In my own experience and the experience of other self-advocates, revealing the presence of a developmental disability such as autism usually triggers the instinctual reactions of uncomfortable facial expressions and a wave of pity from the people around us. People act as though I just died in front of them. And this natural reaction to a perceived tragedy creates one of the greatest ironies for the developmental disability community. On a daily basis, neurotypical people interact with products made possible by neurological differences, with technological advancements being an example. While they enjoy the miracles produced by the neurological differences of the developmental disability community, they simultaneously treat people with developmental disabilities as depressing realities they need to ignore to preserve their own happiness. But while this aspect of human nature is unfortunate, better education policy can change these perceptions so that people in the developmental disability community are not ignored.
NDDI strongly favors curriculum that recognizes probable or confirmed developmental disabilities in commonly known historical figures. Albert Einstein, whose speech delay indicated that he had classical autism, is one example of a historical figure whose achievements illustrate the beauty of neurodiversity. Any curriculum informing students on historical figures with developmental disabilities should not frame the material as meaning that most people with a developmental disability will be like Albert Einstein, but to make it clear that non-disabled people heavily rely on neurodiversity for their daily functioning.
Here is a short list of historical figures who had a developmental disability:
- Han Asperger: A person with Asperger’s Syndrome who wrote his doctoral thesis on intelligent individuals who displayed symptoms of autism. He conceptualized autism as spectrum in his doctoral dissertation. He famously stated “It seems that for success in science or art a dash of autism is essential.” He is also famous for calling the children with high-functioning autism who he observed in his studies “little professors” since they seemed to be extraordinary experts on a subject of special interest
- Angela Bachiller: First councilwoman with down syndrome in Spain
- Edward Barbanell: Comedian with down syndrome
- Alonzo Clemons: A man with an intellectual disability who is know for his detailed, lifelike sculptures
- Charles Darwin: Had Asperger’s Syndrome and revolutionized the field of biology through his Theory of Evolution
- Albert Einstein: Had classical autism and is responsible for revolutionizing physics through his studies. A famous example is his discovery of black holes in space
- Bill Gates: Had Asperger’s Syndrome and revolutionized technology through Microsoft, a company which he created
- Temple Grandin: An American Professor in animal science who has autism
- Steve Jobs: Had Asperger’s Syndrome and was the CEO of Apple
- Michelangelo: Famous artist who may have had Asperger’s Syndrome
- Wolfgang Mozart: Famous musician who revolutionized classical music
- Isaac Newton: Founder of the modern study of physics who had Asperger’s Syndrome. His most famous contribution to the field is his Theory of Gravity
- Christopher Nolan: Irish Writer with cerebral palsy (not to be confused with the director of the Dark Knight Trilogy)
- Greta Thunberg: Teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental activism
- Stephen Wiltshire: An artist with autism and savant syndrome who is known for being able to draw detailed landscapes after only seeing them once. Many described his drawings as photographs, with none of the finest details being excluded
It is important to recognize these figures as having a neurological difference in school curriculum. While it will not entirely solve this issue, it is another way for us to institutionalize respect for people with developmental disabilities.