On the cover of today's NYT, a 8,000+ word feature on Justin Canha, an autistic high school student who has been participating in an intensive program that aims to integrate people with autism (and not just the "high-functioning" kind) into the community. Justin is a talented artist, and is often sweet and charming, but he is also extremely confused by many everyday social interactions. His teacher, Kate Stanton-Paule, has been accompanying him through a multi-year program of daily community routines (shopping, working at part-time jobs), and Amy Harmon's long, well-written piece chronicles the triumphs and failures of the new approach that aims to replace segregation and institutionalization with integration and participation.
Some advocates of "neurodiversity" call this the next civil rights frontier: society, they say, stands to benefit from accepting people whose brains work differently. Opening the workplace to people with autism could harness their sometimes-unusual talents, advocates say, while decreasing costs to families and taxpayers for daytime aides and health care and housing subsidies, estimated at more than $1 million over an adult lifetime.
But such efforts carry their own costs. In this New York City suburb, the school district considered scrapping Ms. Stanton-Paule's program almost as soon as it began, to save money on the extra teaching assistants who accompanied students to internships, the bank, the gym, the grocery store. Businesses weighed the risks of hiring autistic students who might not automatically grasp standard rules of workplace behavior.
Oblivious to such debates, many autistic high school students are facing the adult world with elevated expectations of their own. Justin, who relied on a one-on-one aide in school, had by age 17 declared his intention to be a "famous animator-illustrator." He also dreamed of living in his own apartment, a goal he seemed especially devoted to when, say, his mother asked him to walk the dog.
(Image: A job at a bakery, Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times, used with permission)