How Extensive Is Autism’s Penumbra?

My fascination with autism from the start has had to do with what might be termed autism’s penumbra.  In Autism & Oughtism’s post on avoiding the confusions engendered by this concept she explains, “The penumbra of a term refers to its ‘edges’; where the definite cases meld into the maybe. For the purposes of autism, you’d find the penumbra of autism where it moves firmly away from ‘classic’ autism, and starts to slip into harder-to-diagnose cases of high-functioning autism (such as in mild instances of Aspergers or PDD-NOS). (If that term ‘high-functioning’ bothers you, hold your horses until the end.)”  As anyone much familiar with autism issues knows, this territory between “classic” and “high-functioning” sends many a horse a-charging, and generates more than its share of emotional, defensive dialogue.

Personified, this area in fact would be quite the drama queen — and thus pleased, I think, to hear A&O referring to it as if it were the entire penumbra, rather than just an edge or beginning of it.  For the purposes A&O sets out, this matters not a whit.  Her effort is to clarify the terms involved in the arguments bracketing one edge of the penumbra, and in this she succeeds.  I think it says more about all of us then rather than A&O in particular, that in an essay that’s all about the careful use of language, this word is misused — and that the misuse and its implications are not apparent unless we take time to think about them.

The penumbra refers to the entirety of the partial shadow, the whole of the area that is partially lit.  Merriam-Webster has it as “a space of partial illumination … between the perfect shadow on all sides and the full light.”  The penumbra of a term does not refer to its edges; it refers to a much more extensive area — and yes all this would of course be mere nit-picking, if not for the possibility that this misconception is mirrored in our perceptions of autism’s presence in the world.  There are for instance no rules of proportionality governing how extensive a penumbra may be in relation to “the perfect shadow” at its edge; a penumbra may well be much larger.  Whole realities then can be defined out of existence by the repeated, unthinking misapplication of a concept such as “penumbra.”

A&O does make reference to this problem’s inverse, noting, “If a penumbra is too large, it can – arguably – eclipse the function of a term, but that is a different argument from putting forward examples where it is hard to determine high from low functioning autism.”

Who exactly, and on what grounds, I have to wonder, decides when a penumbra is too large?  God forbid that we allow reality to eclipse the function of a term, and face the uncertainty and inconvenience of coming up with new, more robustly functional terms, concepts, and paradigms that better reflect actual experience.

“Well, see, this penumbra is too large, so we’re agreeing to downsize it.  We’ll just imagine the penumbra of a term refers to its edges, and skip right on by.” 😉

We are of course groping our way towards new concepts with terms such as “BAPpy” and “the autistic cognitive style.”  But parts of the tech community are way ahead of the autism community here, even without any new vocabulary with which to speak about it.  We can tell ourselves that the prevalence of autism in the tech world is such an open secret there because “so many” autistic people are drawn to that sort of work.  But I am suggesting that it is at least as true that penumbral autistics are simply more comfortable being out of the closet in tech culture, and that our actual prevalence is far more widely and evenly distributed than we suspect.

We are the oldest, largest secret society in the history of mankind.

Who is to say the majority of our members do not reside in the penumbra, in the half-shadow, unseen, and uncounted?  Who is to say we are not vast in number yet still closeted and thus taken for granted in our effects on society?  Who is to say it isn’t time, and past time, to re-imagine ourselves a good bit less narrowly?

[image via Flickr/Creative Commons]

related: Reality or Law?

on 08/26/11 in Autism, featured | 4 Comments | Read More

Comments (4)


  1. aaron says:

    Hi. It’s me:I haven’t been checking Shift for a while because of convoluted circumstances in my life. Your words / recent articles are so moving that I want to cry reading them. They build upon each other, they layer. Thank you for what you do.

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Wecome back.

  3. Aaron says:

    You know, I had a beautiful experience the other day when I chanced participation in a ceremony within a Chinese Buddhist Temple. Even with a limited beginner’s experience with Chinese (ahem - though I am… lets say, obsessed, with learning it in the future) I could make out a few words by the monk in the pulpit. I participated in the chanting and the eighty-nine prostrations to each name of the Buddha in their pantheon. This was very moving. So many enlightenments - each one of the penumbra. Of course, I was very self-conscious as a mostly caucasian fellow in a Chinese temple. After vacuuming the floor and attempting to repair the sound system, I had a very touching experience speaking to one of the Chinese women there. She seemed to be innately aware of my self-consciousness, but also that in this experience, being the only one, I was at rest, at home. With a woman who was a part of a Taiwanese organization I spoke about the imperitive towards mutual aid and removal of boundaries. She used the term “global village”, out of the mainstream lexicon. I invoked “boundless compassion”, a buddhist term. The whole time I couldn’t stop considering the subject matters of some of your recent polemics, which were intended for Autism and Oughtisms. And also of Zygmunt’s Wiki-Speak. These pieces were a gift of language to me, who, always learning better communication skills, aspire to participate in movement and the formulation of language of the movement, as a spoke of course. For it is no longer helpful (or even efficient) in this day and age for people to rise far above each other, to hold power over. But we do have to use the resources at our disposal, you know, start where we are. We ought to seek empowerment as spokes and then quickly give our power away to other spokes, while minimalizing human friction. We are demonstrating the peer2peer open source possibilities when we do this. My position is that we should seek power for others and not to have command of personell or over resources or become “deciders” like George Bush II. So the power afforded to ordinary people, especially savant people, by new communications technology of the global village is a very hot potato. No body should keep it to ourselves, lest we be burnt by it. We shall not burn others for the sake of ourselves - or to accumulate wealth, even for the sake of our families. True unity is only possible when the mind is free - anything else is decaying matter, subject to the rite of spring. We are a movement, not team tightwad - the most successful DSM XWTF!!??XXII dis-order in the story yet. Fortunately for us then, life itself is movement. Unfortunately, team tightwad is still up there and carrying paranoiad and fixed beliefs about their potential to “control” the narrative through coercive means including more than a fair amount of economic sexploitation. I am reminded of Gloria Steinem’s pronouncement that “Richard Nixon may be the most sexually insecure world leader since Napolean”… “the more insecure the male the more dangerous the leader”. Someone raised the question quickly thereafter, “don’t you think that Kissinger more than makes up for Richard Nixon’s sexual insecurity?”. So there you have it: our mirror image can be frightening: when we look at each other through this mirror, it is a bit like staring at the sun, it is hard to take it in. We don’t have the innate technology to stare at the sun without burning out. For this reason we have created Penumbra, a sophisticated device wherein energy is circulated through convoluted circuitry in order to bring forth a concious reality, in tangent with the inspired - with the in-breath, that most basic of things.

    Consider the colonol qaddafis in the fields: Leeza, oh Leeza, my african queen! All of those orgiastic bruhahas with Berlesconi are not so satisfying as the fantasy of your international booty! These days the game of hot potato is more about sexual humiliation than any kind of control - for those who cannot control themselves and are unaware of their unconcious mind, their lack of internal discipline, their lack of free will - well, I don’t know anything about that personally. But I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone - unless… they’re into that kind of thing…

    Dominant types will intervene in our evolution whether we like it or not, but they will never pin the wheel on the donkey kong village. In Egypt they forced them to chant “the people and the government are one”. But because of their sexual insecurity - they let the elephant out of the closet, so to speak. I personally couldn’t fathom recieving money to get spanked by a dominatrix - nor would I want it the other way around. Within the schizophrenia of our era, we have to aspire to greater degrees of benevolent neutrality, middle ground, though not in the inane sense people speak of in politics in my country today. Life is a grandiose concious conspiricy of diversifying elements and it has its ways of slipping through the cracks. God Is Real, though I don’t think in the way many people imagine it. All of us who are actually reading this sight are people who have developed the technology to see the sun to varying degrees. The true challenge is being with the flow. There is life being born - a child of the times; the word “neurodiversity” is still in its birth bangs. And we are here not because we are fascinated or amazed by the whole thing, though we undoubtedly are. We are here because our personal circumstances happened upon a temple, if you like. We had no other choice in our lives but to examine it, by the way of examining it we have sacrificed many things, we were driven into it.

    For this, we are very, very fortunate. I am thankful - despite it all, despite what I have lost in the process, despite the trials and the errors, I wouldn’t have it any other way - how about you?

  4. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Well Aaron, no, for the most part I wouldn’t … though there are times yet when it would be nice to have a “safe word.” 😉

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