Maybe it's because I live in New York City, where the best way of getting around is underground or on foot, rather than by car. But I confess I haven't been spending a lot of time staring at car bumpers lately. So it came as something of a surprise when riding home last night in a car, I noticed the prominent bumper sticker on the car that had just overtaken mine on the right. It said, in large letters, autism. There was a thin line under it, and from one car length away it was hard to tell whether it was a design element or a long word in very small print. Why, I wondered, would anyone want to advertise they have autism? Not that it's something to be ashamed about. But to flaunt it?
Why not a bumper sticker for much maligned Tooth Decay? Or Prostatitis? Or Ulcers? How about Schizophrenia? Or Anger Management Problem? At least that might serve to warn other drivers of potential danger. But Autism? What could possibly be gained by announcing it on a bumper? When my car eventually caught up with the autism auto, and I had to be right on top of it to see this, I could barely make out that there was indeed small print underneath and it said awareness. Still, most drivers are going to see only the single word autism.
Once home, I googled "autism awareness, bumper sticker," and entered a whole world of autism products. Bumper stickers, of course. But also tee shirts, jewelry, stickers ("I am someone with autism"), mugs. Eventually, I exited even more perplexed than I entered.
Why would somebody—anybody—want the first thing known about them to be something about their vulnerabilities? Why not lead with one’s best feature, rather than some dysfunction? I can give you a long list of true traits that I don't seek to hide, but I don't plaster them on my resume, either.
Then, it struck me: This kind of in-your-face “awareness” is akin to the kind of defiant preciousness that encourages parents to go out and buy for their child the organic cotton tee shirt that screams "Dairy Free," so that a child is absolved of the burden of learning to look out for himself and avoiding milk products. His clothing does it for him. For the days the tee shirts are in the laundry, parents can buy an Allergy Awareness Patch that declares No Peanuts Please.
Just as parents used to sew on Boy Scout badges indicating accomplishments, they now iron on badges proclaiming vulnerabilities. Even as the mother of a child deathly allergic to peanuts, I wouldn't have dreamed of turning my son into a billboard for a quirky immune system. He hated the smell of peanuts, anyway, and soon enough doped out when to be on the lookout for their presence. After a visit to the emergency room—prompted, I am sad to say, by his biting into a grape-leaf-wrapped foreign delicacy that I brought home, under the assumption that the crunch came from water chestnuts— he learned to carry an Epi-Pen. And when, just before cellphones came into wide use he went off rock-climbing in Wyoming for a month totally out of contact, an Epi-Pen went with him.
If you're driving a car, you're certainly looking out for others. You ought to be taking on full responsibility for looking out for yourself as well.