People often ask whether autism (or another neurodivergent condition) is a disability. I’d argue that it is more helpful to ask whether autistic people are disabled (to which my answer would be: in most cases, yes). It may seem a semantic distinction, but it is important: it locates the disablement not in the autistic person’s brain, but in the society they live in and the way the individual and society interact. Autism is not our disability: it may be an impairment, a difference, or some combination. Our disability is the difficulty that arises in our interaction with the specific society in which we live.
These burgeoning, fragile, necessary autistic spaces may be the foundations that can help explorations to, and with, allies, companions, partnerships. However power imbalances within and outside these spaces must be acknowledged and respected. Being able to be there was a privilege not available to all. (That shouldn’t be taken to mean that the path to being there wasn’t differently hard for so many of us). It is always better to be done “with” than “to”. Luckily autistic people (can have) strengths in clear, direct, honest communication. What could be more useful (& endangered) in a post-truth world?
That me sitting here having a conversation in a way that reads as baseline normal to you is so high-energy that I’m going to start to break down from it in about half the time as you and have to go home and collapse. That to you that’s just how humans work and to me it’s like performing an extremely high-level game of mental and physical coordination.
You don’t have to look far to find derogatory descriptions of the communication of autistic people. Terms such as ‘disorder’, ‘impairment’, ‘deficit’ and ‘dysfunction’ abound in the research literature which, when you drill down into it, offers multitudes of negative conceptualisations of the ways that autistic people do, or don’t express themselves. In simple terms, autistic people are considered impaired whether they are speaking, or not speaking, for the words they choose, or don’t choose, for talking too quickly, or too slowly, for doing so at the wrong time, in the wrong way, or in the wrong place. Indeed, as I wrote in 2018, when I explored the intersection of autistic communication with noise and silence in schools, autistic people are simply considered to be making ‘the wrong kind of noise’.
A recently released study from the university of Cambridge claims to show that male and female brains are clearly very different. In a huge study of over 600,000 people, the data obtained showed that men tend to be more analytical and ‘systemic’ while women tend to be more emotional and empathetic, thus providing clear evidence for controversial theories about the differences between male and female brains.
So, what’s wrong with this particular study? Quite a few things, as it happens. But there are also some major issues with the ways it’s being reported. Here’s a basic rundown, from my perspective.
What Is NT?
Neurotypical syndrome is a neurobiological disorder characterized by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity.
Neurotypical individuals often assume that their experience of the world is either the only one, or the only correct one. NTs find it difficult to be alone. NTs are often intolerant of seemingly minor differences in others. When in groups NTs are socially and behaviorally rigid, and frequently insist upon the performance of dysfunctional, destructive, and even impossible rituals as a way of maintaining group identity. NTs find it difficult to communicate directly, and have a much higher incidence of lying as compared to persons on the autistic spectrum.
NT is believed to be genetic in origin. Autopsies have shown the brain of the neurotypical is typically smaller than that of an autistic individual and may have overdeveloped areas related to social behavior.http://erikengdahl.se/autism/isnt/index.html
Theory of mind is declared the native domain of neurotypicals; a kind of transcendent ability that is regarded the basis for communication and, in more inflated estimations, is celebrated as the very thing that defines us as human. A lack of theory of mind, or “mind-blindness”, on the other hand, is attributed to autistics as a kind of deficit. This supposed deficit is expressed as a lack of empathy on the part of autistics, sometimes carefully parsed as a lack of cognitive empathy (the ability to know what another person is thinking/feeling), but far too often, sloppily conflated with a lack of affective empathy (the ability to feel compassion for another person).
And in pragmatic terms, autistics are indeed frequently unable to discern or know what another person might be thinking, while a neurotypical person is often able to discern what another neurotypical person might be thinking or feeling. As I have noted in previous entries in this blog, this works between two neurotpicals, not because they have insight into the thoughts or feelings of other people, but because there is a statistical likelihood that they would be thinking or feeling the same thing. They are sitting in adjacent wells, describing bits of sky that share the same cloud. Or we might say that their individual experiences of their respective beetles are similar enough that the value, utility and dangers associated with those beetles correspond sufficiently to prevent disrupting the perception that meaning, but also experience, is shared.The belief in a theory of mind is a disability
In speaking with participants about causes of trauma, she has heard “everything from sexual abuse, emotional abuse and horrendous bullying, to much broader concepts, like what it’s like to go around your whole life in a world where you have 50 percent less input than everyone else because you have social deficits. Or feeling constantly overwhelmed by sensory experience — feeling marginalized in our society because you’re somebody with differences.” In other words, she says, “the experience of having autism and the trauma associated with that.”
The problem with the term ‘female autism’ is it essentialises the femininity of the experience of being autistic in this way. Yet there is nothing about this which is unique to autistic women and girls. When I first self-diagnosed I spent a lot of time reading blogs and books by other autistic women, the resonance of their words was a profound comfort to me during the uncertain time while I was waiting for a formal diagnosis. However, I would argue that this resonance wasn’t because they were female, it was because they are similar autistic people to me. Increasingly I find myself meeting men who are questioning whether they might be autistic and I find myself pointing them toward resources on autistic women and girls because this is the type of autistic person they are. This has nothing to do with their gender identity, they are not female type autistics any more than women who have been diagnosed using current tools are extreme male type autistics!
In the middle of 2018, a group of academics came together, with the realisation that we were all, separately, contributing to a new way of thinking about autism. In various ways we had – implicitly or explicitly – developed a quantiative and experimental test of the predictions of the Double Empathy Problem.
Because we are bad at some things, people often expect us to be bad at other things; for example, they see someone failing to conform with social expectations, and assume that person has impaired intelligence.But because we are good at some things, people are often impatient when we’re not as skilled or need support in other areas.
Academic achievements don’t imply competence in self-care and maintenance, and high levels of skill in certain areas don’t always translate to success in education or in the workplace.
We are often taken to be “lazy” because we seem to master some things easily, but fail at things many find “simple.” Autistic kids suffer a lot in school because when they struggle with certain tasks or subjects, teachers often assume that it’s from a lack of effort.
Autism is regarded by many autistic people as a neurodivergence, or indeed a minority people, not a fault. Although adding that of course some have multiple conditions and require a lot of support, and that proper support that values and respects all autistic people and their families fully is much needed.
This is a quick list of some of the research that I value:
It often seemed like people around me didn’t have so much trouble learning what direction to grow in. They just knew how to become a human being. They knew when to say hello and goodbye, how to jump rope, ride bikes, what to talk about, and what to wear. They were growing out of seeds with a more detailed plan imprinted in their DNA. They could water themselves and grow into a tree. What would I grow into? I wasn’t sure.
Have you ever heard a seemingly successful and ‘high-functioning’ Aspie try to explain how exhausting a day at work can be, or say that Asperger’s ‘ruined’ their career? In this article, I will provide just one detailed [real-life] scenario along with a commentary and analysis from an objective standpoint. Aspie’s and neurotypicals (NTs) both can benefit from having a deeper look inside to gain an understanding of what’s happening on both ends.
Given the fanfare accorded to this study, the evidence for its central claim is remarkably weak. The differences between mice with autistic and non-autistic donors are subtle if they exist at all. And there are reasons to be skeptical about even these small effects.
Autism is defined in terms of human behaviour. And so the claim that mice showed “autism-like” behaviour relies on an assumption that the mouse behaviours under investigation are in some sense equivalent to the behaviours that define autism in humans. We assume, for example, that reduced ultrasonic vocalizations are analogous to the language and communication difficulties experienced by autistic children, or that marble-burying equates to repetitive behaviours and interests. And those assumptions may be wrong.
In fairness, this isn’t a criticism of this study in particular. It’s a challenge for any researcher attempting to study autism via mouse behaviour. But it’s important to remember that when we say “autism-like behaviour”, what this really means is “behaviour in mice that can be described using the same words that we use to describe autism”.
Function labels are how people categorize us in a euphemized, politically-correct way to say ‘r-tarded’ or ‘not-r-tarded.’ I’ve actually heard people say that, in 2018. It puts me in a position to have to constantly explain how and why it is inappropriate to use this language, only to be regarded as a “socially-difficult aspie who loves to correct people.” The irony of me being considered “mind blind,” “lacking in empathy,” and “socially awkward” notwithstanding, I would love nothing more than to be relieved of the burden of constantly having to explain to people why it’s not okay to talk about human beings according to their ability levels. Frankly, if that’s the bar, I’d rather be called low-functioning. Function labels give people permission to see me in terms of my IQ, my verbal abilities, and my ability to socialize in the way neurotypicals do. It carries implications about my emotional stability and my ability to maintain a job. Everything about autism is more complicated than a set of over-simplified platitudes. –Rayma, writer, USA
It feels like they are in a way “thanking” me for not making them feel uncomfortable. Like I’m simply existing, trying to cope in a world that is hellbent on misunderstanding me from day one, and all they can see is, “You are different, yet you’re bending to my comforts and that’s great!” No. I’m living the only way I know how. You’re a non-factor in this, and yet you’re making me want to crawl in a hole and avoid the world. –Rae, direct support professional, USA
On top of that, among the things that autists tend to be no good at conforming to are gender norms. It is increasingly widely recognised that there is an intriguing correlation between autism and variant gender identities, but this is a far broader thing. Boys are expected to be competitive, in social games that are often beyond us. We are expected to enjoy team sports, when teams are baffling and most of us are dyspraxic or at least clumsy. We are expected to be part of a universal boys’ club by default, when for the most part other boys are no less alien to us than girls are.
All of this means that the average autistic boy suffers a good deal from the patriarchy. Male privilege means something quite different for someone able and willing to dominate others than it does for a socially confused autistic boy who just can’t get a handle on masculinity. It’s something else again for someone who’s got enough of a handle on masculinity to reject it outright.
Many of the things that men do, to the detriment of women, are things that autistic people are particularly prone to. Men too often talk over women, and fail to listen to what they say; autists tend to find it hard to know when to stop talking on topics of personal interest, and can be slow to process what other people are saying. This can manifest as extreme forms of what men do to women all the time. On the other hand, in autistic women and, to be fair, a large number of men, it can go the other way: staying quiet for fear of imposing or offending in some way.