Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Sunday, March 05, 2006

What it's like to be...

Back when the concept of civil rights for racial minorities was still controversial, there was a great deal of discussion and speculation among liberal-minded white folks on the subject of what it would be like to be black. One white man, John Howard Griffin, went farther than just talking about the issue and actually disguised himself as a black man in order to experience the prejudice firsthand.

A recent post on Brett's blog suggested that a non-autistic person could get a better understanding of the social experiences of autistics by means of a similar disguise. It's an interesting idea, but I really have to wonder how someone would pretend to be autistic. There isn't much ambiguity in how society defines race; if you have dark brown skin, then you're classified as black, regardless of your other characteristics. When it comes to autism, on the other hand, the depths of society's ignorance are so profound that most people wouldn't have the first clue how to distinguish autistics from anybody else. The diagnostic criteria are a ridiculously vague hodgepodge of traits, to the extent that even an experienced psychologist often can't identify an autistic adult without detailed information about his or her childhood development.

Of course, given the fact that most people are so ignorant about autism that they can't tell an aspie from a turnip, just wearing Autistic Pride T-shirts for a week probably would be enough to get an idea of what the prejudice is like, even without any actual change in behavior. I wouldn't recommend wearing them to work, though; you never know what might happen.

Brett also said this in his post:

Is it possible for non-autistics to truly understand what it means to be autistic? Can we really grasp the major effort that it takes to do the things that we take for granted? I think the answer to these questions is an unqualified, “No.”

Hmmm... I know everyone who read that statement probably agreed with it, but I'm going to pick up my Bitch from Hell pitchfork (it's nice and shiny, with a faint lingering smell of sulphur) and play devil's advocate on this one. I don't believe the differences between us are anywhere near that great. You don't have to be autistic to know what it's like to make major efforts to do things that others take for granted. You just have to live in an intolerant society where your particular neurological type happens to be in the minority.

Here's a thought-exercise for readers who are not autistic:

When did you first become aware that you were different? Maybe you were two years old, or three, when you noticed that the other children could do a lot of things you couldn't. Some of them could already read. Others were doing arithmetic, playing musical instruments, or using computers. Even those who didn't have such skills all had special interests of one sort or another, and they seemed to know a lot about the subjects of their interests. You couldn't do any of that.

Your worried parents took you for a developmental evaluation. A psychologist, after observing your chatty demeanor and your lack of any focused interests, diagnosed you as suffering from Oversocialization Spectrum Disorder. The symptoms of this neurological disorder included preoccupation with social concerns, often resulting in the performance of dysfunctional and destructive rituals as a way of maintaining group identity, and inability to focus intensively on one interest.

Because you were only two or three years old, you didn't understand much of this. You only knew that sometimes, after that evaluation, your parents would look at you and suddenly burst into tears.

In the hope that early intervention would help to remediate your deficits, your parents arranged for therapists to work with you in reading and arithmetic. But you weren't developmentally ready to learn these things as a three-year-old, and you struggled and felt stupid. You got frustrated and had tantrums. You developed a few nervous habits, such as biting your nails. Then your parents started to talk about medicating you for these symptoms of your disorder.

As you grew older, you realized that you were very lucky compared to others of your neurological type, who were often subjected to painful quack treatments or even put away in institutions. But that didn't make it any easier to deal with the bullying you endured every day when you went to school and got teased about being different and being in the special education class.

News stories and fundraising solicitations often described the existence of people like you as a plague, an epidemic, a calamity, and an overwhelming burden to society. You learned that researchers were working busily to develop a cure or a prenatal test so that there would never again be any people like you in the world.

As much as you tried not to think about it, sometimes you couldn't help but to stay awake at night worrying. When your parents noticed that you weren't getting enough rest, they took you to the doctor to get some sleeping pills, which you took along with all the other meds that had been prescribed for your disorder. You took them without protest; by now, you thought of yourself as sick because you had been described that way for so many years.

Although your siblings were going away to college, that wasn't an option for you. People like you struggled in college, your counselor explained, and employers couldn't be expected to hire your sort, anyway. There wasn't much chance you would ever get married, either. But your parents cheerfully told you that they had found a comfortable group home where you could stay for the rest of your life, with friendly staff to cook your meals and remind you to take your meds every day, and no need to make any decisions or worry about anything, ever. Wouldn't that be nice?

You put on a happy face and agreed that, yes, it would be very nice. Then you went into your room, shut the door, and swallowed all the sleeping pills in the bottle.

And everyone blamed your suicide on your defective neurology.



  • afbh,

    This is an incredibly powerful post. I hope everyone reads it.

    You nailed it,


    By Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond, at 2:15 PM  

  • Especially at the end it is powerful. I remember that when I was going through a real tough time and considering suicide, the main thing that kept me from doing it was because I knew that people would blame it on me, just like they blamed me for being bullied for my differences.

    By Blogger geosaru, at 1:58 AM  

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