The Unbroken Spectrum: Ridicule

Having come full circle back to the assertion that there is no clear dividing line between the autistic population and the “non”-autistic population, this seems like an apt time to have a closer look at some of the mechanisms that make it seem as if there is a wide, unpopulated no-man’s land between these two populations.  Earlier this year Clay and I traded posts over the idea that false personas are routinely taken on as a matter of social survival by autistics both diagnosed and unsuspecting.  While we drew attention to the costs of this sort of mask-wearing, we didn’t talk much about its mechanisms of enforcement, which much like autism itself are embedded in our culture to the extent that they are hidden in plain sight.  I’d like to outline one such mechanism which I’ve watched at close hand, and also expand on another, more difficult-to-discern one that I’ve just touched on a couple times, that of psychological projection.  These again are only two of the ways in which the illusion of division is maintained, but if they’re ones you’ve never thought much about, being able to recognize them may help you realize how much of the autistic spectrum goes unnoticed right beneath our noses.

I’ve mentioned recently how autistics are mankind’s inbuilt participant-observers; it’s a point I’d like to expand on in a future entry; as participant observation has been the predominant methodology among cultural anthropologists for nearly a century, this arguably makes autistics into an entire population of accidental “anthropologists on Mars,” to use Temple Grandin’s phrase.  For now I’ll just note that as an adopted child in an extended family that placed a high value on social skills, participant-observer is not a bad description for my role in that family.

Perhaps once a year then as a child, I had the opportunity to travel into the field as an anthropologist, that “field” being a holiday or summertime visit to the home of my mother’s sister.  Here too were my three cousins, all boys, one slightly older and the others a little younger.  They seem extraordinary to me still in that not one of them has to my knowledge ever been mean-spirited, unkind, or less than gentlemanly to any person directly.  Politeness is an imperative that was drilled into them, as was the necessity of a savoir-faire that lacked any connotation of suaveness.  Their father was an unpretentious, loud-voiced man with a Rhode Island accent who negotiated the sales of entire fleets of aircraft, most notably, it was impressed on all of us,  to manners-conscious Japanese buyers.  The bar being thus set, it was expected of his sons that they unfailingly display exemplary social competence, regardless how foreign or unfamiliar the situation.

What confused me about this for years was that ridicule of others was used as a teaching tool in my cousins’ family.  The first of this I remember was the “Newfy jokes” beloved by their father, whose climb up the corporate ladder had included a stint in Canada—Newfies being Newfoundlanders, still the butt of jokes among Canadians for their odd prosody and tendency to travel blithely through life in their own, out-of-step manner.  As a child, I never quite “got” the appeal of Newfy jokes, even after it was explained to me, approvingly, that they were very like the more popular Pollock jokes with which I was familiar.

As the boys grew to be teenagers and moved on to college, the foibles of their more socially clueless friends—and interestingly enough, my cousins often had such friends—were recounted by my uncle to uproarious laughter at the dinner table.  Any chance encounter, in fact, with someone who conspicuously failed to pick up on a social cue or was otherwise dense socially could provide such an entertaining story, and while this laughter might to all appearances be good-natured, it was clear these stories would not be recounted in the same way were their subjects present at the table.  The subtext was not lost on any of us: being the subject of such a story was a fate to be avoided at all costs.  Ridicule, then, demonstrated before three boys who did indeed have the wherewithal and flexibility to make a priority of their social skills, seemed to be extremely effective as a teaching tool.

Distilled, refined, and deftly applied as that ridicule was though, I can’t say that those dinner table lessons were not of the same substance that brings schoolchildren to bully the kid who doesn’t fit in, all in the name of “maintaining group identity,” or however the child psychologists are explaining it these days.  This is not to speak ill of my uncle in particular, but rather to remind that in a highly verbal, socially-oriented society such as we live in, the taboo-driven impulse to punish or “disappear” character traits that do not lend momentum to social cohesion is one that isn’t left behind in the schoolyard.  It merely acquires an ill-deserved respectability and is woven into the collective fabric of our lives.

So, were any of my cousins the least bit autistic then by God the world will never know it, as its expression was shamed out of them in their youth.  I should make clear here that neither generation of this family, like most other families, would ever knowingly look for amusement in the travails of diagnosed autistics.  In this sense a diagnosis of autism functions as a restraining order against societal ridicule of autistic behavior, though one limited only to the most glaringly obvious cases, and violated often enough as it is.

By extension then—given endless permutations of similarly motivated ridicule and shaming at work in billions of families, workplaces, and friendship circles—consider how an entire swath of the autistic spectrum can thus be made invisible by the very people who occupy it, simply because it is a pale enough swath that they can make it invisible, and because we as a society have incentivized them in no uncertain terms to do so.

The second mechanism that promotes the illusion that the autistic spectrum does not seamlessly shade out to normal—the illusion that it is not in fact normal for untold numbers of people to be at least somewhat autistic—is characterized by a lack of the sense of humor that makes lighthearted ridicule possible, and also by having its source not in any imperative of group identity, but rather in one’s sense of personal identity. Rather, though, than double the length of what I’ve already written here I will address psychological projection in a subsequent entry.

related:  The Unbroken Spectrum: Projection

related:  The Unbroken Spectrum: Self-Hatred

related:  The Unbroken Spectrum: Stockholm Syndrome

related:  The Unbroken Spectrum: The Shared Closet

on 05/24/10 in Autism, featured | 1 Comment | Read More

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