Notes on Five Spectrums

I. Intelligence

Intelligence, as most everyone will cheerfully agree, is distributed unevenly; some people have more of it, some have less.  Rare, though, are those who will identify themselves as having any less than the average or median amount.

II. Sexual Orientation

Some time ago, I found myself a member of an invitation-only online room made up mostly of professionals who met face-to-face rarely, generally at annual conferences.  Camaraderie was high due in part to the fact that once invited, one was expected to immediately incriminate oneself, either professionally or personally, with special emphasis on entertainment value. For this reason, confidence in the ability of the group to keep secrets was also high.

Early on, amidst ongoing confusion over keeping track of who was straight, gay, in between, or otherwise, some bright soul suggested that we all just post our Kinsey numbers, 0-6, to a single thread.  Problem solved.

III. Skin Color

A young Billie Holiday sang with Artie Shaw’s orchestra for a brief stint in 1938—an unprecedented match of darker-skinned singer and white band.  The partnership ended once the group returned to Baltimore after touring the South, and the future Lady Day found that even in her hometown, hotel management still expected her to use the side door and stay out of sight save for when she was actually singing.

There is a story told, probably apocryphal, of Billie Holiday at some point later in her career checking in to a whites-only hotel.  A flustered desk clerk, taking in her mixed-race complexion, politely inquired as to whether she was black or white.  Her stinging, but sweetly and patiently delivered, response was to inform the clerk of the names and races of three generations of her ancestors, black and white.  She finished with a hard-eyed smile and the question, “Now, why don’t you tell me.  Am I white … or am I black?”  As the story goes, at any rate, she got the room.

IV. Autism

Spectrums and how they’re perceived first became of interest to me about a decade ago when my eight-year-old stepdaughter-to-be underwent a thorough genetic and behavioral evaluation which netted a DSM diagnosis of … well, that was just the thing.  It netted a non-DSM diagnosis of “borderline autistic.”  For days afterward, her mother would observe some or another tell-tale behavior and then say to me, with deadpan sarcasm, “But my daughter’s not autistic.”

One writer on autism, whose work we later read, described the autistic spectrum as having a distribution which “shades out to normal.”  Then as now, the implications of that phrase seem staggering to me.

A line, drawn across even an unruly, roiling rainbow of behavior and appearance such as the autistic spectrum, creates a border.  To the east of that line lies DSM-recognized autism, for which professional attention is covered by medical insurance.  To the west, spread across that nameless, uncharted space between borderline and normal, lies—what?

Once, as one of novelist Haven Kimmel’s characters has memorably said, the world itself had edges and no one knew what was past them.  There would be a line on a map; beyond it, blank parchment and a single sentence.  Beyond This Point:  Monsters.

V. The Uncanny Valley

Nowadays, any sea monster capable of bringing in decent box office gets hauled up, inducted into the Screen Actors Guild, and memorialized in Wikipedia, true.  Still, “monsters” is a term that personifies uncanniness risen from deeps of all sorts.  “Monsters of the id, no longer staying hid,” sings Mose Allison.  As fairy tales and Pixar both reveal, monsters are often not what they seem; their true natures can be hidden by spell or by circumstance.  Moreover, that which is very like normal—but not quite—can be every bit as unsettling to the imagination, and just as difficult to look square in the eye or take measure of, as any ancient mariner’s kraken.

The Uncanny Valley refers to the shape of a graph drawn originally to describe degrees of eeriness experienced in the presence of human-like robots.  The Valley is a region that’s since been found to be populated with a menagerie of creatures both real and unreal—all the way up from its swampy bottomlands, said to be inhabited by zombies.  On the far slope and beyond reside human-like figures which, whether creepy or cute, are not likely to be mistaken for human.

But on the near slope?  The walking wounded, from plague victims to the visibly mentally ill; life-like robots; Navaho shape-shifters; doppelgängers; replicants; human-alien hybrids; the Palm Pre girl.  And also, perhaps native to the Valley but venturing beyond to the plains above, blending in with varying degrees of effort, but well enough to interbreed with the flatlanders—an untold number, even a nation, of rather more neurodiverse folks “bringing the strange” that freshens the gene pool and enlivens the meme pool, stealthily expanding human possibilities, all while the high plains natives, perhaps too busily enthralled with aliens, robots, and the supernatural, never suspect the ones who walk among them.

related:  The Dwellers on the Plain

related:  Autism and the Uncanny Valley

related:  Mountain Goats of the Uncanny Valley

on 08/28/09 in Autism | 1 Comment | Read More

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  1. […] When autistic people achieve similarly unlikely positions—socially speaking—they are generally dismissed as never having been autistic in the first place.  Like as not, there is no “seeing is believing,” no trip with binoculars to the autistic Rocky Mountains to convince skeptics that the pictures of autistics scaling the valley walls aren’t courtesy of Adobe Photoshop.  And yet here we are, Oreamnos uncanni, … “bringing the strange” that freshens the gene pool and enlivens the meme pool, stealthily expanding human possibilities, all while the high plains natives, perhaps too busily enthralled with aliens, robots, and the supernatural, never suspect those who walk among them. (Notes on Five Spectrums) […]

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