the viewer
1 in 68 children in the United States is identified as autistic

Paying attention to differences is important. For instance, people with autism—especially if they are young males of color—can easily be mistaken as exhibiting oppositional defiant disorder. And this only perpetuates negative perceptions that help feed the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Being autistic isn’t something to cure or just tolerate. It’s just another way of being.”

Desai pursues her work with faculty and researchers across half a dozen fields at the University of Minnesota. “I see diversity as critical to our wellbeing,” she says. “We have to have multiple perspectives and ways of being in the world to do well.” She finds a richness and vitality in the ways in which many at the margins live, and believes we may gain a lot from not just including them but learning from them as well.

“How do we make the world a better place for all of us? That’s what it comes down to,” she says.