How (and Why) to Use Framing in the Discussion of Autism

stringpuppetAs is the case elsewhere, in the struggle over how autism is to be defined and understood, how a discussion is framed has more influence on the outcome of any conflicts that arise within that discussion than does the quality of arguments raised in those conflicts.  This sounds unfair, and it probably is; here I just want to show how it works. It’s a point I’ve been circling around for a while, with last week’s post On Styles of Consciousness being the most recent approach.  In it, I pointed out that some of us take as a given, foundational assumption, or frame, that there is a One True Way to see or understand a given reality, and that others of us assume, without really thinking about whether we ever need say so, that reality presents itself by way of multiple aspects and facets, some of which may even be contradictory.

These two styles of consciousness were what was in conflict a few months ago when the big kerfuffle was raised over whether neurodiversity means denying that autism is a disability, and in particular whether one nominee to the National Council on Disability who is associated with the neurodiversity movement, Ari Ne’eman, agrees “or not” with the view that autism is a disability.  The thing is, there’s never been any question whatsoever as to whether or not Mr. Ne’eman views autism as a disability.  He most certainly does, as does anyone who is paying attention.  What was actually in dispute was whether or not autism, though recognized as a disability, can also be recognized as being anything else or besides.  What was really being contested was whether or not autism, if acknowledged as a disability, could then also be better understood as something other than a disability.

This of course is a different kettle of fish, but it was not on the whole how the argument was framed or joined.  It was accepted and met, at least generally, as if it really were a question of whether or not Ari Ne’eman agreed or not with the view that autism is a disability.  Entered into on those terms, this is an argument that cannot be won by the neurodiversity community.  Having accepted the frame as it was given to us, in which it appeared Mr. Ne’eman had dug himself into a hole, it was all too easy to assume that the task at hand was to dig him out of it—thus allowing ourselves to be lowered into a hole, one not of our own making, like puppets on strings.  I touched on this at the time in Geeks and Nerds: Autism’s Proxy Warriors, but I have a recent commenter to thank for giving me the opportunity to demonstrate how to re-frame this issue in the midst of debate.

The commenter was responding to the opening sentence of last Friday’s post,

Whatever else it may be, autism is a way of being in the world.  It is a style, a manner of behaving and perceiving, and of being perceived.

His reply was to comment,

Whatever else it may be Autistic Disorder is a disorder, a medical disorder, which severely restricts the lives of many who carry that diagnosis.

And there you have it, the either/or setup.  This is a challenge to either agree or disagree with a patently true statement, one that’s spoken (we can only assume) with a conviction and fervor attainable only by a Master of the Obvious.  If you’re not on your home turf and confident that you can handle your adversary, the pedantic, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-my-mouth tone taken here may not be advised—it will without a doubt make you unpopular at parties—but the technique, of re-framing the argument so that you’re not left sputtering in the face of a false choice you’ve unwittingly signed on to, that’s a trick I think is worth sharing:

Your definition is certainly among the things which autism is. May I assume that since you repeat the words, “Whatever else it may be,” you are signing on to the notion that autism is subject to multiple interpretations? I’d suggest at any rate that whether autism *can* be understood in other, complementary, or even contradictory ways–including those experienced and reported by autistic people–has more to do with the perspective of the observer than with anything intrinsic to autism. You’ll find no argument here, in other words, over whether or not your definition is “right.” Your conflict–assuming there is one–seems to be more with the idea that there can be more than one valid way to experience, understand, or perceive autism. This is a discussion which as KWombles implies above, is better taken up in the arena of philosophy. Like you perhaps, I find the struggle between the One and the Many to be a compelling one–and make no mistake, that’s the only conflict I’m seeing here. I suggest it has far less to do with autism than you may think.

Given worthier opponents, or responsive ones, this can be more of a challenge, but stepping back and finding the frame in which an argument is being made gives you advantages.  It allows you to decide whether or not you want to continue arguing within that frame, and it gives you the opportunity to choose and substitute a frame that can give you the upper hand, or at least move the discussion to a more fruitful topic.  It may even give your antagonist a chance to rethink their position without losing too much face—assuming, of course, that you don’t write up the exchange you’ve had with them and post it on the internet.

The real question, again, isn’t whether autism “is” or “is not” any one particular thing.  The question is whether or not autism is, in Walt Whitman’s sense, “large.”

Do we as autistic people contradict ourselves?  Very well then, we contradict ourselves.  We are large; we contain multitudes.

Having considered and concluded that this is so, this should become the frame within which we are willing to take on all comers:  the idea that it’s acceptable for autism to be many and contradictory things.  This, I suggest, is what we can communicate, rather than falling into the trap of explaining how our positions make sense within a frame in which they do not, in fact, make sense.  There’s no point in insisting that there be “nothing about us, without us” if we allow others to frame the terms of any discussion or debate in which we are included.  That way is nothing but a slippery slope to cooptation, one that will leave us spinning our wheels, wondering why our duly noted, perfectly well-constructed, airtight arguments gain so disappointingly little traction.

It bears repeating one more once.  If the neurodiversity movement is to live up to the broader premise of value-in-diversity it carries within its name, we need to be able to recognize, define, and enforce the terms on which we are willing to engage in discussion—and those terms have to include the value of diversity, of a multiplicity of mutually tempered perspectives, as a basic assumption.  Tempting as it is, we shouldn’t be so willing to be drawn into debate on terms that are disadvantageous to our positions.  Rather than putting energy and attention into rearguard actions, what we should be doing is putting neurodiversity’s detractors on the defensive by insisting that they make the case for their so far unchallenged notion that there ought to be One True Way to view autism in the first place.

(Should the answer turn out to be, “Because some of us are less than comfortable with life’s ambiguities,” perhaps these individuals can be directed to consider whether their discomfort itself constitutes a disability … or not.  And why.)

No one though, no institution, scientist, doctor or any other authority figure is going to give us permission or encouragement to exercise control over which conversational frames we will and will not accept.  There’s nothing to be gained by waiting for some respected authority to step up and cover our backs for us on this.  Capital “A” Authority, by definition, is already invested in the idea of a One True Way, of which it considers itself official guardian and keeper, however subject to change that Way turns out to be.

Learning to recognize and manipulate frames on our own then may, or may not be the difference between banishing the stigma and misinformed fear, prejudice, and pity that defines autism for too many—or settling into making fascinating points and compelling arguments that don’t get us very far, for another few decades.

I can tell you for sure though that it’s a lot more fun than uncritically accepting the frames we are routinely handed by others.

on 04/9/10 in featured, Language | No Comments | Read More

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