Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Better Than It

Back when women first started to attend universities, the fortunate few who got admitted were often praised for overcoming the mental frailties of their gender and for learning how to think like a man. Everything that a successful woman accomplished was inevitably contrasted against the presumed intellectual inferiority of her gender. Charlotte Whitton, the first woman mayor of Ottawa, Canada, described the struggle of these female pioneers as follows: "Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good."

I was reminded of this unfortunate history while reading a San Francisco Chronicle article that spewed the usual high and low functioning autism stereotypes and quoted ignorant pronouncements from Bryna Siegel about social deficits. I never post active links to this sort of bigoted crud, but here's a partial URL for those who don't mind copying and pasting:


The author interviewed an autistic university student named Andrew Van Etten and praised his ability to socialize and make friends, which he attributed to his frequent participation in clubs and activities:

"They are ways to show myself that I can be beyond this diagnosis," he said. "I can choose a life path that says I've defeated it. Or I'm better than it."

One might wonder what Andrew Van Etten was thinking when he said this, but I can make a pretty good guess. He probably grew up hearing that autism made a person inferior, mentally deficient, a burden to society, and so forth. Most likely, he internalized that view and learned to despise his own kind, like so many people before him who belonged to the "wrong" race or gender or religion and who thought they could never succeed in life without first denying what they were.

It was an ugly heap of prejudiced garbage when other groups of people had to contend with it, and it's an ugly heap of prejudiced garbage now. And yes, Andrew, you are better than it—better than the stereotypes of inferiority that have come to be associated with an autism diagnosis. So are all the other 50 or 60 million autistic people on the planet. I hope that one day you'll learn to see your experiences in historical perspective and to understand that you are not so different, after all.



  • This was sickening. Thanks for pointing it out. I left a comment on the article.

    I am so saddened by the number of people I encounter whose goal is to "overcome" their disabilities, or those whose every success is measured in terms of transcending something or other. So much energy spent on trying to be "normal," and what will they get? A pat on the back and advice to keep it up.

    Thanks, abfh.

    By Blogger Bev, at 3:06 PM  

  • This is a really good point ABFH,

    I imagine some people are accepting of such praise because (temporarily anyway)they aren't being offered many other types of encouragement. They aren't seeing (as you described very well) the bigger picture and the stereotypes that this encourages.

    The misrepresentation of this view seems to be that advocating in this way discourages progress. More than just a misrepresentation, I think that's backwards.

    By Blogger Ed, at 9:01 AM  

  • A theology major. Now I realize I might be stepping on toes here, but doesn't that line of education usually lead to pastoral services? Not a wonder why he might want to feel more a part of the in crowd, overcoming the impossible, and all that.

    I too hope that his awareness about the injustices affecting the non-mainstream becomes a bit more sharp in the future. I doubt he realizes he has just been 'duped' into representing a living stereotype.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:42 PM  

  • I long for the day that the medicalisation of autism is gone.

    Bigger than the diagnosis? Bollocks!

    Given the fact that most diagnoses are written on pissy little A4 pages (mostly not more than three such pages), one would have to be a fucking Barbie/Ken doll to not be bigger than one's bloody diagnosis!

    By Blogger David N. Andrews MEd (Distinction), at 9:18 AM  

  • Words are codifications of states of being or elements of the environment. Simply by existing, there are parts of all of us that cannot be expressed linguistically. So everyone is more than any label or diagnosis that can ever be invented simply by existing, whether it is autism, neurodiverse or even personhood.

    This concept is innately understood by every non-verbal person in the world. They all attempt (and/or succeed) in making meaningful links with their environment, including the people in the environment. If anybody ever was just the size of their diagnosis, then this would be impossible.

    By Anonymous TrillianZeta, at 10:33 AM  

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