People stared from the moment they entered the drugstore: There's a brat with a bad mother, the looks said. Six-year-old Griffin Lambert insisted on going down every aisle, touching each item on the shelf, opening jars and breaking seals. His mom, Andrea Bradford-Lambert, tried to distract him in a quiet voice, but she knew he was tired from school.
At the checkout, Griffin was pushing the soap across the scanner too quickly for the price to register, and the frustrated cashier yelled at him. Griffin started screaming. "Once he's started a meltdown," his mother sighs, "there's no going back."
Helplessly, Andrea flashed the card she now carries in her wallet for these occasions: "My child has autism," it reads. "He may communicate in ways that seem unusual to you."
The card doesn't always work, but this time the cashier apologized. "I felt vindicated," says Ms. Bradford-Lambert, who lives in Barrie, Ont. "She was very nice to Griffin after that."
At home, he reads books, uses words like "ubiquitous," and recites facts with a photographic memory. But the shoppers saw only one side: When his mom finally dragged him out the door, Griffin was still hollering and trying to lick the ice-cream cooler.
Not long ago, families of kids with autism hid behind closed curtains to avoid public judgment. Today, card-carrying parents such as Andrea-Bradford Lambert want their children to be seen as different, rather than disabled.
They have been joined by an increasingly vocal group of adult autistics (as they prefer to be called) who say they do not want to be cured. They say autism should be seen as part of the "neurodiversity" needed to evolve smarter human beings, just as biodiversity helps life flourish on Earth.
Evolutionary advantages aside, their perspective also becomes a question of human rights: Who decides what kind of people ought to exist?
"We need to get away from the idea that there is only one optimal way to be human and that we all have to aim for that. You'd think we'd know better by now," says Michelle Dawson, an autistic and a researcher at the Rivière-des-Prairies hospital in Montreal. Her work has shown the IQs of people with autism to be higher than previously believed.
Ms. Dawson asks, "Are a person's rights contingent on them having a certain kind of brain?"
The number of children being diagnosed with some form of autism is now roughly 1 in 150, a significant rise since 1980, although there is considerable debate over why.
Autism is diagnosed along a broad spectrum and manifests itself differently in each individual. Intellectually precocious children with social difficulties such as Griffin Lambert, who have Asperger's, a milder form of the disorder, are grouped together with kids who injure themselves and cannot speak, dress or wash on their own.
People with more debilitating forms of autism may never live independently. Others mingle within the "neurotypical" mainstream, perhaps seeming quirky but often contributing unique abilities.
Autistics and their families are not alone in challenging how society defines disability. The deaf community has debated whether children should be given implants to help them hear - some people argue that the implants leave them in limbo, cut off from deaf culture while still outsiders in the hearing world.
But the idea that the neurodiversity of human beings warrants the same protection - and even celebration - as, for example, racial diversity is a controversial concept, particularly for parents with a child at home who can't speak or hug them, who are fighting for publicly funded treatment for their kids, a prominent issue in the recent Ontario election.
Autistic activists such as Ms. Dawson are demanding new thinking about a disorder that has been called worse than cancer, a blight in a society that assumes abnormalities need fixing. The United States recently devoted $1-billion to "combat" autism, including research into genetic screening that might weed it out in vitro.
But definitions of normal have always shifted, autistic activists say, pointing to 1970s medical books that listed homosexuality as a disorder. In their view, forcing people with autism to be more neurotypical is like trying to make left-handers right-handed.
Some parents and autistic adults are eschewing words such as "disorder," preferring to be called "differently wired." They speak of an autistic heritage - Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, Wolfgang Mozart's music and even Microsoft. (Though Bill Gates has never said he has Asperger's, autism bloggers have diagnosed him on their own.)
Traditionally, autistics who cannot speak have been considered mentally delayed, but technology and research have proved otherwise. Amanda Baggs, a non-verbal autistic, has become a star on YouTube by using voice-dictation technology on her computer to produce a film about her life called In My Language. So far, it has been viewed by more than 300,000 people.