Autism’s Overton Window

I don’t think any of us would call it a game, but I’ve noticed a number of people who write or comment on autism sites seem to approach the issue of defining autism as a “zero-sum game,” in that any increase in attention enjoyed by newer, more liberal definitions of autism is seen as an equal and corresponding loss to the attention commanded by their preferred, more narrow and traditional definition.  The worry is that one view or one kind of autism will drown out or push another into obscurity.  It’s as if the underlying assumption is that there is a finite amount of attention to go around.  Or, that autism can be viewed solely through a frame or window that is only so big or so wide, and so for any attention at all to be focused on what one feels is the defining portion of the autistic spectrum, that window must be positioned just so, directly in front of that single, all-important representation of autism.

I still remember the wonder I felt when I learned that visible light is just the narrow portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to which our eyes are sensitive, that light was part of a greater whole, and that we were in fact able to map and make use of that whole that lay beyond ultraviolet and infrared, in every frequency from radio waves to gamma-rays.  I’ve already expressed my frustration with the spectrum model for autism; I do think it’s far too static and two-dimensional.  Even so though, it was what was available to me when I first really began paying attention.  And now that I think about it, it was much the same wonder that I felt, about unsuspected vistas of unbroken spectrum; only this second time around, instead of electromagnetic energy it was autistic.

Some political thinkers have much the same frustrations I do with the limitations of a spectrum model—as applied to the political spectrum of left to right, or liberal to conservative.  Among those who do still find it useful though, there is a concept concerning windows onto spectrums which has some currency these days, and also offers some parallels with our views onto the autistic spectrum.

What has come to be called the Overton Window measures what politicians perceive to be the range of acceptable policy options from which they can choose without risking their office come election time.  Within that window, one officeholder might lean right, one left, or a single politician might weigh two fairly distant positions on a given policy.  The distance between these two farthest positions, assuming each elected officeholder feels that they can be re-elected by voting these positions—this distance is the width of the Overton Window.

Maybe more important than its width however is where exactly this window sits on a spectrum.  If the window itself moves far to the right for instance, its rightmost observers may find themselves voting for policies which in years prior might have seemed outrageous, radical rightist pipe dreams—while defending those policies as being born of common, everyday wisdom.  Likewise, its leftmost observers may find themselves voting for policies which are for them shockingly moderate and even rightist—all while being pilloried by a savvier right for being “radically” leftist.  Like the old song says, It Could Happen to You.

One thing assumed by this theory is that the window necessarily stays narrow—that there not be all that much difference between all the positions available to politicians.  This assumption was based on observation, and as far as I know, what goes into keeping the window narrow has not been looked into.  I suspect, for what it’s worth, that the political Overton Window could be widened by removing corporate money from the election cycle, doing away with our winner-takes-all electoral college, moving to instant runoff elections, opening up the two-party system to any number of “third” parties, and by busting up media monopolies and allowing our news organizations to once again operate as something other than profit centers.

Autism as well I suggest has its own Overton Window which for years could be mapped pretty much directly onto the original DSM diagnosis and its immediate successors.  This too was a narrow window, but in time other diagnoses came to be recognized as autistic as well, on and on until now even those without diagnoses are claiming recognition as autistic.

Autism’s Overton Window in other words has been expanding continuously—to the left.  This, I believe, is what is taken to be a threat by those who are heavily invested in the traditional, right side “definition” of autism.  Every addition to the leftward spectrum is perceived as a subtraction from the rightward spectrum.  Evidence that the window’s rightward edge is actually receding to the left and allowing autism’s right side edge to slip out of view may be lacking, but the anxiety is there; the simple fact of increased attention paid to autism’s hidden, “occulted” left side is enough to trigger it.

My suggestions for maintaining a wide Overton Window in politics may or may not have correlates in the autism world, but I’m guessing they do.  Corporate money, even from non-profits, may well be working to delegitimize the attention paid to autism’s right-hand spectrum in particular.  Consider the opportunity costs of and the damage wrought by Jenny McCarthy’s corporate-sponsored turn as an Autism Mom.  Consider the way if-it-bleeds-it-leads sensationalism colors autism “news” reporting.

And finally, this is the painful ironic twist that set me to writing on this topic in the first place:  unlike in politics where there are finite numbers of budget dollars or votes to be had, there is no inherent reason for even widely disparate poles of the autism community to be attended to at one another’s expense.  All such reasons it seems to me are ones imposed or imported from the outside, bringing with them a sour whiff of divide-and-conquer.

An ever-increasing multitude of diverse, self-aware, unashamed, educated, articulate, capable, and by neurology and by definition empathetic autistics—a multitude that blends into society while also “getting” autism—is the strongest natural ally that those autistics who are not so blessed will ever have outside of, hopefully, their own families.  To stand in the way of this multitude’s members being recognized, welcomed, and/or oriented to their place on the spectrum is not in the best interest of anyone save those who would profit from the struggles of autistics.

So how about we drown out those profiteers first?  How about we zero their sum before we worry about yours and mine.  There’ll be plenty of time for infighting, insecurities, and intramural politics afterward—I promise you—if we still feel like it.

on 07/30/10 in featured, Politics | 11 Comments | Read More

Comments (11)


  1. I have noticed a tendency for the last one in to attempt to bolt the door behind them, for fear that the crowds outside clamouring for admittance will somehow diminish there share of whatever it is they think is on the inside of the room.

    It’s all to do with the apparent ‘necessity’ even amongst those who celebrate there autism, to allow membership of this club to be moderated from outside.

    Its as if the English language community has abnegated to the Academie Francaise, the powers of arbitration in what is acceptable in an English dictionary or grammar.

    It’s the clinical definition that is the problem, it also bedevils research, because it draws an arbitrary line which dissallows any speculation beyond it as to what Autism really might be, and how it stands in relation to human development.

    FWIW - and I can see the die hards on one side getting ready with there hammers, to nail me to the door of Gothenburg Church while the blow hards on the other pile up Christopher Gillbergs theses at my feet ready to light the touch paper - but I have long considered (considered being the watch word) that it is the same basic mechanisms that cause autism in all it’s global variance of funtion and manifestation, and that you can’t understand one so called “end” of a reified spectrum band without understanding the other.

  2. Best of luck surviving the angry throngs, Laurentius. The problem with the internet is that without books and papers, we can no longer simply burn offensive writings and hit the ashes with a stick; only blood drawn in vivo will do.

    As for bolting the door, a few years ago my wife accepted a job in a neighboring state which was much better known for its scenic beauty. We already had friends who had moved there, and as soon as we decided to join them, I wrote them of my intentions to close the state to further immigration as soon as we had arrived.

    But criminy, I did that as tongue-in-cheek burlesque. Regarding my longstanding ambition, however, of mobilizing the Wisconsin National Guard to take back the Upper Peninsula from Michigan, I remain in absolute earnest.

  3. Laurentius, I agree wholeheartedly with your comments, especially your last paragraph. I’ll be glad to fight the angry throngs with you, and I hope you take some comfort in the fact that since my ancestors survived one major Inquisition (moving en masse to Lithuania rather than get torched), I have a certain inborn propensity to avoid and/or fight my way out of the lesser ones that human beings seem so fond of generating.

    Mark, I think the whole problem with the spectrum model derives from its medical origin and the disproportionate amount of power that the medical model wields in our culture. (Is there anything in life that the medical profession can’t reduce to a diagnosis or a pathology?) It’s called a spectrum, but it’s really just a hierarchy in which we are categorized and separated from one another as more or less functioning, productive, and therefore worthwhile. I don’t have a problem with a spectrum model, so long as it extends infinitely in both directions and describes different modes of thought and consciousness. Then it would be far more interesting and far more useful.

  4. Lili Marlene says:

    “….. there is no inherent reason for even widely disparate poles of the autism community to be attended to at one another’s expense.”

    True. I’ve never asked for any money or special services for myself. All I’ve ever asked for is that the neurotypical world stop their bullying, discrimination, misadvising, defamation and educational neglect of people like me. I’d also like the world of normal people to stop deluding themselves that they understand my life, my challenges, my desires and my psychology. There is no room for new knowledge in a mind that believes that it already knows everything.

  5. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Rachel, my biggest problem with the spectrum model is that it doesn’t account for situational mobility, not only across, up, and down it, but also for mobility onto and off of the spectrum entirely. Different social contexts and physical environments can either aggravate autistic tendencies, or make them more or less irrelevant, and these factors vary across the space of a single day, and also between people with very different socioeconomic situations. Some are entirely unable to escape environments and expectations which make them autistic, and others are able to find or create worlds for themselves in which their autism comes into play only very occasionally.

    My point though is that we are all of us constantly in motion in regard to this spectrum, according to the qualities of our social and physical environments at any given hour of the day or moment in our lives — and this motion, this mercurial and situation-sensitive aspect of autism, is not only not accounted for, it is rendered invisible by the notion of a spectrum with people fixed in various places upon it.

    As Julia Bascom has stressed, “Abilities are never stagnant.” Maps are stagnant. Maybe we have mistaken the spectrum map or model for the reality it’s supposed to represent. If trees and rivers are found to be moving around the landscape, it’s all well and good to hold our map up in the air and wave it around with authority, but sooner or later we need to acknowledge that the world is a more magical place than we and our mapmakers have estimated.

  6. Mark, we are in agreement about the necessity of seeing people as living, breathing, changing entities instead of diagnostic categories. We seem to differ in the way we visualize a spectrum. As a visual symbol, I don’t see a spectrum as a static entity at all. My experience is that I’ve moved along the neurological/experiential spectrum in many ways all my life, and never in just one direction. The image of a spectrum, with all its shifting, blending, suprising, and vivid colors speaks to me deeply.

    The problem isn’t the symbol but the way in which people are locked into it. It’s the difference between the subtle, magical changes of light over the course of a day and the static image of the NBC peacock. The fact that people get locked into place on the spectrum has to do with the fact that those who feel entitled to the privileges of “normality” do not want to admit that they are just another kind of different, and so they generally try to put the rest of us into static categories from which they themselves are rendered immune. This attempt wouldn’t have nearly so much power were it not for the fact that it tries to be “scientific” and “medical,” terms which a) tend to discourage argument and b) nearly always turn a condition into a disease, and from there, the disease stigma sticks, no matter how much change occurs.

  7. Gwen McKay says:

    Rachel, it looks to me as if Mark is discussing the spectrum model as put forth by the professionals, where the autism that he describes as being “aggravated” or that a person is “unable to escape” is measured in behavioral terms. (Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, Mark.)

    A large part of what’s actually being measured under that model is how a person reacts to stress; and so we see stories of “recovery,” when all that really happened was that the environment became friendlier and/or the person learned other ways of coping with stress that did not look autistic.

    I look upon life as a vivid experience full of constantly shifting dimensions and colors too… and I wonder if, perhaps, those who want to lock autism into a static spectrum are afraid to consider the possibility that their own lives might be more complicated than they would prefer.

  8. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Rachel, I think we’re essentially in agreement; my beef is with the notion of spectrum as it is commonly imagined and wielded (as you describe), not as you imagine it. I’m sorry if I implied otherwise; I may be spoiling for a fight, but not with you. :-)

    The image that will accompany tomorrow’s post is of a spectrum-like figure known to physicists as a strange attractor. It has to do with probabilities and distributions of events, perhaps such as experiences of autism. Just looking at a still representation of a strange attractor suggests motion and change; I expect we can both get on board a spectrum like that. (Here’s a link, actually, to the image:

  9. lurker says:

    “An ever-increasing multitude of diverse, self-aware, unashamed, educated, articulate, capable, and by neurology and by definition empathetic autistics—a multitude that blends into society while also “getting” autism—is the strongest natural ally that those autistics who are not so blessed will ever have outside of, hopefully, their own families” Totally untrue. No groups separated by such disparities can have the same interests to look out for. With the way things have been going, lots of conflict has ensued due to the actions of such “allies”, an inevitable conflict apparently. Who are the “profiteers”, and how long will it require to stop them so the issues within can be settled?

  10. Mark Stairwalt says:

    “Lurker,” why are you not using an identifiable name?

    Natural allies can be and have been perverted, by means of a longstanding mindset of divide-and-conquer, into acting as competitors and enemies. To just throw your hands up and go along with this is to side with those who would see autistics divided into those who must be cured, and those who feel they must remain silent out of fear (the key word in what you quoted is “unashamed”) that they will be identified as being in need of a cure — both “sides” thus conquered.

    Those who profit from this are those who don’t want to recognize that normal isn’t such a solid concept after all. For some, believing this is just a personal crutch used at the expense of others; then there are those who profit more literally by coddling and/or stoking the insecurities and resentments of those who use that crutch. Sometimes that profit has to do simply with propping up one’s own self-esteem, and other times it’s as literal as cash money.

    The more enlightened self-interest there is in the world for us all, the sooner these issues can be settled.

    I do understand your frustration, but I don’t see where you’re helping with that …

    … beginning, again, with the fact that you’ve left a one-off negative comment with no traceable link to anything else you’ve ever gone on record as saying. This site aims to be a safe space even for people with fears such as yours. Nobody here is going to bite your head off just for not understanding or thinking we are mistaken in our views of autism — so I hope you can comment again with an identifiable handle … but if all you’re interested in is dumping negative energy, if all you’re about is fearmongering and naysaying, anonymous or otherwise, I’ll have no regrets about deleting it.

  11. Mark Stairwalt says:

    If the reputation of Billy Cresp (aka Lurker) did not precede him, it was close behind. In other circumstances I might give him credit for offering a detailed reply and coming clean about his identity, but given that “Lurker” is well-known to those who’ve been around this block before, I’m content to admit I’ve been played.

    Billy — Honestly dude, there is something seriously creepy about using the name Lurker everywhere you go – for well over a year by my count – WHILE already being banned from more autism blogs than I can list. These two things together, by themselves, tell me you have other issues to sort through before you’re ready to wade into discussions about autism.

    You’re welcome to question and criticize from your own blog, but consider yourself banned here as well.

    Comments guidelines are in the works, but this is an early indication that the focus here is on getting things done. We are at work here, and there is plenty of room for more hands. To the extent that autistics and fellow travelers need a still, calm center from which to think things through, determine our bearings, and define ourselves on our own terms, Shift is striving to be that center.

    This is a long-term project; we are not immediately focused on winning over naysayers or countering every argument levied against us. If our detractors find this lack of attention disquieting, insulting, or inappropriate … we may still have little or nothing to say to them.

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