Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Bubble

Joseph left the following comment on my last blog entry. I started to answer it but then decided that my answer was getting too long for a comment and that the question would be better addressed in a separate post:

Check out this 1966 Time Magazine article on homosexuality. Historical comparisons are tricky, but are we roughly at that stage?

While this may seem counterintuitive given the extent of today's mass hysteria about autism (as far as I know, Congress never passed a Combating Homosexuality Act), I'm inclined to think that the autistic community is significantly closer to achieving equal rights than the gay community was in the 1960s. In both cases, widespread prejudice and discrimination resulted from psychiatric labeling of those belonging to the group as mentally disordered sufferers. Unlike autistics, however, gays also had to deal with (and are still dealing with) the huge historical burden of having been condemned for millennia in the Judeo-Christian tradition as abominable evildoers. As the 1966 article accurately states, "the view that homosexuality should be treated not as a vice but as a disease was considered progressive." There is no comparable religious antipathy toward the autistic population; although we occasionally see stories about clergy who describe autistic children as soulless or who attempt to exorcise demons from them, such ignorant foolishness is not based in religious tradition.

Indeed, most people had never even heard of autism until very recently, when the diagnostic criteria were substantially broadened and the number of people identified as autistic increased accordingly. Although it may seem as if we're living in a deeply prejudiced society that hates autistics, I think that what we've seen over the past few years has been an artificially created media bubble that can be attributed in large part to Bob Wright's abuse of his former position at NBC to spread his bigoted views, as well as the marketing efforts of quack-cure opportunists who have profited from fear and stereotypes. And like fads in general, this bubble can—and will—deflate very quickly when the public has had enough of it.

What does this mean in practical terms? It means that we want to position ourselves to pick up whatever is left over when the autism awareness craze goes the way of disco and pet rocks. More specifically, we need to get control over funds allocated for awareness purposes and use that money to debunk stereotypes and to promote understanding and acceptance. We need to make sure that useful research in education, communication, and other worthwhile areas will continue. We need to take effective action to put an end to employment discrimination.

And here's what the end of autism awareness is not going to mean. If we can get autism taken out of the DSM, in much the same way that the gay activists succeeded in getting homosexuality removed, that doesn't mean we can all go back to enjoying the perks of being part of normal society. Some of us never were included in that privileged caste, for various reasons; and even those of us who once were seen as normal have a moral obligation, I believe, to stand in solidarity with those who have endured a lifetime of oppression. As the concept of neurodiversity becomes more widely accepted, we can and must take advantage of this opportunity to transform our society by ending—once and for all—the unconscionable division of the human species into the normal and the defective.

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  • I told my therapist how I wished autism wasn't part of the DSM, and she asked how people would get services. I hadn't had a prepared answer in words yet then, but I think it comes down to society becoming more willing to help out those who need it.

    As it is now, obtaining help can be exceeding difficult, and complicated. If instead of looking at "disabled or not disabled", or "high-functioning or low-functioning", I think we'd benefit from the question of "needs X or not". In a society accepting of neurodiversity, access to services will not depend on a medicalized label, but on individual need. Then, "autistic" would become a social/cultural label, much as the word "gay" is today.

    By Blogger geosaru, at 8:05 PM  

  • (Of course, that's already how I view the word "autistic", but of course that's not the mainstream. Yet.)

    By Blogger geosaru, at 8:06 PM  

  • Brava, abfh. You've outdone yourself. This was a politically masterful piece.

    By Blogger hollywoodjaded, at 8:49 PM  

  • In the late 1960s many doctors were probably asking themselves the equivalent of "how will homosexuals get services?" They would've of course been referring to psychiatric services.

    People think that homosexuality was considered an illness or sin for the heck of it, and that's where things ended. That's not exactly true. Some psychiatrists truly believed they were doing a good deed by placing homosexuality within a medical framework. Homosexuals were "suffering" and so forth. The "suffering" was not thought to be caused by external forces. It was considered intrinsic to the homosexual way of life. The medical discourse of the time is eerily similar to what you hear today in regards to autistic children "suffering".

    For anyone interested in further study of how the thinking on homosexuality evolved at the time, I'd suggest going to Google News, and doing an Advanced Archive Search by date range. There are a few Time Magazine articles on homosexuality from the time which are freely accessible. (There are many articles on homosexuality from the time period, but most require payment to access).

    By Blogger Joseph, at 9:27 PM  

  • This last summer when I was taking an art course at the local community college, I read just about every book about gay rights on the shelves of their library. There is much to learn from the movement. It's eerie how closely it parallels events of today.

    By Blogger geosaru, at 11:19 PM  

  • Excellent post. Very well stated.

    Ivan of athenivanidx

    By OpenID athenivanidx, at 12:32 AM  

  • Two more interesting analogies between the way homosexuality is/was regarded and the way autism is regarded:

    1)What I call the "totalizing assumption," namely that everything a gay person is/does/has is a manifestation of his homosexuality. In the bad old days, if a psychiatrist saw Josh (straight) and Jason (gay) who were both hearing voices, and Mike (straight) and Mark (gay) who both had panic attacks in public places, he'd diagnose Josh with schizophrenia, Mike with anxiety disorder, and Jason and Mark with homosexuality, and would assume that if he could get them to stop having sex with men and start having sex with women, Jason would stop hearing voices and Mark would stop panicing.

    Nowadays it's still to common for medical practitioners to view every symptom an autistic kid has as a symptom of autism, even when the symptom also occurs in non-autistic kids and would be considered significant. And it's still too common for parents of an autistic kid with, say, severe GI problems to believe that the way to make them go away is to make the kid non-autistic.

    2)In contemporary anti-gay circles, there's a near-unanimous opinion (based on nothing but wishful thinking applied to dogma) that every person starts out as heterosexual and that gay people have somehow turned away from the opposite sex and to the same sex, often because of being molested.

    Similarly, in anti-neurodiversity circles the assumption is almost always that the child was initially neurotypical and turned autistic because of some trauma, often vaccination. Both the "ex-gay" crowd and the Mercury Malicia believe that there's a pure, unspoiled individual inside that rotten shell and that their goal is to bring out that inner straight man or NT kid.

    By Anonymous ebohlman, at 4:26 PM  

  • Fascinating article. It's deliciously applicable to the neurodiversity movement(s) of today.

    By Blogger elmindreda, at 2:12 PM  

  • There's a documentary called "One Nation Under God" which is very interesting, discussing the attempts to cure homosexuality. When I was watching, I couldn't help but notice that I could substitute "autistic" for "homosexual" just about every time and it would sound the same.

    By Blogger geosaru, at 8:49 PM  

  • Check this out, just for laughs.



    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:39 PM  

  • What about changelings? Martin Luther described them as 'massa carnis' (just flesh, no soul) and as having been put there by the devil in place of real children.
    See here:
    So there is a history of viewing autistics as bad in a religious way, probably more extreme than gays.
    Regarding getting services, that's an issue for gifted children as well. Standard education is not appropriate for gifted children, but provisions for special education often don't take them into account. Increasingly, parents of gifted children and others have been advocating for greater services to give these children specialized education. Hopefully they'll help society realize that you don't have to have a disorder to have special needs.

    By Blogger Ettina, at 12:11 PM  

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