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JUNE 3, 2021
Autistics Can Be Astronauts
by Spencer Hunley
Were you aware that autistics can't be astronauts?
That’s news to me - apparently, it's common knowledge.
I found out recently from a Facebook post on a parents' autism support group:
"So, teeny-tiny problem. [Johnny] is really into space and the moon and wants to be an astronaut. And he's wanted to for a very long time now. And I've always said, “that's great buddy!” Thinking in the back of my head that like all children he'll choose many career paths along the way. But he doesn't seem to be. He is [focused on] going to go to the moon. To him, it's going to happen. The end. Well, I looked it up on NASA's site a while ago. People with autism can't be astronauts. Sure there are those trying. But allowed to actually go into space? I don't think it'll happen. I hate to discourage [Johnny] and say sorry buddy you can't. But I want to be realistic. Realistically it's probably not an option for him.
So what would you do?"
I wasn't convinced, though - so I tried to find the specific link to where NASA prohibits autistics to become astronauts.
Reviewing the application and requirements, one finds they are indeed very, very stringent to just be considered, to be sure - but nowhere was I able to find such a blanket statement expressed so bluntly in that post. And before you ask, yes, I went through the entire application; it's massive and incredibly thorough.
Becoming an astronaut is a lot more complex than most people realize, and being rejected from the process isn't a personal failure. Such a position requires not only incredibly robust health and fitness, but also a very focused and academic mind as well; even then, you can get rejected for a multitude of reasons that are both under and beyond your control.
Would a diagnosis of autism automatically eliminate you from the pool of potential astronauts?
It is a possibility, but a highly variable one. Co-occurring medical diagnoses or even a genetic test revealing a predisposition for cancer could do that before one's neurodivergence is even considered.
However, being turned down before you even apply is part of an artificial sociological limitation that permeates neurotypical life - a limitation that declares the following: if you are truly autistic, you simply cannot outperform your neurotypical peers in anything that matters.
Many autistics experience this - a Catch-22 of sorts; that is, if you're autistic yet present on a superior functioning level, there is an inherent demand that you demonstrate your deficiencies to ‘prove’ or ‘justify’ your diagnosis.
Such a demand declares that if you're able to function enough to meet basic standards (having a job, living almost or entirely by yourself, mastering basic hygiene, financially solvent, etc), then you're not really autistic. At best you'll be an inspiration to others and called ‘amazing’ or some other shallow term and subsequently dismissed; at worst, your diagnosis will be questioned to the point that you can't even receive basic accommodations.
Contrarily, if you need significant supports to live and function - especially if you are non-speaking - then you are the prime example of autism and truly have a disability. Your existence endorses and confirms the societal bias that autistics can't do this thing or that thing, even if you prove otherwise. Kitschy words and phrases such as ‘big heart’, ‘doesn’t talk but says so much', ‘we laugh with them’ and many more come to define your existence in others' eyes.
To put it simply: if you can achieve what is deemed impossible for autistics, you're not really autistic; but if you can't, then you are autistic and can only do what others determine is appropriate for you.
I fully agree that disability is real, and that some people need accommodations or assistance to live their lives and yes, some career choices/hobbies/destinations may not be feasible.
However, hypothesizing what is realistically possible for a disabled individual's future, then using that to pre-emptively decide what they should or should not do - that's not considerate, that's confining; a bleakly disheartening possible future where they have no control and everyone else knows what's best for them. A cold dissolution of their autonomy.
What else do we assume autistics cannot do? Live on their own? Get a job that pays a decent wage? Have a relationship with someone beyond the platonic? Be respected and treated equitably? Be taken seriously and credibly?
And where does that lead?
This parent asked what would I do, so here's my answer:
Autistics CAN be astronauts.
The issue here is not that your child has grandiose dreams (which are common to most children), but that the perspective of how he is viewed in your eyes leads you to believe he will be rejected if he applies, and he will feel very sad.
Let him feel that.
Allow him the experience, the dignity of choosing a path that you consider unrealistic, but could lead to even greater things. There are countless individuals who have been turned down by NASA to be astronauts; they hold no shame, and no one telling them to be realistic - and in many cases they find careers working for NASA outside of a spacesuit.
Just because a childhood dream doesn't become real doesn't mean it's a dead end. He may not make it into space or the moon, but he could be someone that maps out galaxies or develops a new form of propulsion that allows humankind to fully explore the Milky Way.
The fact that you don't know any astronauts that are autistic - at least individuals who are 'out' about being autistic - doesn't mean that there are none.
Throw the 'realistic' expectations out the window.
Instead of just offering up 'that's great buddy!', ask him why he wants to go, what he finds so fascinating about space and the moon, what would he do once he got there - and would he want to come back.
Encourage him to explore that yearning; find books, audio recordings, images, videos, etc. that will assist him in learning about space and the moon - as well as how astronauts are selected and trained (but again, leave out the expectations).
He wants to learn, he has a goal, and a multitude of educational tools are more accessible and available than they ever have been. Using this as a way to teach him how to learn will be extremely useful as he grows up, and he will remember how much you supported him...even when his dreams may have been a bit out of reach.
Written by Spencer Hunley
Spencer Hunley (he, him) is an autistic professional based in Kansas City, Missouri. He currently serves on the Executive Committee for the Kansas City League of Autistics (formerly ASAN-KC) and former interim president and board member of the Autism Society - the Heartland; his current advocacy efforts focus on improving healthcare outcomes for autistics and other neurodivergent individuals through advocacy and policy change, as well as improving communication and collaboration between the autism & autistic communities through the Greater Kansas City Autism Coalition (GKCAC).
In addition to his autistic advocacy, Spencer is a strong proponent of free/open-source assistive/accessible technology, presenting on topics including: inclusion of people with disabilities in the Linux community, how accessible and assistive technology would benefit from more Linux and open-source contributions, and how people with disabilities can be an asset for Linux and other open-source projects.
Spencer enjoys ‘throwing’ (yoyoing), playing board games and assists in production of a podcast called Neurologic in his spare time. You can find him at spencerhunley.com.