Sugar, Self-Diagnosis, Appropriation, And Ableism: So Here’s What You Missed On Glee (pt. 2)

I have four short little stories for you all.

One of them is about my brother. Well, my brother and I–we’re both autistic, and neither of us can pass for shit. We might not be identified as autistic straight away, but neither of us passes for normal or acceptable or typical, not even close. Now, when I was in high school lo those many years ago, I survived a lot of abuse which is really not the point here. I went to public school though, and he’s at an excellent private school–a lot like Dalton, actually, complete with abandoned out-buildings–with accommodations and is in AP US History and music theory and doing very well. And although we’ve had a tumultuous relationship, I had hoped that maybe the worst of his bullying was over, that he would escape relatively unscathed.

Our sister (neurotypical) started there a couple of weeks ago. She came to me on Thursday to tell me that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

It’s bad. It’s really bad. It’s so bad that my sister, who is just starting to notice the looks we get in public and shares no classes with him, picked up on it immediately. It’s so bad that my very socially-conscious teenaged sister is ready to go to the administration and make a scene.

It’s also very, very different from what I went through.

One of the girls harassing my brother self-identifies as having a different mental disorder every week. This week it was, apparently, Asperger’s. She’s been telling my sister that he really needs to get evaluated, “talk to someone,” “take some pills.” She’s been spreading it around.

For the record, before my brother takes his pills in the morning, Mom has to sit with him and prompt him through every bite of his breakfast. He has really, really bad ADHD, and he forgets to swallow, or he wants to sing about his plans for the day, or he needs more orange juice but on the way to the refrigerator he gets waylaid trying to rearrange the dishes on the counter.

My sister overheard a group of upperclassmen wondering if our brother had ADHD last week, because he’s just so much and so obnoxious.

“He does, so fuck off,” she snapped.

“Wait, really?” they said.

That’s the second story.

See, self-diagnosis and armchair-diagnosis is such a common thing now at this school that the idea of anyone actually having any of these disabilities, of maybe possibly god-forbid being affected by them, is something that simply does not occur to the people doing the speculation. My brother is just obnoxious, see. He doesn’t have a brain that requires a cocktail of expensive, semi-effective, and damaging drugs to hold still for six hours a day. He’s just annoying. People with Web M.D.’s from the University of Google bully him because…

I don’t know why. I don’t know why disabled people seem to trigger some sort of xenophobic kill-switch in other brains. Frankly, I don’t want to. Too many memories.

There are some things I do know, however. One of these things is that it is very, very common and popular and accepted in our society at large to say things like “I’m so OCD,” or “that chick must be bipolar,” or “oh that’s just my ADHD showing” or “I just feel so depressed some days.” It’s not okay to say those things when you actually have that disability–the number of times I’ve been scolded for mentioning that I’m autistic is too high to count. But if you don’t have a disability, you can appropriate that label to explain away and laugh off your personal failings all you want, no big deal.

There’s a lot packed into that last sentence, actually. I built it very deliberately. One of those things is the fact that we still, as a society, have not moved past the fact that a mental disability is really just a fancy code for not trying hard enough. Another is the idea that people who can’t try hard enough are jokes. And the third is the philosophy that health and morality are actually the same thing.

The dismissive, flippant way our culture talks about pretending to have mental disabilities is founded in some really ugly rhetoric. It has some really dangerous consequences for a lot of people. But it’s just so cool, so fun, so quick, so easy to say “we’re all a little autistic,” and I should stop taking everything so seriously, yeah?

Let me put it another way. The most common reaction I get to mentioning my autism is “don’t put yourself down.” A close second is “…but I like you.”

(A third involves bruising.)

That’s the second story. The third story involves teenagers, and an increasing number of adults too, looking at all of these messages–diagnostic labels just mean you don’t try hard enough, health is morality, people who don’t–there is no room here for can’t–try hard enough are jokes–and taking them to their logical conclusions. The logical conclusion is very, very simple. They have ADHD because they sometimes fall asleep in class after lunch and they don’t like doing homework.

My brother doesn’t, because he is just a failure as a human being.

The fourth story is about this marvelous TV show. It features ground-breaking and award-winning portrayals of two characters with developmental disabilities, as well as a character with OCD. During a related movie, a fan was featured with a diagnosis of Asperger’s. The other thing to know about this show is that its creators take their source material very, very seriously. Oh, not the physical location or even the laws of physics, no. But the emotional weight and impact of things, absolutely. It’s one of the most honest shows on air in that regard. This show is very, very good at showing what things, including disability, mean for the people living with them. In fact, it’s kind of what their third season looks like it will be about.

It’s also a fundamentally political show embarking on a very noisy season. And it’s chosen to show the people bullying my brother, and the people causing so much harm to disabled people every day with flippant comments, in a negative light.

Which brings me to the last point. Why is Sugar choosing Asperger’s, specifically?

Because it’s getting this level of response.

Because people are used to “I’m a little bit OCD,” and “I think I might have ADHD sometimes.” That’s completely and totally acceptable in most circles. It’s hard to make a point about something unacceptable if no one notices. Oh, Glee does that all the time, but they’re being a little less ambiguous here. They’re not going to spend a season and a half developing a storyline about overcoming casual homophobia–they’re slapping us in the face with a character’s casual ableism.

It’s a very deliberate and political choice.

I applaud it.

Part 1 …

Julia Bascom blogs at Just Stimming.

Sugar, Self-Diagnosis, Appropriation, And Ableism: So Here’s What You Missed On Glee appears here by permission.

[image via Flickr/Creative Commons]

on 11/10/11 in Art/Play/Myth, featured | 1 Comment | Read More

Comments (1)


  1. molly says:

    Julia…I am incredibly moved by your writing. I’m neurotypical (wait, is anyone REALLY neurotypical?) but I have always been so angered by the way people treat others who are “different” from them. I don’t really want to post all the things I want to say and ask you, but if you have the time and feel so inclined, please send me an email and I will tell you more…and ask a shitload of questions, if that’s OK with you.

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