New Thread (If Not Us, Then Who?)

[continued from previous]

I’ve said that I see a lot of thoughtful attention here; I’d like to also say that everyone (hi Diane, welcome; thanks for coming by) seems to be making sound arguments, ones which flow logically and eloquently … from the set of basic assumptions you all seem to be starting with.  What disagreement we have, I think, comes of my starting from the assumption that we have fundamentally misunderstood the nature and extent of autism as it exists outside the confines of the DSM.  Now, it’s clear that I haven’t made a sufficient case for that assumption, and I may well be wrong about it.  What I wrote was more in the vein of a thought experiment or even performance art, a “what if” take or an entertainment of my assumption — and an invitation to entertain it along with me.  To the extent that the replies here so far can be summed up as “Well, we have not misunderstood autism, and therefore, this, this, and this,” then I don’t feel that I really have any argument with those conclusions.

At the same time, I don’t feel that what I’ve tried to suggest is actually being engaged with.

You probably know the story of the emperor’s new clothes, about the manipulative tailors who sold the emperor a bill of goods for a new suit of clothes that was “invisible to those unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent.”  Was Hans Christian Andersen putting children, or any particular child on a pedestal when he invites us to entertain the notion of a child as the speaker of the story’s pivotal line, as in fact the hero of the story?  Are we putting autistics, or any particular autistic person on a pedestal when we point out that it might just as well have been an autistic person as a child?  Don’t both those possibilities speak equally well to the question of how an essential clarity of vision in human affairs is carried from one generation to the next?

I’m maybe overly fond of quoting my own observation that autistics bring a fresh eye, every generation, to perennial human problems — this because of the tendency to not so easily become entrained to “the way we’ve always done it.”  It’s not, however, much of a romanticized, heroic, pedestal-centered vision.  My analogy is to the genetic mutation that drives biological evolution.  Just as not every mutation is adaptive (in fact the vast majority are not), neither are most “new” ideas.  The point however is that new ideas, fresh perspectives, unprecedented meme variants are being generated at all.  Thus might autism be in fact the engine that drives cultural evolution, much as genetic mutation is the engine that drives biological evolution, without autistics as a whole being in the least eligible for a pedestal — with the vast majority of us, in fact, being as annoying, irrelevant (God’s love notwithstanding), and productive of noise and static as the woman Diane describes working with.

In the same way, even when based on what seems to be self-evident personal experience, it may be impossible for us to individually sort out the signal from the noise when it comes to autism’s way of encouraging the human race to respect honesty, to be sensitive to justice, and to speak up and speak out.  The effect need not be black and white, nor the actors identifiably autistic; again as with evolutionary advantages, differences need only be slight in order to be significant over a period of many generations.  And again, no one gets a pedestal, even while autistics as a whole may well get the credit. (Evolutionary biologists after all do not put genetic mutations on a pedestal; they simply try to work out where genetic mutation fits in and what it contributes.)

When Tyler Cowen writes, “… many of the autistics with relatively high social status don’t want to affiliate with the concept or, more frequently, they are genuinely unaware that they might qualify as autistic in some manner,” that for me is only the near shore of autism’s uncharted reach into society.  We really have no idea how far it goes, or what it does.  Virtually all serious attention thus far — perhaps rightly so — has not been focused on autism’s far shores.  We really do not understand it so well — and there is plenty of room, I think, for mystery.

[Traffic continues to be strong on this thread, and given that instead of getting together a new post for Tuesday, I’ve used up my available time and energy tonight in replying here, let’s see if there’s any more life in it ….]

[image:  Norman Rockwell via Brian Moore]

related:  previous comments thread (on If Not Us, Then Who?)

related:  If Not Us, Then Who?

related:  initial comments thread (on This Too Is Autism)

related:  This Too Is Autism

on 02/15/11 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 6 Comments | Read More

Comments (6)


  1. Stephanie says:

    Failure to communicate can be an impressive thing.

    However poorly I’ve expressed it, I am engaging with your premise-just not in the manner in which you would wish.

    As someone who exhibits autistic traits and tendencies without the disabling aspects associated with the DSM, I would agree that there is a wider autism cohort. However, I will not agree that this wider autism cohort should hi-jack the word “autism,” changes its meaning to exclude those who are currently considered undesirable, and re-write that meaning to be some powerful, positive social influence that makes autism worthwhile.

    It’s not your premise-that there are nearly-autistic and autistic people that contribute valuable influence and insight to society-that I have a problem with. (Whether they’re spun out by genetics for the sake of social evolution-that’s a whole different premise which relies on assumptions we do not share.) My problem is with the assertion or the suggestion or the implication (whatever you want to call it) that this is the purpose of autism or that society should value autism for this sake. Those people exist, but they do not represent autism-because autism encompasses people who do not fit that description as well.

    By shining the light on one facet of human behavior that can materialize from the complex set of observations we call autism and saying “this is autism,” you are denying the reality that, for many people who are diagnosably autistic, that’s not autism at all. When you are say that autism is valuable to society because of this human behavior, you are saying/suggesting/implying that those who cannot or do not live up to are not valuable.

    Yes, we should acknowledge that those human behaviors we observe and call “autism” apply to, at least in some degree, a wide swath of people with and without disabilities. Include the people who use their autistic traits in positive ways, draw attention to them, but don’t do it in such a way that you are excluding diagnosably autistic people who cannot live up to the standards set by others. That isn’t neurodiversity.

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    This is actually something I wanted to try and sort out for this Friday, so we’ll see how far I get.

    First, as you’ve pointed out to me, small omissions can make big differences in meanings, and you left out a critical word when you quoted me as saying “this is autism,” rather than “this too is autism.” Your point is amply supported by the quote you supply; not so much – not at all, I don’t think – by the title I actually chose or the essay that followed. I don’t mean to imply that you did this intentionally, but rather that in order to maintain the stance you’ve taken, you need to imagine me saying different things than I said.

    I’ve been fascinated from the start by the idea of an unbroken spectrum, one that linked non-verbal autistics with prominent verbal ones. I do think one way to promote the existence of that continuity is to force cognitive dissonance on others by focusing their attention on the autism of the Tyler Cowens of the world, and leaving it to them to make the connection. Maybe I just have more faith in people’s ability to do this than you do, but I don’t think there’s much danger of their resolving the dissonance in such a way that renders anyone invisible.

    In any case, please note that I did not in fact say what you represented me as having said.

    [update: remainder of this lengthy comment removed for the sake of brevity and of moving on]

  3. Stephanie says:


    Your title did say “This Too is Autism,” but nothing in the essay that followed or in the discussions that have followed suggested how your statements included everyone with autism. I chose the mis-quote deliberately to make that point. You said “too,” but seemed to leave out anyone who didn’t add the value you sought to assert.

    “I do think one way to promote the existence of that continuity is to force cognitive dissonance on others by focusing their attention on the autism of the Tyler Cowens of the world, and leaving it to them to make the connection. Maybe I just have more faith in people’s ability to do this than you do, but I don’t think there’s much danger of their resolving the dissonance in such a way that renders anyone invisible.”

    I have absolutely no faith in the general populations’ ability to make that connection. I have no faith that everyone with a vested interest in the outcome could or would make that connection. That connection relies on an assumption of similitude that does not seem to exist in the minds of the general population. Logically, with that assumption, the connection is valid. But the connection relies on that assumption.

    Personally, I share that assumption, but I’ve met far too many people who don’t. A doctor who should have known better told me to send my eldest to an institution and start over with my younger boys (before the younger ones were diagnosed and before my older one “caught up” enough to be considered a high-functioning autistic). I have had strangers tell me that Alex, my non-verbal son, would be better off dead. Others have said that any aid is wasted on him, because the resources could be better spent on those who could really benefit from them. Most people acknowledge that Willy is worth the effort, but it’s far different for Alex.

  4. Gwen McKay says:

    I agree with Stephanie on this last point. In past centuries, the existence of high-achieving women, people of color, etc., did not spark enough cognitive dissonance to overturn the common prejudices. For the most part, they were seen as interesting curiosities, rather than as reflecting the potential of others like themselves.

    Integration is what has made most of the difference in modern times — women sitting next to men in the office, families of different ethnic backgrounds living in the same neighborhoods. A non-speaking autistic child using an AAC device to communicate with other students in an integrated classroom does a lot more to dispel prejudice than anything we might say about Tyler Cowen’s accomplishments.

    That’s not to say we shouldn’t mention high achievers, of course; a community benefits from having role models. But it’s likely that most of the cognitive dissonance will result from ordinary autistic people going to school or work every day.

  5. Diane says:

    Hi Mark, I stopped by and read what you had posted, in response to what I had said, but I didn’t have time or engery to respond. But since you removed some of what you said, I will not respond to what is missing - except to say - give your “Rahs” to those that deserve them! Everyone NEEDS encouragement! Especially those who don’t get them often enough in everyday life.

    But I’ve also seen the adverse effect of too many misplaced “Rahs”, and that leads to pedestals. And perhaps my pedestal analogy was not an accurate analogy after all. We ALL need encouragement to keep going forward!

    Genuine honesty is something we should treasure, because there is not enough of it in this world anymore - the way it used to be. When there didn’t need to binding contracts when a good man/woman’s word was good enough. Vows truly meant something, and the “Golden Rule” was followed by most.

    I used to work in group homes for developmentally disabled adults - we have come a long way from the “Institutions” many of these people used to live in - and we still have a much further way to go - before I would ever want any of my grandsons in one!

    Good change takes time, and bad change is easy. Good, strong role models are neccessary for any change - and it doesn’t matter which minority it is at the moment. But “everyday heros” are needed as well - without any of them, good change won’t happen. And like any other minority, change starts small, and builds momentum.

    And all of you bloggers are doing your part to make change happen - so “RAH” to you! Would any of you, otherwise, be a voice for change, or for autism - if - you hadn’t been gifted with a child with autism? Probably not. But change/acceptance needed to happen, and not just for the higher functioning, very verbal people on this spectrum, but also for the people like Alex. But working together, not quibbling over finer points, that change will happen more quickly 😉

  6. RichardPJ says:

    This is such and interesting end to my day. More people not understanding
    anything about anything. I suggest testing your luck as your opinions are

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