Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Everyday People

I've been pondering human differences and our perceptions of them since I read Lili Marlene's recent post, I’d just like to set you all straight on a few points, in which she explains that autistic people are not sufferers, or antisocial, or part of an epidemic, but always have been part of human society. She writes:

...some of the most unusual people are some of the oldest. You know, back in the old days people had better things to do than run their kids around to psychologists and speech pathologists to get them labelled with some dire diagnosis. They had more pressing tasks to accomplish, like finding enough food for a family to eat during a major economic depression, or fighting in wars.

And she's quite right about that. When people are busy going about their everyday lives, many of them are not going to have the time or inclination to agonize over what someone else might think of their personal quirks (or those of their family members).

Even when there are no wars or other major calamities going on, people often don't pay much attention to differences that have not been pointed out to them. There is a tremendous amount of natural variation in the human species, and when people have not been taught to fear a particular type of difference (such as by autism-awareness campaigns), they are likely to view that difference as part of the landscape of ordinary human life.

I got a comment recently that asked how old I was when I learned to talk. I never did answer it because, the more I thought about it, the more I realized there was no clear answer. When I was a child, I just assumed that I learned to talk the same way everyone else did. Looking back, though, I don't recall many conversations in my early years. I remember repeating phrases that I thought were funny and giggling over them. I remember singing songs, or parts of songs, over and over. That seemed, at the time, to be a perfectly reasonable and amusing use of words. At what point did I have "normal" speech? Who knows? When I was a little kid, I didn't spend any time wondering what other people thought of my speech.

To be pedantic about it, I still don't have "normal" speech. I sound autistic because my voice isn't modulated the same way as most other people's voices. I have a much narrower range of tone and inflection, and it's often outside what might be considered the average range. Usually people can understand me well enough, but I sometimes have to repeat a word or two. I suppose you could call that a speech disability, although (like many things that are called disabilities) any problems I encounter are the result of other people's prejudices, rather than an actual lack of ability. If I didn't have to worry about being discriminated against because of my voice, it would be no more of a problem than speaking with a regional accent.

When I was a child, I often wandered away, climbed tall trees, played in traffic, and didn't pay much attention to adults who told me that I was not behaving properly. That didn't mean I had some sort of tragic and mysterious mental defect that made me incapable of social interaction, understanding danger, etc., and what's more, I certainly wasn't suffering or trying to escape from life. Quite the contrary—being alive seemed like a wonderful adventure, too precious and fascinating to be wasted sitting obediently in dull classrooms. I got kicked out of several primary schools for wandering away when the teacher wasn't looking, but I never thought that made me abnormal, either; I just thought schools were inhabited by narrow-minded conformists. I wanted to explore the world, going on brave quests like the kids in my favorite adventure stories. No doubt my view of life was absurdly melodramatic, but I'll tell you what: Those who would describe my existence as a devastating tragedy are being far more absurd.

There's a post on Joel's blog called Celebration of Interests, in which he asks autistic bloggers to write about their perseverations. Like most of us, I've had quite a few interests over the years. I remember being fascinated by ladybugs as a child because they had so many different patterns of spots. They seemed almost like dominoes come to life. I had a notebook in which I drew pictures of ladybugs with various numbers of spots and kept track of how many of each kind I saw.

I wonder, though, if autistic perseverations are really all that much different from anybody else's interests. There are plenty of non-autistic folks out there who spend huge amounts of time talking about football, celebrity trivia, or politics. Because their interests are common and socially accepted, they don't get called obsessions or perseverations—but what's the difference, really?

At the moment, I don't have any strong interests other than this blog. I believe that my reasons for blogging are about the same as most other folks' reasons—to share my thoughts and concerns with the world, to be part of an online community, and to learn from others. I hope that, as we begin another year, all of us who blog worldwide can gain more understanding and acceptance of our fellow human beings and our everyday differences.

Happy New Year 2007.



  • Ooo, too much there, but I'll make a start - it's a feature of Western or civilized cultures....free time used for cerebral activities rather than getting water, food and basic living necessities, but similarly gives us too much time to contemplate our own navels!

    By Blogger Maddy, at 10:15 AM  

  • I agree with what you said, but I also wonder if part of the reason we are getting so many new 'diagnosis' has also to do with a NEW expectation that all kids should be blank slates and learn in the same way at the same speed... And therefore if they don't, it's no longer expected that we are all different, but that there is something 'wrong' with them.

    By Blogger Julia, at 2:56 PM  

  • You used to giggle over phrases that you thought were funny when you were a kid. When I was a kid I used to do the same thing repeatedly with words that had funny associations in my mind. One of my kids (the one with the advanced literacy skills) occassionally laughs to themself over some word of phrase that tickles their idiosyncratic sense of humour. Perhaps what we have here is a combination of an autistic focus on words or details combined with a keen and idiosyncratic sense of humour?

    By Blogger Lili Marlene, at 12:47 AM  

  • There are people who just take care of getting food and water who will look at someone who isnt as good at that as being a less valuable person. Just like there are people who look at using computers as what is most important that will look at someone who doesnt do that as well as being a less valuable person.
    There are also people that think that our ability to socialize within certain standards are what is most important who will see a person who doesnt do that well as being less valuable.
    The worth and value of human life cant be about how well a person can do something or even if they can do it at all.We have to see human life as being more than that. Its vital to our survival.
    Im glad that blogging is such an interest of yours ABFH. Thanks for the blogging you do.Happy New Year 2007.

    By Blogger Ed, at 11:10 AM  

  • Oh my Duncan does that giggling at phrases that tickle him somehow too. He loves watching Youtube films as he can repeat the best bits over and over again. He then repeats the words to himself; sometimes I say them more slowly for him so he hear it more clearly.

    I agree with Julia that there is now an expectation that all children learn in just one way. The way Duncan is learning is soooo outside the confines of the National Curriculum used in schools here. Thanks be for home-education and a happy, thriving boy.

    Wishing you a very happy 2007. It's great that blogging is a special interest of yours now; we, your readers, get to benefit! Keep it coming!

    By Blogger Sharon McDaid, at 8:16 PM  

  • I don't think there is any difference. I don't have Autism but I still get really "obsessed" when I'm interested in something

    I learned to talk early but I was really tactless and would say exactly what I thought!

    By Blogger Low Flying Angel, at 7:43 AM  

  • Happy New Year right back atcha! Wishing you the best for 2007!

    By Blogger Attila the Mom, at 9:33 AM  

  • There was actually a similar problem with gender roles and Gender Identity Disorder. Labeling differences between someone's physical gender and sense of self a medical condition meant that some people were able to seek surgical correction (provided they fit the therapist's ideas and were willing to submit themselves to the doctor's instructions on how they should live their lives). A number of other people, who were neither 'normal' for their gender nor desirous of meeting the doctor's idea of a surgically-altered, fully-gender-appropriate member of the opposite sex, were subjected to prolonged therapy and sometimes institutionalization to try and make them fit gender roles. A good book on the subject is The Last Time I Wore A Dress. Only recently have people started to move away from the pathological model and the antagonistic categorization (for instance, getting away from pro- and anti-surgery towards a choice model).

    My poin is that having otherwise ignorable differences seen as pathologocal and in need of treatment seems to be a common feature of creating new diagnostic categories. Gender Identity Disorder led to the hospitalization of girls who dislike skirts. And Autistic Spectrum Disorder means an insistent need to treat children with intensive hobbies and odd speech.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:45 PM  

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