Mountain Goats of the Uncanny Valley

Now that the subject of autism and the uncanny valley has been laid on the table, I’d like to draw on that metaphor by sharing some further imagery that offers new ways to think about autistic people.  In doing so, I’m building on the observation about mobility across the autistic spectrum described in ++ungood, as well as the geographic model hinted at in the conclusion to Notes On Five Spectrums, all with a nod to Laurence Arnold’s thoughts on autism as geography, recently reposted here and here.

In ++ungood it was proposed that the notion of any person having a single, unchanging place on a static autistic spectrum is wholly inadequate as a way to describe the experience of being autistic.  Inadequate, because in the course of a single day one can move into and out of any number of environmental situations and/or social contexts which either will or will not elicit behavior identifiable as autistic.  These situations and contexts can moreover be intensified, aggravated, or avoided depending on one’s socio-economic situation, which in turn can change throughout the course of a year or a lifetime.  More to my point here, autistic tendencies can be and routinely are hidden, disguised, and denied expression, often only to a certain degree; when possible though, they are for all practical purposes made entirely invisible, at no small cost in terms of energy and self-sacrifice.

What motivates such expenditures and sacrifices, I suggest, are the penalties assigned to those who slide too far down into the uncanny valley, into territory from which one appears not quite “right” in terms of social interaction.  Perhaps foremost among these penalties is denial of access to sexual companionship, but they extend into all areas of social congress.  The benefits of social acceptance are many and profound, and the incentive to “pass,” to move—by hook or by crook—across and if possible off the autistic spectrum, is immeasurably high.  Lili Marlene recently touched on the absurdity of being “instructed” in sociable behavior by well-meaning relatives at Christmas gatherings; what such “helpful” souls fail to realize is that society’s incentive system is already so strong and so pervasive that such encouragement simply amounts to piling on, to gratuitous and unhelpful “late hits” on which no penalties are ever called.

At any rate, the autistic spectrum itself can thus be mapped more or less directly onto the near slope of the uncanny valley.  To move off the spectrum is to move up the slope, into safe territory, onto the flatland where no one’s social behavior is perceived to be somehow “off,” and so no penalties are levied.  This mobility, the astonishing reality that autistic people do in fact move up that slope, and in stressful or unguarded moments (but also sometimes in sweet, blessed solitude) back down it—this is the unacknowledged drama of the autistic experience.

What’s more, unlike the sine-curve smoothness of the valley slope as depicted by roboticists in graph after published graph, the uncanny valley as experienced by autistics is a craggy, jagged mountainside, full of impossible passes, treacherous footing, and terrifying abysses—not to mention the odd sunny, secluded grassy knoll or wildflower-strewn meadow.  There is one animal, at least on this continent, which best personifies the archetypal survivor in this environment, and that is the Mountain Goat, Oreamnos americanus. A long-running recurring meme at Digg is to post pictures of these goats matter-of-factly clinging to cliff faces or perched on some ridiculously pointed summit, each example seemingly more impossible than the last.

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)

The correlate here is that autistics are mankind’s inbuilt participant-observers, with one foot in this social world, and one in someplace quite Other—how Other depending on how far down in the valley we range. According to Andrew Lehman, for autistics, this may also be the valley of primary process, cognate with the timelessness of the collective unconscious, and thus someplace indeed not wholly human, and yet also the fount and foundation of humanity itself.

In this sense then, there may well be something of the two-spirit about autistics, the human spirit conjoined with the other-than-human spirit.  In literal terms, this sort of talk may well be nonsense—Woo™, as KWombles would have it—but even as we wait for the evidence to fill out our evidence-based reality, we live in a world already long filled in with perceptions; we can consider where the roots of those perceptions lie and yes, how to manipulate them for ourselves.

As evolved creatures, we are not so many generations removed from our forbearers who responded instinctively to the perception of the non-human in the human.  As shamanism was in part about the manipulation of these perceptions; as that manipulation came in the form of theater; as all the world is in fact a stage; and as even KWombles would not refuse to attend or respond to a play simply because it isn’t reality, we would do well to be awake to the ways autism is already being delivered and consumed as theater, however unconsciously.

For one example of how we might have a freer hand in shaping and delivering that theater, how for example we might re-imagine spectrum and valley in terms of set design and stagecraft, see above.

Or if that doesn’t suit you, by all means set about re-imagining autism’s dramatic elements on your own. Because you know, the storylines in which autistics are invited to star—The Changelings; Born Without Souls; I Am Autism; The Little Boy Who Couldn’t; It Came From Planet Thimerosal —aren’t really all that inviting, are they?

And no one—certainly not all on their own—is likely to change that for us.

related:  The Dwellers on the Plain

related:  Notes on Five Spectrums

related:  Autism and the Uncanny Valley

on 05/7/10 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 1 Comment | Read More

Comments (1)


  1. KWombles says:

    Beautifully poetic. On a side note, I love the link to how many times I’ve used woo on Countering. :-) As long as you don’t go all Deepak or Lanza on me, I believe I can appreciate the lyricism of what you’re getting at.

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