Thursday, February 11, 2016

"Autistic World" - The Social Construction of Disability

It's a commonly known trope that there seems to be a fine line between genius and insanity. Indeed, so many of those who have been most responsible for changing the world for the better have (or had) at one point in their lives or another been thought of as disabled and/or unhinged. Steve Jobs, for example, while creatively brilliant and almost single-handedly responsible for the rise of Apple Inc., was also revealed by several co-workers, subordinates and family members to be irritable, short-tempered and mean-spirited to those who in his mind didn't understand his obsessive vision of perfection. Likewise, as a more classic example, Albert Einstein was considered slow and had difficulty communicating and understanding math, and yet is now reverently known among scientists as the father of the theory of general relativity. History is replete with such examples of nearly unhinged genius, and I would argue that many of these individuals possessed some condition such as Aspergers (or ADHD, OCD, etc.) that made them neurodivergent.

This isn't as crazy as it sounds, and there is scientific evidence to back it up. In fact, Hans Asperger himself has gone on record saying that children on the spectrum tend to have “a special interest which enables them to achieve quite extraordinary levels of performance in a certain area.” In addition, he also said that “it seems that for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential.” If the father of the Asperger diagnosis himself has made the case for the merits of being differently wired, who are we to argue?

I've said it before, but playing to and advocating the strengths of those on the Autism spectrum is essential to providing the kind of empowerment many need to succeed. After all, to someone growing up with a condition that many believe either doesn't exist, or is a tragedy, its hard to overcome the feeling of being somehow broken. Believe me I know. In a world that has such a narrowly defined and subjective view of normalcy, its easier to feel like a freak than it is to recognize that often times being a freak means that you're the only buffalo with the wherewithal to realize that the herd probably shouldn't be running off a cliff.

But wait a minute, you say; surely normalcy isn't subjective? What about all the drawbacks faced by those with conditions such as ASD or ADHD? Aren't people disabled by these conditions? You'll get no disagreement from me that having any number of alternate brain wirings can be a recipe for pain and difficulty in life. I would argue, however, that many of these are caused by the social construction of disability. That is to say, many of our problems as Aspies come from the fact that we aren't in the majority, and so we don't set social conventions of what constitutes 'normal.'

To illustrate this point, I'd like to do a little thought experiment with you dear reader. Let's assume for a minute that the autistic brain was considered to be the baseline 'normal' wiring of human grey matter. Such a world would be organized along intensely logical lines with little variation. Social order would be upheld by streaming children into educational pursuits based on their Autistic special interests, and excessive noise would be considered grating and irritating and be avoided at all costs. Social interaction would of course still happen since on some level its wired into human genetic makeup, albeit to a lesser and more eccentric degree than it currently is, with socially acceptable quiet time making up a part of everyone's day. Everyone would be expected to focus on and become absorbed by their special interests, and it would be considered a noble use of time to become an expert in one's chosen field. I'm not saying every Aspie or Autistic individual perfectly fits this mold; indeed some of us are less rigid and more emotional with our free time. Overall, however, I think this kind of would would make us all pretty happy, myself included.

Now, imagine into this perfect Autistic world is born a Neurotypical individual. From birth, this person would be thought of as being different somehow. “Why, Jane is talking before she's even five years old!” a parent might exclaim. At this early age, experts would be dumbfounded by the rapid onset of language, and deem that Jane was a genius. They would study her intensely, with no one quite sure what to make of the wonder-toddler. As she aged, however, people's opinions of Jane would change. Eventually, she'd attempt to express what would be seen as an 'excess' amount of affection for her parents, and a yearning to be with other children. When she got to be school age, Jane would not discover a single-minded passion for one subject like many of her peers, nor would she be able to become intensely interested in one topic at a time and shift between these many obsessive interests like many others. At this point, her parents would probably become concerned and take Jane to an expert, worried that somewhere along the way she'd lost the brilliant spark within her that granted her the ability to speak before age five.

What would such an expert say of Jane, who was clearly differently wired by the standards of this fictional Autistic world? “It is my opinion that this child suffers a form of intellectual regressive psychosis, particularly one that triggers the dormant primal parts of the brain that control social interaction,” one might say. Another may argue that “though the child begins life bright and with every advantage, abnormal brain development causes a deterioration of hyperfocussing ability, coupled with a near obsessive desire for social interaction and networking.” Yet another doctor may even argue that Jane's parents themselves were at fault for her differences, saying that “her condition is caused by an excess of affection shown toward the child by her parental units during the early years of her development.” If this bizarro world is anything like our own, this person may even go on to be credited as the sole father of “Neurotypical Disorder” for years before anyone challenges his wisdom.

Eventually, of course, this strange parallel world would develop its own equivalent of the Neurodiversity movement, albeit one which instead argues for the rights of Neurotypicals as full members of the human experience. This movement would propose that, far from being disabled, Neurotypicals are “brilliantly social, with a rich fabric of interactions the rest of us can only dream of.” Furthermore, scientists would come to discover that Neurotypicals have had a history of existence dating back to the dawn of human history. People would come out proudly as Neurotypical, or they would affectionately proclaim that “my uncle Tim has always been weirdly obsessed with talking to people. We all thought he was strange but now I think he's Neurotypical!” There may even be a Neurotypical version of myself in this universe, struggling to write this book about my experiences as a social extrovert while trying to decide what to pre-drink before the party later that night. The NT community would have its own awakening moment, much like the Autistics of our world are starting to, and humanity would finally begin embracing the concept of Neurodiversity.

Sadly, this story probably didn't end as well for Jane. If Autistic World was anything like ours in its treatment of those who are neurologically different, Jane would have been institutionalized shortly after her parents took her to get evaluated. She would have spent life alone in a padded room, hopped up on medication designed to suppress social desires and increase her ability to focus on one thing and become absorbed. Inevitably of course, Jane would revert, since chemicals can only temporarily change a person's behaviour, not convert a Neurotypical into an Autistic or vice versa. She may even have experienced electroshock treatments in a perverse attempt to correct her social behaviour much like Autistics did in our world at the hands of behaviourists. Eventually, Jane would commit suicide after having lived a life of sadness in a world that wanted her to conform and embrace solitude when all she yearned for was the warm embrace of another human. While she would come to be the poster child of the movement against the brutalities of the psychiatric care system in her world, this would prove to be cold comfort both to Jane and her parents.

This may seem like an exaggeration, but sadly its all too similar to our own society's views of Autism throughout the ages. The horrible reality is, Autistic people who were very much in Jane's position endured all of the same kinds of terrible treatments she did, while getting none of the support she should have received. Genius does come part and parcel with a differential brain wiring, but often times whether one is seen as brilliant or mentally diseased very much depends on the conditions of one's birth. As an Aspie, I've always known I was intelligent, but the big reason I was able to embrace that and not be defined by my deficits has always been that my parents didn't allow such a thing to happen. Other children were not as fortunate, and this is a humbling realization to come to. For this reason, its important that we recognize that every human, regardless of brain wiring, faces situations with which their grey matter just isn't equipped to deal. In such situations, we all need help and support so that we can overcome it and play to our strengths, whatever those may be. If we try to cure Autism instead, all we risk doing is exterminating a neurotype with so much to offer humanity.

We risk losing the people who see the world differently, and this in itself would be a crime beyond measure. 

Yours in Diversity,

Adam Michael

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Personal History: A Journey In Self Reflection

I haven't updated this blog as much as I've liked over the past month, but in my defence I have a very good reason for this. As I've mentioned in a few posts previously, I've been working on writing a book about my experiences growing up and living with Aspergers' Syndrome. Titled “Differently Wired: The Musings of a Grown Up Aspie,” my book will explore living with ASD from every angle, and needless to say I've excitedly been throwing everything I have into the project. Sadly, I've ignored the blog a bit because of this, for which I want to apologize.

During the course of writing, however, I've had some interesting reflections. Recently, I had to go obtain some documents from my Ontario School Record to assist me in putting the project together and I can safely say that exploring my own school documents was a humbling and enlightening experience. I have a Master's in history, so I am familiar with how to properly use and research primary source documents. The difference is, I'm accustomed to such primary source documents being somewhat impersonal; a speech by a prime minister, a report from a general, correspondence from the front lines, that sort of thing. Nothing prepared me for my journey through my own personal history

In any university history program, one important rule that they teach is to look at the past with the same kind of detachment you'd use when learning about another country. In retrospect, I've learned that a similar approach must be taken when looking through one's own past. Even still, however, it was a powerful experience to learn where I came from through the eyes of my parents and educators rather than through my own. We all, I think, have a rose-coloured view of our own lives, and its often difficult to accept that we may have not been quite as capable at any number of things at any point in our lives. For me, looking through my OSR drove home the fact that, if I am now okay with socializing and only come off as slightly awkward, that was not always the case. According to my evaluations, there was a time in my school career where I was not well liked by others, nor did I display any leadership qualities at all. At the time, I found this hurtful to read, but if anything it serves to show how much we all grow throughout our lives.

Aspergers is, of course, a pervasive developmental condition which lasts a lifetime and so it comes as no surprise that there were parts of my own life which demonstrated my Aspie-ness more than others. We all learn, grow and develop coping strategies as we move through life, and so people can seem far more well-adjusted later in life than they did earlier. It can be a humbling and empowering experience to learn about oneself at an earlier point in life but I caution anyone doing so not to internalize it. Instead, look at what you read for what it is; a snapshot of a time long gone by. It is true that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, but equally true is the danger of allowing oneself to be ruled by the past.

After all, we need to move forward, onward and upward at all times!

Yours in Diversity,

Adam Michael