Last week the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to legalize same sex marriage, granting homosexuals multiple civil rights that heterosexuals have enjoyed since the United States declared independence from Great Britain. Finally gay men and women are free to marry whomever they choose in all 50 states. The gay family nest has been legitimized—not only by TV shows like South Orange American Family
—but in the real world. Think of all the changes that will unfold as a result of legitimizing love between same gender couples: ease of adoption, marital privileges upon illness and death, including hospital visitation, burial rites, estate planning and much more. Children raised by gay parents will grow up alongside the offspring of hetero parents; they’ll interact in pre-school, on the playground and in college classrooms. In one generation, the new normal can begin to replace much of the prejudice, pre-conceived and outdated beliefs about who can—and should—marry whom.
Legalizing same sex marriages will also lead to profound changes in the quest for diversity by college admissions committees across the country. Even at my alma mater, Vassar College—one of the most liberal of liberal arts schools—I’m betting that there will be efforts to recruit the offspring of same sex parents in the same way that students of different races, religions, income levels, and sexual orientations from all over the world are included to honor human diversity and encourage the expression of diverse perspectives in classroom debates today. How will this inclusion change the
college culture? The effect of gay marriage on the evolution of education remains to be seen. But I can give you an example of the changes that have occurred since the late 70’s when I went to Vassar. At that time, there was no major in African Studies, but 40 years later most colleges offer that area of concentration. And whoever heard of hip-hop as a freshman English course? Yet in 2010, my son Max wrote and studied hip-hop at Vassar.
As history books are rewritten to reflect society’s gradual acceptance of gender diversity and same sex marriage, what courses might be offered to tomorrow’s college freshmen? Will there be classes like “The Origins of Same Sex Marriage?” Maybe Caitlyn Jenner and other transgender celebrities will become visiting professors and commencement speakers. How wonderful it is to imagine a world where human diversity is accepted and respected (if not always embraced) in the spirit of inclusion.
But where does that leave the neurodiversity movement? While I’m deeply grateful that my daughter, Sarah, on the autistic spectrum had the opportunity to graduate from Pace University, I’m also deeply disappointed that she is currently languishing for (over a year now) without a job. Academic support programs at various colleges—Mitchell, Adelphi, Manhattanville and Landmark among others—are wonderful opportunities for talented, motivated students with learning disabilities and autism to earn a college degree. However, colleges have not yet taken the next step: incorporating students with autism into the social fabric on college campuses.
While Pace University’s OASIS program did an excellent job of tutoring and advocating for Sarah and other students with high-functioning autism, none of these students were truly embraced or integrated by their neurotypical peers. On the contrary, they were isolated (as if for everybody’s mutual protection?) No one even tried integrating the OASIS students with neurotypical students for any organized exchange of ideas, values and perspectives. Consider the potential mutual benefits of fostering such an integration. First, invite Temple Grandin, John Robison and other speakers to address incoming freshman on how various aspects of autism enrich the neurotypical perspective. Second, appoint student ambassadors (with and without autism) to develop respect, patience and empathy on the part of the neurotypical students. Offer students opportunities to apply compassion in action, instead of merely giving lip service to our appreciation for the differences in others. Neurotypical thinkers might be inspired or facilitated by ideas from the perspective of those on the spectrum. Above all, the desegregation of people on the spectrum with neurotypical folks can only lead to greater understanding and mutual benefit. That doesn’t mean this kind of program would be EASY to establish. But consider the alternative: an increasingly marginalized population of aging adults on the spectrum (who are NOT cute like little kids) and who will require a lifetime of care-taking and dependence. Do we really want to take on that challenges as a culture? Remember 1 in every 68 babies is currently born on the spectrum, and that number is rising every year.
At Pace, the OASIS program was a big step forward, but the road to desegregation is long.. Sarah’s professors were encouraged to engage, accommodate (or at least tolerate) the minority of students with autism. (After all, parents of kids on the spectrum are in essence paying part of the professors’ salaries—not to mention the extra tuition to the support program.) However, Pace’s neurotypical population was (not to my knowledge) instructed or offered any incentive to include or engage ASD students in clubs or social activities. Nor were they even invited to ASD student events. Was it a foregone conclusion that neurotypical kids wouldn’t gain from interactions with their ASD peers? The failure of colleges to integrate students on the spectrum into their neurotypical population is a missed opportunity for everyone.
Here’s a thought: what about offering college credit or financial aid to psychology or education majors who are willing to help students like Sarah navigate social opportunities on campus?
Everyone ends up a winner. The neurotypical and the ASD student gain valuable job experience and emotional training by working with others who see the world differently; and the world benefits from college graduates with diverse perspectives and abilities who know how to interact effectively,. After four years of living, learning and working together, maybe neurotypical grads will WANT to hire their ASD friends and fellow alums. In addition, the students with autism will spend four years learning new social skills and perhaps be better prepared and more confident when looking for that first elusive job out of college. Perhaps then people in the neurotypical world will become partners with those on the spectrum—not only in technology, engineering and computer companies but also in the arts, entertainment and education. Such a collaboration is bound to yield yet another win—a better working world for all of us.
Once upon a time same sex marriage seemed like a faraway dream. Isn’t it possible to imagine a world where more people worked together and pooled their talents to the betterment of everyone, where neurodiversity simply became the new normal?