Sorry Excuses

I have recently quarelled with an old teacher of mine (well, assistant high-school art teacher for half a term, but nevertheless) about autism. You see, she posted a link to a recent Nature of Things documentary presenting the theory that autism is caused by gastrointestinal bacteria. I’m afraid my biomedical knowledge is insufficient to comment upon the validity of this theory (although I have heard it dismissed as bogus, Andrew Wakefield-level idiocy, which, if true, would hurt my otherwise high opinion of David Suzuki), but it is somewhat immaterial to the subject of this post. I immediately replied (perhaps to some extent looking for fight*, but mainly out of a desire to advocate on what I consider to be a very important topic) by asking whether they actually bothered to interview any real, live autistic people for it. This is something of a bee, not just in my bonnet, but in the collective bonnets of a sizable chunk of the autistic community; you see, when we are treated as scientific curiosities, or (far worse) as lumpen objects of pity, it has a tendancy to dehumanize us; a tendancy which is, of course, reinforced by denying us even the opportunity to speak for ourselves. That the media chooses to focus primarily on autistic children (and therefore go to their parents for a quote) compounds the problem even further by infantilizing those with the disability. It is, like most matters of ‘privilege,’ something which you probably have not even noticed if you yourself do not belong to the victimized group, but which, once pointed-out to you, is almost impossible to ignore in virtually any mass-media treatment of autism. This is made even worse by the fact that such documentaries, more often than not, are premised around the unspoken assumption that autistic people’s personalities are diseases to be eradicated.

Her response was…problematic:

“This was about causes not effects so they did talk to parents … It was looking particularly at children who are normal in infancy and early childhood and who show rapid deterioration before age 3. “

I replied by saying that I didn’t consider myself to be ‘deteriorated.’ I’m not certain that she knew that I was autistic, so I’m rather hoping that that, for her, constituted something of a “pants-down” moment. She hurriedly backtracked, saying that she wasn’t talking about me, but about “profound autism. The kind where the child is non-communicative, rigid, engaging in pathological repetitive behavior, unable to learn … seriously impaired … Hence the word “deteriorated”. These were children who met all normal developmental milestones up to a certain age and then profoundly regressed.

In response, I posted this video, which I feel neatly demonstrates that assumptions made about non-verbal people are not reliable indicators of “impairment;”I also pointed-out my view that referring to autistics as “deteriorated” was a profoundly ableist thing to say. Her answer caught me a bit off-guard; she said she was not new to the discussion of autism, as her brother suffered from “Asberger syndrome**” (sic), which inhibited him from “having friends, going to university, getting married, having a family, et cetera,”  and that he wouldcheerfully have jumped at the chance for a “cure.” She then proceded to tell me “Whatever your condition you are still reaping the benefits of being socially and intellectually functional. He is not and is smart enough to know he is not.”

Well, that’s just bloody adorable, isn’t it? She thinks that she’s qualified to lecture me about neurotypical privilege. Well, two can play at that game: I too had plenty of annecdotal “evidence” to support my end of the argument: my girlfriend is, after all, a fairly noteworthy autism advocate and as such has interacted with a great many autistic people (both “low-” and “high-functioning,” though all of them would reject this taxonomy) who would view being “cured” of autism in the same way that one would view being “cured” of blonde hair (or, perhaps drawing a more telling parallel, the way that an eighteenth-century African-American would view being cured of ‘negritude’). That, I hope, will be the end of it.

I notice upon reflection, however, that her “my brother is autistic” argument basically boils down to the standard reply of people being called-out for bigotry that “they have  (gay/black/Jewish/autistic/transsexual/Klingon) friends!” First of all, I have no way of confirming whether or not it’s true (I assume that it is, as she has always seemed an honest woman), and secondly, so what? His opinion is clearly not the opinion of all autistic people…that is, assuming of course that it is even his opinion. Afterall, does he really feel that way, or is she just putting words into his mouth? Even if he has said that he “wants a cure,” does he actually mean it, or is he just telling his family (who I can only imagine have been lamenting his ‘living death’ since the moment of his diagnosis) what he thinks they want to hear? Does he have a realistic assessment of what a cure would actually mean, or does he think that neurotypicality immediately confers all manner of life success on everybody it touches and so on. It is a blatant appeal to emotion (“oh, my poor, poor brother!”) and is therefore logically worthless.I didn’t point this out to her. Moreover, I wonder whether, if given a choice between becoming neurotypical and remaining himself only as a successful member of society, he wouldn’t choose the latter. That ultimately is the problem isn’t it? Not that autistic people can’t function, but that they can’t function in a society built by neurotypicals, for neurotypicals. To quote a line once said by Gloria Steinem in a vastly more problematic context***: “If the shoe doesn’t fit, must we change the foot?”


*The teacher in question had been posting some New Age-y sham quantum physics last year, which had kind of left in me a lingering desire for a throw-down.

**She was apparently writing it using dictation software, so the fact that “Asperger” is misspelled in spite of her research should not necessarily reflect badly upon her.

***And I assure you, the irony of me quoting this as a transgendered woman is not lost upon me, but in this context it seems appropriate


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
This entry was posted in Personal Stuff, Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Sorry Excuses

  1. Sir, Respectfully,

    The term “ableist” is troubling. You use it to attack people who are trying to help. Whether or not you think your (what’s the p.c. word?) condition (how’s that?) needs “curing”, is certainly as beside the point as the lady’s brother’s opinion. Isn’t it?

    Obviously, there are those who would rather not have autism. If some cure (or whatever you would call it) was found, I think anyone who wishes, may as well avail themselves of the opportunity.

    My biggest problem with the term “ableist” is that if everyone thought the way you do, no one would dare suggest “cures” for anything lest they be labeled an “ableist”. Are doctors who separate conjoined twins “ableist”? Are people who make prosthetic limbs? How about drug manufacturers?

    I mean no disrespect. Honestly. But it seems like you’ve embraced your autism as identity and are unable to see that someone else may not. As in the case of the lady’s brother, his identity cannot be fully realized because of his autism.

    Anyway, I just thought I’d opine. Take it for what it’s worth.

    • For someone who “means no disrespect,” you certainly seem to have no problem misgendering me. But I digress.
      The problem here is that Autism is not a disease. Should cancer be cured? Of course. Likewise, any other degenerative condition which results, ultimately, in intense suffering or death.
      Autism, in itself, does not cause suffering; it is the fact that there are no supports for people who have autism, that autism is treated as a medical problem to be eradicated, and that all of the money which goes to autism is spent chasing this mirage, rather than actually improving the lives of autistics (through things such as, for example, education or job training suited to our atypical strengths and weaknesses) that causes suffering.
      Moreover, you seem to be misconstruing my argument; I was not saying that the dear old lady’s brother (or any other autistic) should be denied the chance to become neurotypical (assuming that such a treatment existed) should they choose to do so of their own free will. Obviously, I consider that to be a personal matter. Rather, I was objecting to her using this (alleged) brother of hers to justify making sweeping pronouncements which apply to all Autistics. I appologize if that was unclear.

  2. Your “friend” is projecting big time. She’s scored nearly perfect on the Curebie Bingo card, especially with the jab at you being independent, it’s very much a variation on “If my child could write/speak like you, I’d consider them cured!”
    I don’t bother to give people who think that way the time of day anymore, because there’s an underlying problem in arguing with them: They don’t consider autistic people to be full human beings with thoughts, opinions, emotions and feelings of their own, so why would they ever treat an autistic debate opponent equally or really consider the weight of their words? The answer is, of course, they won’t, they will always privilege the word of a neurotypical parent or doctor first, because you are not an equal person with an equal opinion. Poisonous toadstools don’t change their spots.

    • Now, now; she knew me before I was diagnosed, so I doubt that her opinion of my capacities suddenly fell, quantum leap-style, to sub-human levels the moment I told her about it.
      Plus, I don’t like bingo cards.

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