He’s Canadian, You Know

Canadialand“He’s Canadian, you know,” yields 30,800 hits when entered in a Google search, while about half that many are returned for “She’s Canadian, you know.”  The phrase is a sort of running in-joke among Canadians when discussing pop culture with Americans; there’s an understandable kick to seeing how many times in a conversation that phrase can be spoken in response to random mentions of Canadian musicians, actors, or other prominent public figures—when those figures are mentioned by Americans who never suspected foreign citizenship.  It’s a routine which can be kept up because there really are that many public figures who shed their Canadian identity once they make it big in North America—or, one might say, because there really are that many Americans who simply assume anyone on television who lacks a “foreign” accent must be one of them.

Google returns 7,480 hits on the other hand for “He’s autistic, you know,” while “She’s autistic, you know,” currently appears all of 7 times.  You’ll be hard pressed to find even one instance where those words are not used to explain what was seen as odd or otherwise inexplicable behavior.  The common usage, in other words, has little overlap with the way Canadians use the same phrase to identify their countrymen whom no one suspected to be Canadian.

I predict this is going to change in coming years, and has in fact already begun to change.  “He’s/she’s autistic, you know,” will come to refer also to those whom almost no one would suspect of being autistic.  This is possible because there really are that many people whose life, work, and play is marked by an autistic cognitive style, if not by all the markers for a definitive diagnosis of autism—and because there really are that many of us who assume that anyone whose behavior is not sufficiently odd or inexplicable must therefore not be in any sense autistic.

Joining me in this perception about the prevalence of unsuspected autism is economist Tyler Cowen.  His most recent work, a remarkable synthesis of insights about autism and economics, has this (and much more) to say about why our assumptions are out of calibration:

Often outsiders don’t see the cognitive strengths along the autism spectrum because they focus excessively on what is highly or easily visible. Autism in the modern world is often about “diagnosis” and “treatment,” and that creates a selection bias. Medical professionals control the familiar definitions of autism and they meet those people or parents who come to them for help. It’s no surprise that these people and their doctors are focused on life problems. At the same time, many of the autistics with relatively high social status don’t want to affiliate with the concept or, more frequently, they are genuinely unaware that they might qualify as autistic in some manner.

People with high social status and “good life outcomes” will come to be seen as having been autistic all along, in a way that has the potential to cast the current hysteria over the “autism epidemic” in a very different light. Those who are most sensitive to this coming change though, and are feeling it perhaps earlier than others are those autistics who find their social status and life outcomes lacking when compared to those of these “newfound” autistics and their happy socioeconomic outcomes.  It’s not hard to anticipate that blame will be cast on those of us whose achievements fall short of others to whom we will inevitably be compared:  “If they could overcome their autism, why can’t you?”

The appropriate response to this framing of the issue isn’t to run, hide, and deny the emerging reality; it is to frame that reality—that of autism’s prevalence across all levels of society—more accurately, more humanely, and more usefully.  For all the solemn pronouncements which might be made about how no one should ever have to justify their autism, produce compensation to society for their autism, or be expected to “overcome” it for the convenience or benefit of others, there is another way to re-frame autism which to be honest is just a lot more fun.

For pointers, I suggest looking first of all to America’s finest news source, The Onion, and again to America’s northern neighbor, Canada.  From The Onion, we have the classic headline (though the story itself seems no longer available) “Quirky Canada has own government, laws.”  This was a “human interest” news report that documented with breathless astonishment that there were actually significant differences in the ways in which Americans and Canadians govern themselves, even though both countries for example enjoy very similar television programming.

Carrying this torch today is the Canadian comic who likes to promote Canada as an ideal tourist destination for Americans, seeing as how the language, food, and customs of Canada are all but identical to those in the United States—these familiar qualities, he says, being exactly what Americans seem to prefer in a foreign country.  Delivered in front of a Canadian audience, if you didn’t know, this line draws ready and knowing laughter.  Even little Canadian children, I suspect, recognize that there’s something ridiculous about the low comfort level Americans have with other cultures.  Not coincidentally, these are children who do not grow up feeling as if they can be blamed, just because they’re Canadian, for not being an Avril Lavigne or a Jim Carrey.

I’ve always admired The Onion for finding the humor in even the darkest experiences, and for not shying away from difficult topics; one example was their response to the misdirected fear and suspicion toward “outsider” teenagers that followed the Columbine High School shootings.  This came in a cheerily scathing article, Columbine Jocks Safely Resume Bullying, published the September after the shootings, just as students were returning for a new school year.

Thanks to stern new security measures, a militarized school environment and a massive public-relations effort designed to obscure all memory of the murderous event, members of Columbine’s popular crowd are once again safe to reassert their social dominance and resume their proud, longstanding tradition of excluding those who do not fit in.

What I’m getting at is that we, the self-aware autistic community, have yet to make full use of humor as a teaching tool, a defensive weapon, and a means of bonding with others who share our perspective—and of showing the world some long-overdue attitude.  It would not surprise me in the least if The Onion’s writing team sees not just the Columbine aftermath but the whole world from an autistic perspective—but the point is that they speak as comedy writers, not as autistic people.  We need to be using humor in this way ourselves, from an explicitly autistic perspective.

One obstacle to using humor for our own collective interests is maybe that we do not yet see ourselves as a Nation such as, say, O, Canada does.  One way I think we’ll know we’re getting there—getting to see ourselves as a people with roughly common concerns, sensibilities, perspectives, and/or senses of humor—will be when we hear some prominent person’s name mentioned in conversation, and find ourselves saying or at least thinking to ourselves, “He’s/she’s autistic, you know.”

(hat tip to muskie and her Institute for the Study of the Neurotypical, established in 1998)

on 12/18/09 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. Mark Stairwalt says:

    See also, for example: Square Talk at Asperger Square 8, and Rita Skeeter at Whose Planet Is It Anyway? http://aspergersquare8.blogspot.com/2009/10/square-talk-social-model.html, http://autisticbfh.blogspot.com/2009/09/autism-speaks-and-underpants-curse.html
    More like this, please.

  2. Lili Marlene says:

    Canadians should not be blamed for not being a Jim Carrey. Quite to the contrary - they should be congratulated.

    Mark, you and I certainly appear to be tuned in to the same frequency. For many years now I’ve been fascinated by the fact that there has always been so much unlabelled autism in my social circle and in the world in general, and that this is so often assocated with valuable intellectual and creative gifts.

    I have also just finished reading Tyler Cowen’s revolutionary book Create Your Own Economy, and have an urge to quote passages from it to all and sundry.

    I have also been arguing for quite some time now that many aspects of the spectrum are very funny, and that humour should be employed (with care) to help get our message across. Years ago in my blog I listed many fictional comedy characters who display many autistic characteristics. Us Australians have been laughing at Asperger syndrome for decades, probably much longer too, but we have never acknowledged that this is the source of the social dissonance and eccentricity that so many of us find so amusing. Right now an annual TV advertisement campaign is running featuring Sam Kekovich - a comedic character that appears to be a caricature of the person who plays him, who lacks body language, has oddly uninterrupted eye contact, and who talks in over-excited monologues that obsessively focus on a single theme. This year Sam appears to be sending up our quite obviously autistic Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (the Ruddbot). Its all autism!

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