Survival situations


I’ve had several people inform me recently that they want to cure people of being autistic because they want them to be able to handle survival situations in which they’re alone in the middle of nowhere or something and need to handle assorted aspects of survival.

Those situations are not all that common, but I’ve been thinking about it, and I think many autistic people, even autistic people who have trouble in conventional situations, would not have as much trouble with those situations as people assume. I don’t actually think, by the way, that most non-autistic people could handle a situation like that. Nor could many autistic people. But I know some things about myself that might contradict conventional wisdom on this matter.

In a survival situation, I would be constantly triggered into actions, and I would probably take whatever actions I needed to take in order to survive. If I were dumped out on the street or in the middle of the woods, there’s a lot I wouldn’t necessarily understand intellectually, but I think I would be in a position to take care of myself more than people would imagine by seeing me in my apartment.

In an apartment, there is nothing that triggers my body into action the way it would in those situations. There’s no feature of an apartment that makes it pressingly immediate to use a toilet or a refrigerator (when I first moved into an apartment I used everything from the floor to the front yard). Given that the majority of what I can do is based on stored knowledge that I can’t deliberately access but situations in the physical world cause me to access, I am indeed very incapacitated in an environment that does not lend itself to my strengths. I frequently need food set in front of me to trigger “eating,” water to trigger “drinking,” toothbrush handed to me to trigger “brushing teeth,” and many things just flat-out done for me.

Put me in a situation where I have to find my own food and water, go to the bathroom on the ground, possibly move around a lot in response to various threats, look for or set up shelter, and so forth that sets me up so that all the stored information is triggered and I’m getting very little information that is telling me to do something else irrelevant to survival, like, say, blog or stare at blocks.

Basically, if you put me in a survival-type situation for a month, I might be more likely to be healthy at the end of it than if you put me in an apartment with no services for a month.

I remember hearing several news stories about autistic children who were thought to be “too severely autistic to be aware of things like this” who survived for a long time when lost in dangerous areas of various kinds, until someone found them. It’s even rumored that the Wild Boy of Aveyron was an autistic boy who had survived a failed infanticide.

While it’s the case that many autistic people, as well as many non-autistic people for that matter, would not survive in those situations, I’m not totally sure that it’s the ones people would think. I know that if you dump me into a situation like that I’m far more likely to look competent than if you dump me into the situation I’m in now. Not that I don’t prefer the situation I’m in now, but that you have to take autistic learning styles into account when deciding what we might or might not be capable of.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

12 responses »

  1. I certainly don’t want to cure anyone and so I can’t claim to know the mindset of the people who’ve made the sorts of comments you cite but, for whatever it may be worth, I’ve interpreted them in a different way than you have. It never occurred to me that they might be talking about how autistic people might do if lost in the woods or whatever; I always assumed they were referring to things such as what seems to be the propensity of autistic children to drown in retention ponds while attempting to gratify in some manner their interest in water (I live in a medium sized city and it seems to me that there is at least one of these tragic drownings a year. I wonder if this sort of incident is as common in other places?).
    But, of course, a creative parent should be able to teach their autistic child about such dangers without “curing” them.

  2. A lot of non-autistic children also drown in ponds, to my knowledge. It’s horrible whenever it happens, but I don’t know that it’s related to being autistic. I once was involved with an agency that worked on grief issues, and met people whose children or siblings had died in situations like (this is a real and awful example) crawling into an ice chest and having it close on top of them and suffocate them. None of them mentioned the children in question being autistic. Fatal accidents happen to a lot of children, because children in general don’t know enough about the world to avoid certain dangers and gauge their abilities against the dangers they encounter.  While I am definitely autistic, I had a lot of close calls myself (including with water) that had nothing to do with being autistic and everything to do with being a child.
    That aside, though, that’s not the impression I got from the comments I’m thinking of. A lot of them seemed to have to do with survival situations like the one the Wild Boy of Aveyron faced, ones they said “everyone” should be able to face if necessary. (I am surprised to have gotten such a detailed description of the scenarios from such different people in different places, I wonder if they know each other or are the same person or something. But they were definitely not about that rudimentary safety stuff in cities. They were about situations that almost nobody ever faces but that some people apparently believe every single person should have all the skills to face.)

  3. That may be the most sensless and arbitrary argument for a cure I’ve ever heard. Are they planning on dragging all the autistics out to the wilderness and abandoning them?

  4. The context recently has been several people who have defined “independence” as an optimal state that autistic people apparently have less of a shot at, I have countered that the “independence” of non-autistic people is pretty much an illusion, and then they throw something like this at me.

  5. Another common concern is that autistic kids throw themselves in front of traffic. My son does seem to be unaware that big fast things are to be avoided. The thing is, it has to do with maturity too. A 1-year-old NT child might also not be aware that cars are dangerous, and should not be allowed to wander off into traffic. Autistic kids take longer to mature, so parents need to be cautious considerably longer too. That might be perceived as inconvenient, but it’s not the end of the world.

  6. I think it takes non-autistic children a lot longer than a year to figure out how to stay out of danger in the road. That’s why they are supposed to have an adult with them when they cross the street and get drilled in street-crossing skills throughout much of their childhood. But again, I really doubt this is what people are talking about.

    I don’t, though, think that the problems autistic people have with crossing the street necessarily have anything at all to do with understanding what traffic is. Otherwise I would never end up in traffic, nor would many other autistic adults I know.  (I have been trying for awhile to write a blog entry on the sheer annoyingness of the two most common assumptions about why autistic people don’t do things, annoying not because they never happen but because there’s far more than two reasons.  One of those reasons is that we don’t understand something.  The other is that we understand but don’t feel like doing something.)

  7. If criteria for quality of life is put down to the ability to survive alone without the assistance of others, very many of us are done for.

    However, I think the reasoning behind this may be simpler than you imagine. The best argument you can make for curing or otherwise attempting to elliminate any given condition is the argument that it kills people – and failing that, the argument that it is a significant danger to life.

    Does autism kill people? Nope. Okay, so how can we make out it might kill people?

    In a way these particular arguments could be worse; at least this time round they’re not suggesting that autistic people are a danger to other people…

  8. Ballastexistenz: I know that what you have blogged is quite true for me. I don’t bother telling people outright, because I know they wouldn’t believe me. I’ve tried hinting at it before, to little avail. I once got so, so frustrated with a situation I was in, at a college, that I hopped a plane to Paris, France. Crazy huh? I’ll have to do a long blog about that in my own blog, Letters from the Fortress….I’ve been busy lately so I have just the one blog post there so far. But anyhow, I landed in Paris, and I had to rely on my ability to speak and comprehend the language (which was fortunately good, and even improved, because of the very fact that no one else was there to translate for me. My inner mind knew that and made adjustments.) I was there all alone, I had to find a hotel myself, I had to find my luggage myself, I had to store it somewhere myself. I had to do everything BY MYSELF. And I learned quite a lot from that little adventure. I learned that if I am forced to do something for survival, I can do it. I “become” Ivan almost entirely. (those are the best words I can find to explain but still, they convey a different idea. It’s not like I become another personality, just another part of me, know what I mean? I hope I’m not droning on what people already understand lol, I just feel that because of past incidents where people misinterpreted my words in a horrendous way, I have to explain and explain til the cows come home.

    Great blog, as usual.


  9. I’ve had several people inform me recently that they want to cure people of being autistic because they want them to be able to handle survival situations in which they’re alone in the middle of nowhere or something and need to handle assorted aspects of survival.
    This is pretty creepy, unless these same people generally worry about the abiity of all people to handle survival situation in the middle of nowhere.

  10. When one of the fryers at work burst into flame, all my NT coworkers were freaking out and batting at it, resulting in a bigger fire! I calmly grabbed a fire extinguisher and put it out. I don’t know if I’d survive stranded in the middle of nowhere but I’d probably spend a lot less time standing around bemoaning my fate.

  11. I think I’d be a lot better off being stranded in the wild than in some unfamiliar airport or supermall. The natural world is a lot easier for me to organise and decode from a sensory perspective. Generally speaking, it’s a helluva lot quieter, too; there’s room to think. You don’t even have to process things on a verbal level to cope with being out in the wilderness. I found for example, that walking around a herd of bison was much less stressful than walking through the London Underground.

  12. Hello. I don’t understand why some autistic people are opposed to cures or treatments. I just watched the video of how you boil a kettle. I cannot see why an autistic person would prefer that way if he or she had the option to be able to boil a kettle the way a non-autistic person would.

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