Neurodiversity: A Pre-emptive Reply

Hello, there.  I’ve been expecting you.  While the focus here at Shift may be a good bit more broad than that found at, say, Ballastexistenz, aspie rhetor, Whose Planet Is It Anyway?, or Asperger Square 8, the notion of neurodiversity as an essential good, wherever it appears, seems to attract a certain kind of attention that seeks to refute or correct it.  On the whole, this is not a discussion we’re looking to host, but having seen the comments left elsewhere, I figured it was only a matter of time before you came to visit.  Speaking perhaps only for myself, I’d like to explain why it is I wanted to meet you upon your arrival.

I want you to know that my thoughts are very much with the family of your friend whose autistic child needs supervision literally twenty-four hours a day; your friend whose autistic brother has been institutionalized; your friend whose autistic sister lives with her aging parents and will find it all the more difficult to get by on her own when they are gone.  Your friend’s family—or perhaps you advocate for many families, as part of an organization—has been wrenched from the familiar.  Their time, money, and attention, scarce anyway, run all the shorter. Hopes, dreams, and expectations most take for granted are altered or denied to them.  They’ve been called on to love someone, a child of their own flesh, who seems so very unlike them, and so unable to return their love in any way they’re prepared to recognize.  Too few know, or want to know, what it’s like.  I get that.

Here’s what I think you don’t get—and what I’d like newcomers watching both sides of this discussion to entertain:  that the autistic spectrum is far, far larger and more widespread in 1) the number of people who occupy a place on it, 2) the breadth and variety of behavior, appearance, and experience by which it presents itself, and 3) the reach and scope of its influence on humankind’s cultural evolution, and perhaps even of its involvement in our biological evolution and in the evolution of our consciousness itself, than has yet been considered.

I ask that we all entertain the notion that the vast majority of those who occupy a place on the autistic spectrum—in its entirety, not just the most segment of it that the DSM finds reason to concern itself with, including many who are diagnosable, but many more who are sub-clinical—are functional, contributing members of society, whose contribution as a group is far out of proportion to their numbers.  True, as the world stands today, many of those included on this full spectrum might well feel frightened, ashamed, or offended to learn there’s anything about them which has to do with autism.  I lay much responsibility for such reactions at your feet for having promoted your own experience of others’ autism as the standard from which all of us should take our cues.

The big picture, in short, is not about you or your perspective.  The experiences you’re familiar with, however painful, are not thereby privileged to stand for the whole.  They do not privilege you to speak for the entire spectrum, or to define it as only pathological, or as smaller or less significant than it may be.  Above all, the people who should be defining autism are those who have it—and yet over and again, such people are told—by you—that they cannot be autistic because they have imagination and a “theory of mind,” are too articulate, too insightful, too empathetic; too rich in qualities that are reserved, in your mind, for others.

In this context, we both know, the elusive and long-sought cure for autism becomes a highly charged issue. While I am all for alleviating burdens on family members of the profoundly autistic, I would ask all involved to consider a possible contra-positive.  Remember that in the long sweep of Homo sapiens’ presence here on Gaia’s Green Earth, civilization not only hasn’t been around for more than a blink of Her eye—it also seems to be something of a fluke, besides.  We don’t really know how it got started, or why, or who was responsible, or why it happened when it did—or what keeps it moving forward into our own future.

So.  If autism had somehow been prevented at its genesis—and my assertions above are accurate—then the possibility exists that we would all still be living la vida paleolithic, sitting around campfires—assuming fire would be tamed—in front of caves that would feature blank, painting-free walls.  Some may find that last sentence confusing or lacking in sense; if so, I direct you to Michael Fitzgerald’s Autism and Creativity, or Norm Ledgin’s Diagnosing Jefferson, or any number of other sources which explore the lives of prominent contributors to civilization in the context of evidence indicating that these people do, in fact, belong on the autistic spectrum.

I ask you, moreover, to consider that these people’s accomplishments were achieved not in spite of the fact that they were to varying degrees autistic, but rather because they were to varying degrees autistic. Remember that the autistic are those who lack the common sense, who don’t pick up on “how things are done,” who don’t receive the received wisdom.  If they (or we—I’ll go ahead and out myself) are condemned to re-invent the wheel, for example to learn social interaction as a foreign language, to painstakingly back-engineer it by observing how nonautistic folks interact, then we have a skill set and a perennially fresh, outsider’s perspective which others—you—lack.

And with that skill set and perspective, we are not only re-inventing the wheel, we are also inventing new ones, new ways of doing things as well as new things to do—including, perhaps, back in the day, fashioning that first contraption involving an axle and … a wheel.  You look around today, anyway, and you’ll see an awful lot of talented auto mechanics and mechanical engineers on the spectrum.

All of which is cold comfort, I realize, to your friend whose child may never learn a trade or be able to support him or herself.  To suggest otherwise would be to do to her what’s done to others on her behalf, by those such as you—imposing your perspective on those who value the diversity autism presents and represents, insisting that we see the world from within the same limits as you do.  You are welcome to that perspective. The work at hand, however—as it has been from time immemorial—has to do with expanding limits and possibilities, not restricting them.  That work, that effort, of making the world bigger rather than smaller, you are welcome to join as well.

on 08/28/09 in Internet | No Comments | Read More

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