Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Friday, May 12, 2006

Alice's Adventures in Disorderland

I'm feeling conflicted about the trend of posthumously diagnosing autistic geniuses. Today's autistic children desperately need strong role models because there are so many nasty stereotypes and negative images in the media. Knowing about the contributions of autistic scientists and artists could also convince some people to take a stand against eugenic abortion. On the other hand, though, if there's too much talk about autistic geniuses, it could give the impression that only the most highly talented autistics deserve to exist. As the eugenicist Joseph Buxbaum put it when defending his research to develop a prenatal test for autism, "none of the parents who ask me about these issues are the parents of a Bill Gates or an Albert Einstein."

It gets even worse when successful autistics are portrayed as pitiful, suffering freaks who fought their autism (or some other equally offensive military metaphor) to achieve miraculous success despite their neurological inferiority. This sort of posthumous diagnosis doesn't just identify typical autistic behaviors; it also picks apart the person's work in search of various shortcomings that can be blamed on defective mental wiring.

Sometimes the so-called evidence relied on for posthumous diagnosis gets to the point of being just plain absurd, as in Dr. Michael Fitzgerald's comments on The Infinite Mind regarding Lewis Carroll, the author of the classic children's stories Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Fitzgerald claimed that the stories "couldn't have been written by anybody except somebody with Asperger's syndrome" because, among other things, the animal characters were talking and "somebody with Asperger's syndrome are [sic] absolutely fascinated by animals." Fitzgerald also pointed to Carroll's use of repetitive language and stated that all autistics "whether they are geniuses or not they use repetitive language."

When I read garbage like that, it just makes me want to outgrabe. Hello-o-o, Dr. Fitzgerald, these are CHILDREN'S books, just in case you hadn't noticed. Talking animals and repetitive language are standard fare in children's books. You'd have to be a total dumbass to interpret that as evidence of an obsession with animals or a language disorder.

Of course, autistics are not, by any means, the only group whose creative works have been patronizingly dismissed as nothing but isolated fragments of ability from an impaired brain. There is an entire genre of Outsider Art, that is, art by individuals who have been labeled as mentally abnormal in one way or another. In the past, much of this art was produced by those who were confined to mental institutions. Estée Klar-Wolfond comments that society often has expressed a "sensationalist view towards Outsider Art and artists—a gazing from the outside in without engaging or accepting the variety of human functioning, much like a human safely viewing a Gorilla in a cage."

This view of neurologically different artists as subhuman curiosities has led to such outrageous exploitation as the sale of autistic artists' work to raise money for pro-cure organizations. Apparently the curebies see no contradiction between praising the work of autistic artists while, at the same time, asserting that the minds that produced it should not exist.

Not only is it considered socially acceptable to gawk at the works of an autistic artist as if she were an elephant painting with a brush in her trunk, it's also common for autistic people to be treated as children regardless of their age. As Kristina Chew points out, the Autism Society of America has started publishing a humor column entitled "Out of the Mouths of Babes," which invites non-autistics to send in anecdotes about their conversations with their autistic family members (some of whom are adults) so that the readers can have a good laugh at their expense.

You know what this reminds me of? The language used to describe African-Americans back in the days of Jim Crow. If you were black, you could expect to be called "boy" or "girl" throughout your entire adult life, until you were quite elderly, at which point you would be called "uncle" or "auntie."

In much the same way, there are no adults in Disorderland.

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  • I agree, totally.

    The "thrill" of posthumous diagnosis wore off on me long ago. It seems like the same 10-12 people get "diagnosed" with a new neurology every 10 years. (Before Einstein was autistic, he was LD/ADHD. Thomas Jefferson was LD, also). And as you said, some of the "evidence" is ridiculous.

    As far as role-models are concerned, I don't think we need posthumous diagnoses for that. Not only are there several "famous" people alive today who have said they are autistic (Gary Numan, Bram Cohen, possibly even Dan Akroyd and Stephen Speilberg, though I've never seen them come out and say it).

    Even more than that, there are plenty of autistic advocates whom I admire. I have nonverbal learning disorder (NLD), and though very few people have tried to find famous NLDers of the past, I know a lot of NLDers personally and I think they're pretty neat ;-)

    By Anonymous Tera, at 7:53 PM  

  • The "don't abort Bill Gates" strategy is probably not effective in the long run. Temple Grandin is already talking about only aborting the "low functioning". (There might not be a good way to predict functioning level though).
    What needs to be done is point out that eugenics and genocide are simply wrong and unethical. Also, if only the "low functioning" are aborted, then the ones who are a little higher functioning become "low functioning", so it's a slippery slope. Other pragmatic arguments are possible. I've pointed out that if multiple alleles of stable frequency are involved in autism, then abortion of autistics would lead to an artificial increase in the frequency of autism alleles.

    By Blogger Joseph, at 7:59 PM  

  • I think there is a very good case to be made for Lewis Carrol being on the spectrum and it has nothing to do with the fact that he had talking animal characters in his book. You have to get the details of his whole life and look at photos of him, too.

    I think it's important to identify, as much as possible, antique autistics. Unfortunately, people don't save lots of information on average autistics who may be doing fantastic things, but that aren't written up in history books. Lewis Carrol may have had an uncle Ted or aunt Wanda who was just like you or I, but how would we know? Paintings and photos tell us alot, as do biographies and autobiographies. And yes, posthumous diagnosing can get old, like van Gogh has had about 50 different diagnoses, the latest would be autism, from what I understand. I don't see ASD in van Gogh, but it's possible that's my over-reaction.

    What Temple Grandin has said is just so ridiculous and so bad. She's a "low functioning" Kanner autistic who happened to get lucky and have rich parents who didn't stick her in an institution to die or live in neglect at age 3 or 5 as many of her peers would have had done to them.

    If we can't point to now deceased autistics with some confidence, and hundreds of them, then there's nothing to stop the hysteria parents from saying the autism was invented in 1930 by Eli Lilly. It's also beneficial, at least some times, to point to people like Jefferson when a kid says he hates his autism and wishes he were dead.

    Dan Akroyd said he has AS on National Public Radio, as far as I know Spielberg is out of the closet about his AS. Bill Gates would be but someone attacked him for being diseased or something when it first came out years ago, and Gates shut up about it.

    By Anonymous Camille, at 11:45 PM  

  • I was listening to an NPR interview with Temple Gradin. I think it was this one. She again drew a line between low functioning and high functioning. But I was surprised that Temple Grandin believes that vaccines may cause low-functioning autism. She says her autism is purely genetic, because she did not get vaccinated as a child. Very disappointing, to say the least.

    By Blogger Joseph, at 12:16 AM  

  • Hey,

    Just found your post today, although a little late. I agree with you. Did you see the post I made after this one called "The Irony of Outsider Art?"

    By Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond, at 3:52 PM  

  • Yes, I read "The Irony of Outsider Art" and you are right, Estee, our society's obsession with conformity has gotten so extreme that it is becoming standard procedure to drug and behavior-analyze all the creativity out of any person with neurological differences. We definitely need to make people aware that there are major ethical issues involved.

    I wonder why Blogger didn't automatically list my post as a link to your site? Must have been a glitch of some sort.

    By Blogger abfh, at 4:59 PM  

  • About being seen as perpetual children, the school nurse, when I was in the health office and not able to respond to her talk, she took on a patronizing tone and tried to get me to smile just like one would talk to a baby. That day I felt like I was 18 months instead of 18 years.

    By Blogger geosaru, at 3:00 AM  

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