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