Virgil Caine’s Autism

FlagsLast November while weighing in on the proposed changes to the DSM which will drop Asperger’s Syndrome as a diagnostic category, I quoted George Carlin’s take on Catholicism’s Limbo as a way to bring up the subject of “social constructs,” pointing out that Limbo is “a thing man-made rather than divinely ordained.”  The larger point was that autism as well is a social construct and therefore subject to change depending on how it’s seen from any given collective perspective.  This isn’t, I don’t think, a terribly radical thing to say but rather a reminder of something we know but tend to forget.  Over the past month on this site we’ve seen a few examples of how this is true; here I want to draw those examples together, and offer a surprising historical comparison.

Social constructs after all are a necessary shorthand, sets of agreed-upon rules by which we navigate the social world.  Money for instance is only an immense collection of colored strips of paper save for the meaning we have collectively agreed to assign to it.  This tends to be most starkly apparent during times of calamity or upheaval; as one fictional character noted while watching America’s War Between the States settle into an ongoing cold war, “Now I don’t mind chopping wood, and I don’t care if the money’s no good….”

Autistics themselves are arguably born into a world where our “money,” our currency and legitimacy as people, is to various degrees “no good.”  In this state of permanent calamity though, often enough there will be situations that highlight the arbitrariness of such an arrangement, calling it into question.  Shift contributor Clay experienced one a few weeks ago.  In a post whose title had the word “recovered” set in irony quotes (as in recovered from autism), he described the experience of finding that many of the autism “symptoms” he had experienced during a lifetime of working shoulder to shoulder with others seemed to be mysteriously abating now that he is retired, more solitary, and under less stress.

As autism is itself diagnosed only on the basis of behavior, Clay’s experience points up the ridiculousness of speaking as if autism is a “thing” which can be “had” in the same sense that one can have gallstones or gout—both being of material construction rather than social.  And of course, autism is not a thing which can be had, though most all of us speak of it as if it is.  “She ‘has’ autism,” we say, when the truth is that she behaves and experiences the world in an autistic manner.  Such a distinction may seem to matter only to lawyerly types, but it is language like this that both builds and disguises our reality, so it bears paying attention to.

This point is not lost on abfh, who recently took on the stereotype of the “autistic meltdown,” wherein as she describes, “a slight change in routine supposedly triggers some kind of massive brain short-circuit and an instant eruption of violent rage.”  As she points out though, “…there’s no scientific evidence to support that belief, no matter how the word might be defined.”  From research studies to brain imaging studies to the diagnostic criteria themselves, the autistic meltdown is absent, unknown save as an anecdote.

When autistic people do have unpleasant reactions to stress and overload, abfh proposes, it is for the same reason anyone else does:  an “underlying, dangerously-high stress level” brought on by sustained exposure to an unfriendly environment.  In other words, there are no “mysterious autistic brain cooties” at fault; the problem is not intrinsic to autism but rather to the pervasively enforced culture shock autistic people live with every day.

My contribution along these lines was to examine how “the autistic spectrum” is a crippled and crippling phrase, one as inadequate to describe the dynamic range of autistic experience as Big Brother’s Newspeak was to describe the lives of the citizens of Oceania.  “Autistic meltdown” is similarly damaging, and from here it shouldn’t be hard to infer how the entire vocabulary of autism is impoverished, or missing altogether in many areas, to the point that using it uncritically to describe our own autistic experience can amount to undermining and betraying our own best interests.

I expect there are Northerners and Southerners alike who may blanch (and also that any others who recognize the name Virgil Caine may raise their eyebrows) at my comparison of autism to the post-Civil War American South.  So I want to emphasize that at least in regard to the lyrics of the song I’m quoting (The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down), the comparison is fitting and absolutely appropriate.  I’ll make a passing reference here to a social construction that came out of the post-war Reconstruction and has much in common with the stereotype of autistic people being self-evidently slow or “retarded.”  This would be the image of Southerners as ignorant rubes, when in reality such characters are perhaps more colorful but no more common or ignorant than the closely related Northern rube.

And then, this is a subject for another essay or three or a hundred, but in addition to the devalued personal currency of those who are identified as autistic, there is also a sense in which the prevailing culture has plundered or “taken the very best” from autism, among whom I would include those studied by Michael Fitzgerald, along with those more informally collected, for instance, over at Incorrect Pleasures.  In any case, as Tyler Cowen has observed:

“… 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.”

Social constructs then can divide, disenfranchise, and stigmatize just as easily as they can create or build up. If you are successful enough, if your social status is high enough, then you do not “count” as autistic, and your achievements and contributions are not credited to the social construct known as autism.  Thus, —however unintentionally—do the “upper,” unidentified classes of the autistic population patronize, devalue and “steal from” those who have been identified as autistic—whose abilities and accomplishments, however solid, are forevermore taken to be the exception rather than the rule.

At any rate it is the culture that prevails, as we know, the “winners,” who write the history books; alternative views tend to find more roundabout expression in popular culture, art, and music.  In response then to the question, “What kind of autism do we ‘have’ in the world in this year of 2010?” it is not inaccurate to say, “We have Virgil Caine’s Autism:  autism that has been plundered, punished, robbed of its pride, and relegated to second- or third-class status through the imposition of social constructs about which autistics were not consulted and in the making of which we had no hand—save perhaps in our tacit or frightened silence, should John Calvin’s god have chosen us to enjoy a high social status.

As for that privileged class known as the non-autistic, just as it’s one thing to win a civil war, it’s one thing to prevail as a culture of extroverted, socially oriented, highly verbal types—and quite another to pathologize and write off as illegitimate those over whom you have prevailed, co-opting and taking credit for their achievements and contributions, and treating those who cannot be assimilated as if they were diseased. Such treatment says far more about the winners than it does about the autistic.

So.  Strange as it sounds and all exceptions aside, consider that the autistic population’s situation today has more in common with the post-bellum South under the carpetbaggers than it does with any Hippocratic notion of “First do no harm.”  That this is as much a comment on the power of social constructs as it is on the shortcomings of modern psychiatry is no less reason to move autism out from under psychiatric care and into a situation better suited to its nature.

There are limits to my empathy with the South.  I have seen the electoral maps that show the GOP diminished to a regional Southern party, beholden to the one-time Confederate states and no longer able to exert national influence.  If this diminished status holds, it is for good reason.  What it is of the South that “will rise again” remains to be seen, and it may well be a rough beast.

At the same time, as rough a beast as it may seem to some, I offer that what Cowen calls the autistic cognitive style, faithfully reconstructed and risen to a place of rightful recognition is just the sort of slumbering giant whose time has come round at last.

on 03/26/10 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. Clay says:

    First, I have to say that I thought that, except for the gender thing, Joan Baez did a much better job with that song. I watched her version right after I watched Johnny Cash’s, and there’s really no comparison.

    Second, I find that I’m doing much better in my verbal transactions with strangers, either over the phone, or in person. Just the other day, I had occasion to speak with young men at Meineke Mufflers, where they replaced my windshield wipers, and at a computer store, where I got a good deal on a new monitor. The only one they had that I liked was a floor demo model. He said they don’t stock it anymore, so I said, “Then sell me that one!” It worked, I got a good deal on it, and it was an altogether friendly verbal transaction. Not at all like the kind I used to have with salespeople or cashiers when I was always stressed by having to work. I guess I’m able to do it in “small doses” now.

    Moreover, I find that I’m more able to be creative, more able to get in touch with my inner self. That can be now be ascribed to a couple of reasons, and one of them is the attitude that “They’ve already thrown everything at me, and now I’m out of their range.”

    While reading this, I wondered if you were going to bring up “carpetbaggers”, y’know, those slithering maggots who make it their life’s work to make a living off of autism, either posing as “experts” or selling miraculous snake oil cures. I would have been disappointed, if you hadn’t mentioned them.

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    No argument, Clay, on Joan’s ability to put the song over; I just thought that it’s too easy to not hear the words when she sings it, too easy for it to go in-one-ear-and-out-the-other since most of us have heard her version so many times already. And yeh, the first picture I considered using was a period cartoon of a carpetbagger, but I figured not everyone would get the reference. I *wanted* a pic of a ragged old rebel flag in the rear window of a beatup pickup truck, but couldn’t find one.

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