Someone posted a link to Jonathan Mitchell: Neurodiversity, Just Say No to Facebook. My attempted reply was getting more than a little our of hand, so I decided a blog post was in order. It would be fair to say (the title’s a hint) that I don’t agree with much about this article. At the same time, though, I do think it’s reacting to a trend that is somewhat problematic; justifying ourselves by pointing to either the advantages of autism or people with autism who have done amazing things. This leaves out a lot of our experiences, and many of us entirely.
After a description of neurodiversity I would describe as fair by incomplete, he talks about examples of people or behaviours who, he says, the social model of disability fails to appropriately accommodate:
Is it morally justifiable to force a woman to have sex with me and other socially starved autistics? Is discrimination the same as sexual disinterest? These are issues that neurodiversity can’t seem to reconcile. I also have problems applying myself and staying on task which has made it difficult for me to do many things I wanted to do like learn computer programming and about computers and do more writing and do requisite research for certain types of writing. It has also given me perceptual motor impairments and bad handwriting impairments. What do these things have to do with societal accommodations. What about… severely autistic people who can’t talk and bang their heads against walls? How will societal change stop these behaviors.
There seems to be a common misconception of the social model of disability that it says that if people are nicer and don’t discriminate directly and make buildings more accessable for those with mobility impairments, then people with impairments won’t have any difficulty with things that have caused them problems in the past.
Like Mitchell, I struggle with handwriting. It’s slow and painful. These days, it’s not such a problem; I have a netbook and other computers, my workplace is quite happy for me to use them, and when I had exams in the past couple of years, I was able to take them using a computer. In the past, it’s been significantly disabling for me. A society that accommodates me wouldn’t mean I could magically handwrite with no problems. It would mean that I always had access to appropriate tools such as a netbook, irrespective of my financial status, and had done from a young age. It would mean that no future employer would make me write by hand, or judge me because of my inability to do so. It would mean that people wouldn’t consider a typed letter to show less love than a handwritten one. The same with those who are non-verbal – they wouldn’t magically start speaking, but they would have access to appropriate communication aids and a society that accommodates multiple methods of communication (Mitchell does broach this, but I think he fails to take into account that such a society with invest much more in technological development of better aids, nor that a society which places excessive weight on verbal communication judges such aids by verbal standards, rather than on their own merits). They would still have the impairment, but they would not be disabled by society.
I really don’t know enough about headbanging to talk in detail about that, but, as appropriate – less stressful environments, effective substitutions or ways of engaging in it safely, understanding and lack of judgement, could be appropriate accommodations. Mitchell doesn’t go into enough detail about his difficulties with learning to talk about that either, but things ranging from medication to help concentration (ah, another misnomer that us neurodiversity types are all anti that – we’re not!) to an appropriate physical environment to study arranged in blocks of appropriate length would all be ideas. (I’m going to come back to the relationships side, because I think that merits its own post.)
I’m not claiming I’ve solved these. But I do believe that a society where the presence of any of these impairments is not disabling is possible.
Mitchell goes on to talk about claiming figures like “Einstein and Thomas Jefferson and Isaac Newton” as autistic. I have a lot of sympathy for his reaction to this – not because I necessarily agree with his “undiagnosis” of them – I honestly haven’t studied any of them enough to say either way, though there are some ‘greats’ I’m convinced were. But I think we talk about figures like these too much, and it’s to our detriment. It’s understandable why, of course. We’re told we can’t achieve anything – and then to learn that people like this may have been autistic is a huge boost to the self confidence. I believe in reclaiming historical figures because we’re so often written out of history.
However, our claim to respect as human beings should not rely on us going Great Things, much less that people like us did Great Things. Placing excessive weight on these claims excludes the (vast majority!) of us who will never come anywhere close, but more importantly it weakens the heart of the argument which our claim to be free of oppression irrespective of what we accomplish.
One young, angry autistic female even goes as far as claiming that persons desiring a cure for autism are responsible for the murder of Katie McCarron, a 3-year-old autistic girl who was brutally murdered by her mother when her mother could not deal with her autism and other autistic toddlers who were senselessly murdered by their parents.
I find his “young, angry autistic female” to be quite problematic and offensive, but that aside, I don’t know, specifically what she said. There is a huge difference, however, between individual wanting a cure and a current in society that views us as problems to be cured. Maybe she said the latter, maybe she said that individuals wanting a cure are responsible. If so, that was not something I’d agree with, but it’s not a majority view, and people often say thingswhen they’re sick of people like them being murdered.
Mitchell goes on to talk about those expressing support for neurodiversity:
I also notice that many of them were not diagnosed until they were adults, some have married and some have kids. With one exception, none of them have, to the best of my knowledge ever been in a special education setting as I have. The one exception is someone who was able to talk as a child and then allegedly lost her speech as an adult. Some persons on another web site have even accused this person of being a fraud.
Well, we obviously read different blogs and communicate with different people; I’ve read work by several who were in ‘special education’, some who are non-verbal, others who have not had (but want) a romantic relationship or a job. For someone wanting to emphasise the difficulties people have, the disability angle, Mitchell ignores that achieving superficial goals and having real, severe, difficulties in life are not mutually exclusive – and some would say that he, having worked in skilled employment, was part of a particular so-called high functioning subset himself. That said, I do think we need to include those who are autistic in a wider range of ways more.
Another thing that comes to my attention is that a disproportinate number of them are females. It seems as many or more females than males are claiming to be autistics with a neurodiverse inclination. This is in spite of the fact that the literature on autism has consistently shown the condition to have a 4 to 1 ratio of males to females. The ratio may be as high as 10 to 1 in the higher functioning groups according to some studies. A cliched argument among allegedly autistic neurodiverse females is that autism is underdiagnosed in females. Females are not as aggressive, they are more inclined to be social than boys and can pass more easily so they are not as often diagnosed.
I find Mitchells questioning of other people’s identities here and later to be really offensive. Seriously, don’t do that shit. I also think he oversimplifies some of the discussed reasons for underdiagnosis of women. But I think there’s something else going on. At feminist events I’ve been to, there’s usually a much higher percentage of queer women than in the general population. For a number of reasons, I’d guess, but partly because they’ve thought more about gender and about their identity, they’ve (on average) had more experience of oppression and feel the need to stand up against it. Also, a lot of traditional environments (such as workplaces) neuroatypical men have associated have often been less open to women, particularly those in their fifties and above which is, I think, where a number are concentrated – they have more need for the neurodiversity movement to reach other people like them.
When it comes down to it though, whether individuals want or would take a cure isn’t a big concern of mine. They’re entitled to make that decision should it ever become available based on their own lives and experiences. I’m not fighting that. I’m looking to a world where no-one needs to look for a cure because barriers are placed in the way of their participation of society, a world where we all feel at home.