thoughts from a recently-diagnosed autistic queer feminist

Posts tagged ‘gender’

Saying Yes

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.

Mitchell again:

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.


Conversations I want to have

  The following was recently published in ‘Thinking Differently’, the quarterly newsletter of Autism New Zealand Inc.
  ‘Your Letters’

  This is an excerpt from a letter we received from one reader, who had been married to a man with Aspergers Syndrome. She discovered he’d been sexually interfering with her 11-year old twin daughters and eventual divorced him.  The letter is extensive, but she presents a valid point of view, based on her experience.

“The Law is there to protect others from those behaviours. Aspergers should not be exempt from the law or being locked up. I do believe many serial killers and rapists have Aspergers. They can be cunning and devious. Aspergers do commit crimes, probably more often than normal people. We matter too.”

H—- F— (abridged)

I’m angry and saddened that it was written, more so that Autism New Zealand saw fit to publish such an offensive letter whilst stating that it presents ‘a valid point of view’. But I’m perhaps most frustrated at the way it has set the agenda, that to counteract this it feels necessary to scrabble round for statistics saying that we’re not any more likely to murder or rape than “normal people”. I don’t want to have to come up with examples of how we’re the good “Aspergers” who pay our taxes and follow the law and have never had so much as a speeding fine. Those aren’t the conversations I want to have.

I don’t think there’s any way to usefully engage with the idea of ‘serial killers’. Is regular murder not shocking enough? There really aren’t enough serial killers out there for this to be a meaningful discussion. I don’t believe aspies are any more likely to be rapists than the general population. If there’s evidence of a statistically significant disparity, that needs to be looked at, but in a country and world with the rates of rape and associated violence that exists, along with the terrible conviction rates and limited government willingness to do anything about either, I feel there are more important things to engage in that idle speculation about who does it most.

But let’s leave aside the serial killers and the rapists for a second. Let’s talk about the aspies who end up in the justice system for vandalism, for theft, for getting into fights or retaliating against violence. Lets talk about those who have not done what they’re accused of but can’t stand up to questioning or navigate the legal system (as a teenager I admitted to shoplifting I hadn’t done (fortunately avoiding a criminal charge) because security guard told me I had no choice but to admit it and I believed that, literally, and because I didn’t see any way anyone would understand my compulsive need to read song lyrics anyway). If the main backbone of the conversation is that statistically most of us are law abiding, if those of us who can go round flaunting our jobs and our taxpaying and our relationships and our degrees and our mortgages and our nice clean criminal records, then we’re feeling good about ourselves and changing absolutely nothing.

So instead, let’s have a conversation about a world which makes things unbearable for us, and when we lash out, potentially at people or at objects, the solution is not to change the environment to prevent a reoccurance, but to punish us. Let’s have a conversation about how difficult legal systems are to navigate, how atypical facial expressions or eye contact are so often assumed to mean guilt, how a neurotypical person can sometimes avoid a charge for a minor offence with a “sorry mate” whilst pedantic questioning of language and the nature of the offence is almost certainly going to lead to an arrest. Let’s talk about how atypical movement or gestures or reasons for going to places is viewed as grounds for suspicion, how silence is viewed as stubbornness or lack of co-operation, how literal interpretation of questions is viewed as rudeness. Let’s talk about how the effect is doubled, tripled for people already disadvantaged in our legal system.

Let’s not be afraid to have a conversation about prisons. When people say we don’t lock up autistic people/mentally ill people/intellectually impaired people, I always want to ask what the hell they think prisons are other than a dumping ground with  disproportionate rates of all of the above. And I get why we’re afraid to talk about this – we’ve spent so long trying to say that we’re good people really, we’re not scary people, we could be your neighbour. But we need to challenge the assumption that there’s a perfect correlation between ‘in prison’ and  ‘bad person’, or that crimes exist in some kind of vacuum as an indicator of someone’s morality, rather than being socially constructed.

Yes, it is worth challenging such obvious bigotry, the inaccruate assumptions, the stereotyping and the offensive language. And then let’s move on. If we’re talking about Aspergers and crime, let’s talk less about parents who murder autistic children and are then treated with sympathy, about autistic people who have been raped and are then told their non-verbal communication is inadmissable in court. Let’s talk about how some cunning and devious aspies can apparently get away with everything (something I’d guess would have far more to with the numbers who get away with child abuse generally) and more about how the legal system fails aspies on both sides.