It’s Not About Us: Debunking Neurodiversity’s Hero Myth

Avedon Carol at The Sideshow marked the passing of writer Joanna Russ this week in a post that quoted Russ’ observation that “Homophobia isn’t there to keep homosexuals in line. Homophobia is there to keep everyone else in line.”  While “autism-phobia” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily as homophobia, it’s no less real a phenomenon, in reaction to which we’ve seen the explosive rise over the past decade of disability rights blogging from the autism community.  I bring up Russ’ observation to suggest that it’s no less relevant to the situation of autistics, and that we do well to look to it for perspective on autism.

Why the explosion of disability rights blogging happened when it did is a subject for another post, though much of course had to do simply with the sudden availability of the internet and the blogging platform.  One of my early entries here proposed that the internet gives voice and mutual access to a group which had been effectively barred from participation in the real-time back-and-forth of community for perhaps the entire history of the written word.  While autistics may lack a single signature event such as the Stonewall Riots that ignited the gay rights movement, disability rights blogging as it developed in the autistic community over the last ten or twelve years certainly has displayed much the same tone of push-back against society that erupted in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn.  When I woke from my Rip van Winkle nap two summers ago and started looking around again, I remember thinking, “Man, these people are just constantly at the barricades.  It looks exhausting.”

What I like about the Russ quote is that it invites everyone to step back from the barricades and out of the trenches, and to consider a bigger picture.  “Autism-phobia isn’t there to keep autistics in line,” she suggests. “Autism-phobia is there to keep everyone else in line.”  However personally we may be taking the disenfranchisement, the discrimination and the unreasoning fear, and however personal it may so incontrovertibly seem, from another, larger perspective … it just isn’t about us.

One of the broader lessons of archetypal psychology (one of my major obsessions some years ago) is as well that the personal isn’t necessarily all that personal.  Even our most intensely felt experiences, whether marked by elation, grief, or any other emotion take place against an archetypal background, the emotion merely marking our proximity to something much larger than our experience of it.  Michael Ventura has suggested that in the West our way of experiencing archetypal events so personally came into practice with the story of the Virgin Birth.  Before the birth of Jesus, such events happened to designated heroes, to spiritual leaders, or to entire peoples (think of Moses and his followers wandering forty years in the desert), but beginning with Mary — a humble, ordinary, and individual girl — the personal and the archetypal gradually became conflated in the popular imagination (witness our devout adoration of “stars,” our fascination with their personal lives, our insistence on imagining them as as role models).

Whether or not the Virgin Mary is Hollywood’s true patron saint, whether or not her story set in motion our modern hero-worship of sports figures, I suggest that disability rights blogging looks the way it does — and is in fact often such an exhausting endeavor — because it takes place in large part against the archetypal background of the Hero, of the mortal individual in hand-to-hand combat with immutable fate and immortal powers.  Every blogger a warrior, every blogger a heroine in direct, glorious confrontation with terrifying forces that would not only single her out for attention(!), but seek to keep her and her peers personally in line — with every published post a waystop along the Hero’s Journey, and every insult, injury, and need denied a personal affront.  Yes, I generalize; yes, I over-simplify; yes, I know we might generally feel more bedraggled or desperate than heroic, but so it goes; we are in the suspenseful middle of the story, not at the tidy end.

Hero mythology is so deeply woven into our culture at this point that there’s no avoiding participation, but there’s been a conscious effort from the start here at Shift to find other backgrounds, other stories, other myths against which the entries published here can be read.  Zygmunt whose posts appear on Mondays is probably the most consistently successful at sidestepping and offering alternatives to the heroic stance at the barricades.  One characteristic move seems to be to analyze and shrug at society, and then focus his energy on affirming and validating the experience and reality of those who likely aren’t getting much affirmation or validation elsewhere — and in the process outlining foundations for new forms of community.  This is one way we might behave once we understand that the problems made visible by the social model are not about autistics.

I’ve not even touched on the how’s and why’s of phobias being “there to keep everyone else in line” but here too Zygmunt has done yeoman’s work in laying out how suspicion and fear of even “mere” introversion functions to discipline the whole of society.  Through it all, there’s simply not much he deems worthy of taking personally, or of taking on in adversarial, Herculean fashion.  Zygmunt speaks of course as someone who has not come through the autism wars (he and I both were otherwise engaged) but that’s exactly my point: when everyone’s a soldier, when everyone’s fighting for their rights, or when we give ourselves over entirely to this role, perspective is lost.

That one pithy line adapted from Joanna Russ, I’m suggesting, can help restore some of that perspective: Autism-phobia isn’t there to keep autistics in line.  Autism-phobia is there to keep everyone else in line.

It’s not — not necessarily anyway — about us.  And I’m not saying this makes things better; in certain ways it makes them worse, more odious, and harder to bear.  What I am saying is that keeping in mind that there’s more at play than the personal dramas of autistics in society can give us more maneuvering room for thought and action, and can keep us from painting ourselves into a corner or three.  Often the difference is simply between understanding that we are “in” a hero myth, and taking that myth literally as if it were the sum total of reality for neurodiversity advocates.

If Russ is right, then both gays and autistics have natural allies in those who are being “kept in line” by society’s pathologies.  I don’t see autistics or gays doing or even thinking much about outreach to the “everyone else” Russ refers to, or about leveraging this relationship with them.  It has long seemed to me that this is a missed opportunity, and one we are unlikely to capitalize on or even recognize so long as we remain in the familiar, hot spotlight of the hero myth.  The irony is that in the meantime we remain the fearsome Gorgon head that society shakes at those who step out of line, every bit as much the hapless tool of society’s pathologies as we are their loyal opposition.

[image via Flickr/Creative Commons]

on 05/6/11 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 14 Comments | Read More

Comments (14)


  1. Gwen McKay says:

    There are outreach and coalition-building efforts between autistics and others in the disability community, which seem to be making some headway. You’re right, of course, in pointing out that the phobias involved have a much broader social-control scope.

    For my part, I’m just a storyteller.

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Good to know there are formal efforts; I hadn’t realized. What I’m thinking of is more a general awareness.

    For instance, there is some awareness and concern in the autistic community over the dynamic of divide-and-conquer that plays different parts of the autistic spectrum against each other. There seems very little awareness or concern however over people on and off the spectrum being portrayed or imagined as if their challenges and best interests are so radically different. Or at least, I do hear the message, frequently from the mothers of autistic children, that “The autistic are not so different from you.” What I don’t hear is the corollary which Russ seems to be getting at, “Everyone else is not so different from the gays, or the autistic” — still fearful of letting their freak flags fly, and of the consequences described by the social model.

    Or in other words, we’re beginning to understand that none of us wins when so-called “Asperger autistics” are played against so-called “Kanner autistics,” but it’s still “us against them” when it comes to autistics in the broader society.

  3. Gwen McKay says:

    I would say that some caution is needed when making an “everyone’s not so different” argument, in that it can lead to real differences being overlooked and accommodations not being provided. I’m not just referring to formal disability accommodations here, but more generally to whether society is willing to accommodate the diversity of needs that people have.

    And of course, as we’ve discussed before, people may look more or less autistic (or whatever the relevant socially-disfavored trait is) at different times and when they’re in different environments. So there’s a lot of complexity that needs to be recognized here. I don’t mean to suggest that you, personally, have gone too far in minimizing anyone’s differences; but it is a common pitfall when people are arguing against stereotypes.

  4. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Actually, I’d like to be taken to be making an “everyone’s more different than generally recognized” argument, with a view to breaking the hold that “normal” has on our imaginations. It may be that removing the incentives for “everyone” to repress and feel guilt or anxiety over their own inherent weirdness (weird, btw, being a word that’s cognate with “fate,” which Heraclitus equated with character) is something that will have to happen hand-in-hand with everyone’s acceptance of autistics. Trying to budge one without the other may be pointless.

  5. Gwen McKay says:

    Yes, that’s how I see it — everyone’s more different than modern society would like to admit, and many people get anxious when they notice the differences. I think that’s why there has been such an insistence on explaining them away as curable disorders, or (in less medicalized times) as sins that could be repented and corrected. If they can be seen as changeable and thus subject to social pressure, they’re not nearly as threatening to the established order.

  6. Mark Stairwalt says:


  7. Stephanie says:

    I think I get what you’re saying here.

    One of the things that I noticed early on regarding the differences between my sons and my step-son is regarding their education.

    At first glance, from the special education perspective, it looks like the education system is designed to meet some imaginary “normal” child’s needs, which intentionally leaves my children out and their needs become “special,” met as an after-thought. I’ve interacted with a lot of parents that are still stuck in that perspective, trying to push their kids into mainstreaming, because that’s where the “real” teaching is.

    But, as time went on, I found that there were some very real benefits to being in the special education program, whether mainstreamed or not. My three, autistic boys get individualized education. They have education plans designed to meet their individual needs. If a problem comes up, I have a direct line to their teacher and/or advisor. The problem is addressed through the education system, involving teachers, therapists, administrators, or whoever is needed.

    My step-son does not have an individualized education. If a problem comes up, well, it has to reach a crisis point before there’s even an avenue for intervention. A few good teachers can make a difference, but the system is not designed to meet his non-special needs.

    The education system is not designed for some imaginary “normal” child. It’s not designed for the children at all. It’s a system designed to function as a system; individual needs (whether teacher or student) don’t really matter. The individuals have to fit themselves to the system, when it should be the other way around.

    So it is for much of society. The systems are paramount and the individuals must find a way to fit themselves in the system. Survival of the fittest: those who fit the systems best survive the best and others excel by “working the system.” Neither method allows for adapting the system to meet individual needs.

    This is especially bad for people with disabilities or other differences that become disadvantages within the system. However, it’s also bad for the people who can cope with the system.

    If this is what you’re saying, then I agree. But it also validates (to some extent) the dominance of the hero myth in our culture. Because it is the individual against the system. We’re each “fighting” the system on our own, every day, just to survive. The way I see it, only by changing the system and the systemic focus are we going to be able to break free from the hero’s journey; but only by working together beyond the boundaries of any one identifying group can we change the system. Catch 22?

  8. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Stephanie, I think you’re dead-on with your observations about the educational and other systems. On an individual level, some of the worst damage comes from those who internalize the system’s values to the point that they equate love with believing that their loved one is other than who they are, explicitly as a show of faith in that person — this is easy to see with those who are in denial about a loved one’s diagnosed autism, but it extends all across and well off the autistic spectrum as well.

    Ditto what you say about those who can cope then, as this individual dynamic can amount to emotional blackmail for those who can only feel love and approval if and when they can successfully impersonate the desired type.

    As for the Catch 22, that’s an insidious problem as well. On a day-to-day basis, I just try to make connections with people on their own terms, and develop longer-term relationships the same way. Not fighting against anything, just building what I take to be worthwhile, and figuring that at least among those who aren’t too deeply invested in the status quo, a worthwhile example is going to propagate itself.

    And I respond to those who do the same. This is the fabled “secret society unbeknownst even to its own members.” Next on my agenda is that we learn to recognize one another.

  9. Stephanie says:

    I’m still somewhat in the hero journey. Some battles are worth fighting as battles, but it’s not a journey for one hero…it’s a journey for all of us willing to travel the path.

  10. Mark Stairwalt says:

    To the extent there’s a broad mission statement around here, it is to see what we can be doing well in autism discussion that isn’t already being done well elsewhere. And since at this point in history we are all born into the hero’s journey like-it-or-not, my take is that heroism is being done well all over. Not by everyone, but it’s pretty much been the only game in town for at least a couple centuries now.

    I hadn’t thought about this til now, but in terms of narrative structure that first line in the sidebar, “Autism has been here all along,” speaks more of a picaresque than a hero’s journey. No hurdles, no challenges, just a consistent presence, playing a part regardless of how it’s viewed in this or that century. I like that. I think we need that as an alternative to the heroic struggle.

  11. Stephanie says:

    I suspect you may be right in that regard; we are all, to one extent or another, a product of our times.

  12. SBC sets off my “aut”dar.

    It’ll be a gay day when he comes out of the closeta!!

  13. closeta is a female closet, I guess. So quick to hit the submit button, eh?

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