Last month, the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) held its annual draft selection. This event had nothing to do about autism advocacy.
The Philadelphia 76ers made the third overall lottery selection. This event had nothing to do about autism awareness.
When 76ers General Manager Sam Hinkie chose Duke Freshman Jahlil Okafor, fans booed. This event has a LOT to do about autism acceptance.
To the best of my knowledge, Jahlil Okafor is NOT autistic, nor has any publicized ties to autism. He doesn’t need these connections to understand his uphill battle for acceptance in Philadelphia. Everything he does for the 76ers will be magnified unfairly under a high-powered microscope. Fans do not presume competence in Jahlil Okafor while most of society presumes no faith in autistic individuals.
Despite leading a collegiate championship team at Duke University under Hall-of-Fame Coach Mike Krzyzewski, fans won’t accept ANOTHER tall (6’10”) player to their roster. Forgive me, but aren’t tall people usually welcomed to play basketball? Didn’t the 76ers win the 1983 NBA Championship with their twin towers of Julius Erving (6’7”) and Moses Malone (6’10”)? Wasn’t Okafor a powerful offensive weapon, capable of scoring 20+ points and/or rebounds in a game; aren’t these skills that translate well into a professional sport like basketball?
Instead of asking questions about how the Philadelphia 76ers will use Okafor’s talents, fans automatically feel disparaged by the team management. For years, owners encouraged outright failure in order to secure top lottery picks to unearth new talent. Now, they have some of this coveted ability with duplication and opportunity. Yet, nobody trusts ‘em, and that distrust becomes disproportionately shelled at a ninteen year-old rookie.
Okafor will earn and likely spend millions of dollars by the end of the year, paid to him by a team that distrusts him before donning a uniform. Among all of my personal friends with autism, we won’t likely crest above the average poverty level with all of of incomes combined. A disliked Okafor will have a palatial residence, while many individuals with autism peacefully and quietly exist on the fortunes of their families and friends for as long as humanly possible; only one-in-ten autistic adults find meaningful work. Fans cannot presume competence in Jahlil Okafor or the Philadelphia 76ers, so neither starts with success in mind. Similarly, our struggles for acceptance hinge on society presuming more competence. In the (near) future, Okafor could request a trade to a team who wants his talents. He could sign as a free-agent and earn MORE money or a chance to contend for a title. For autistic individuals, where do we go when society really doesn’t want us? How receptive to being integrated should we be, when we fear electrocution-as-therapy, earn less than minimum wage dollars for unimportant work, and face disproportionate unemployment statistics? Why does society tolerate negative media campaigns about how autism destroys jobs, marriages, and families? Why do scientists seek a genetic “cure” for autism without telling us what will remain after their so-called “cure?” Why do people desperately reach for bleach as a drinkable cure for autism unless they gravely fear the myths about autism?
The problem facing Jahlil Okafor is the same problem facing autism acceptance: lack of presumed competence. Nobody has faith in the team managers’ abilities to use talent. Nobody has faith in Okafor’s own perseverance or maturity into a powerful basketball presence. Nobody has faith in at least three tall men being able to win basketball games.
In autism advocacy, too many professionals presume no competence in autistic individuals: we cannot use the telephone to call home from school during a difficult day; we cannot carry a volunteer position without constant supervision from support staff who seemingly know less about autism than we do; etc. Like Jahlil Okafor, many people with autism have exceptional talents and are presumed incompetent or a poor fit for their business. This mismatch has nothing to do with individual abilities, but is an artificial organizational barrier created by misinformation and misunderstanding.
Like many with autism, Jahlil Okafor must fight for acceptance. He must prove doubters wrong, and thrive in a place that doesn’t seem to really want him. There is almost nothing short of an NBA Championship to quell doubt. For individuals with autism, there exists no easily-substituted Holy Grail to grasp. We walk around with invisible disabilities, but when we do something close to good or “normal,” we get pitiful praise. An alarming percentage of our fans treat me like a show-dog at comic book signings. Some feel happy that the poor autistic man wrote a big book, yes he did. Who’s a good boy? You are, Dave, you are a good boy. Some fans introduce themselves as “high-functioning,” in an odd way to build familiarity. Instead, attempts to align with “normal” by using “high-functioning” automatically throws “low-functioning” individuals under a bus. Am I supposed to like you MORE because you appear more “normal?” Will you wear a t-shirt boasting your IQ to avoid further comparisons to “low-functioning” individuals with autism? How do our peers in other minority communities respond- do people talk about their cancer diagnosis by disparaging another form of cancer? Obviously, we can celebrate fluidity in gender and marriage, but cannot accept racial self-identification any better than we can accept identity-first language without harsh criticism. In the absence of real-world awareness, acceptance, and compassion, I invented a fictional world within our comic books to show at least one positive alternative.
Jahlil Okafor won’t find acceptance in Philadelphia for a long time, until his business world dismisses what they think he CAN’T do and focus more on what he does well. Individuals with autism won’t find social acceptance until we find more patience and tolerance to develop our skills in contributable ways. Okafor will win ANOTHER championshp, this time in the NBA, before my friends or I find traditionally-meaningful work, where our abilities and talents are celebrated naturally within a well-suited organization without forced-fabricated “acceptance.” Go ahead and tell me I’m wrong, but unless you’re offering me a suitable “normal” job, then I reaffirm my claims and will rabidly root for Jahlil Okafor and the Philadelphia 76ers in the meanwhile.
GO 76ers! GO 76ers! GO 76ers!