Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.

Prologue to "The Lord of the Rings"

Once upon a time, there was a group of children who, it was thought, were in great need of services to help them learn to speak and socialize like other children. Without extensive government programs to teach them proper behavior and language skills at an early age, they were thought to be doomed to a tragic fate of social isolation and unemployment. Accordingly, well-meaning politicians passed laws designed to educate these children, integrate them into mainstream society, and enable them to lead meaningful and productive lives.

No, I'm not talking about autistic children, but about thousands of Native American children who were taken away from their families and sent to boarding schools a century ago. After their families had been uprooted from their traditional way of life and placed on reservations, these children faced an uncertain future.

Several influential advocacy organizations, which purported to speak for rural American Indians but consisted almost entirely of white city-dwellers, declared that the tragic plight of Indian children was a dire social crisis that required immediate attention. It was imperative that these children be taught to speak English, be instructed in acceptable social behavior, and be given suitable vocational education, the advocacy groups declared; otherwise, they would be unemployable and would be a huge burden to society.

Many people responded to appeals for donations toward the construction of boarding schools for Indian children, believing that this was a worthy charitable cause. Children were removed en masse from the reservations and sent to far-away schools where they often had no contact with their parents for years. They were taught that traditional Indian ways were inferior, and they were punished whenever they spoke their native languages or engaged in any culturally Indian behaviors. They received only the simplest vocational training, meant to prepare them to become manual laborers in a racist society that deemed them incapable of anything else.

As a result, many of the children who grew up in these boarding schools lost a considerable amount of their native language and culture. As adults, they existed between two worlds, no longer fully connected to the tribe but never accepted as equals by mainstream society, either. The tribal elders, now isolated on the reservations, could not pass on their history and wisdom to the younger generations as their ancestors had done.

It was not until many years later that the removal of Native American children to boarding schools came to be seen for what it was—another dark and shameful chapter in society's long history of oppressing minority groups. At the time it was happening, most people simply took it for granted that the boarding schools were both charitable and necessary.

The more widespread our prejudices are, the less we can recognize them.

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  • I don't see it as an either/or proposition (i.e., Either you're for saying everything about the autistic ways of communicating are wrong, or you support autistics communicating the way they prefer).

    Instead, I look at it as if I was emigrating to China. Do I expect all of the Chinese to learn English to understand me, or do I learn enough functional Chinese so that I may get along in Chinese society?

    I don't think that learning NT ways of communicating means that you have to suppress or give up on autistic ways of communicating. And it doesn't mean that you stop working on changing attitudes of discrimination and non-acceptance in society as a whole.

    History has shown that those sub-groups that keep totally to themselves are less successful and more discriminated against than those that make the effort to learn enough of the dominant way of doing things/communicating to get by.

    Now for some individuals, being verbal just isn't possible. But using a keyboard with a speech synthesizer is a good compromise, and some other sort of facilitated communication might also work. But if an individual can communicate in the dominant language (either verbally or non-verbally) they're going to be more successful than otherwise.

    I long for the day when ALL people are accepted for being just the way they are, and there is no discrimination for not being able to do things like the dominant majority. But until then I think it's important to try and teach my son enough of the "foreign language and customs" that he will encounter in the dominant culture to a)be as successful and independent as possible, and b)keep him out of trouble with the law. And it's equally important to do so without negating the core of his essence, and devaluing him as a person.

    By Blogger Club 166, at 12:44 AM  

  • OOPS!

    I just went back to an earlier post of your's here and saw that Ari had said almost the same thing I'm saying today. I hadn't seen that before I wrote this.

    Apologies to Ari, and for wasting bandwith.

    By Blogger Club 166, at 1:52 PM  

  • No need for apologies, Club 166. Just because two comments on separate posts are similar, that doesn't mean one of them is a waste of bandwidth. Usually it means the issue needs a lot of discussion.

    The Native American analogy is somewhat inaccurate because autistic people always were seen as part of the mainstream society, rather than being considered a separate tribe. But I do see a lot of similarities in the prevailing prejudices.

    Certainly, people should be able to learn other ways of communicating without being expected to suppress or give up on their natural ways of communicating. Unfortunately, the children in the boarding schools weren't given that opportunity, and far too many autistic children also are being taught from an early age that their natural social and communicative behaviors are wrong and inferior.

    Take a look at the comment by an anonymous autistic person describing an ABA school on Estee's blog. It's heartbreaking how those children are treated.

    I believe that cross-cultural experiences are valuable for human beings in general, and I'm definitely not arguing that all autistics should go live on an island somewhere (although I do think the island metaphor on the Aspergia website was very helpful in redefining autism as a civil rights issue).

    However, the fact that different groups of people have different styles of socializing and communicating shouldn't cause autistics, or anyone else who is in a minority social/communicative group (see Janna's latest post for more on that) to go through life being treated as foreigners in their own country or aliens on their own planet. That's why I named my blog Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

    By Blogger abfh, at 2:03 PM  

  • I've always wondered about the "autistic communication" thing. I know my son has a terribly difficult time with language, but even when he wasn't pointing or speaking, we still understood him and had understanding with him. we now know it wasnt the "normal" kind of communication people have, but it was definitely there, and is still there- little body movements, cues, clues. We were touring schools this weekend, and one we left within ten minutes- he clearly did NOT like the woman who was giving the tour, and he's a good judge of character, we've found. How did I know? That would be hard to say... I mean, he didn't look at her, he held his shoulders a certain way, pitched his head a certain way... there was more that I always have trouble explaining, other than he was acting and moving and using his body in ways that said "this is not good, let's go." And these cues were definitely something he knew I understood, and that grandma didn't. Does that make any sense at all?

    By Blogger Joeymom, at 10:06 PM  

  • Joeymom -- yes, that makes a great deal of sense to me. I believe that parents and other relatives of autistic children historically understood, both instinctively and through their observations of others in their extended families and villages, how to communicate and interact with their children. But in the modern world, we're scattered and don't have that ancient wisdom to draw upon, and many of us have come to trust the "experts" rather than our own instincts.

    It's very tragic that some parents and adult autistics behave as if they are enemies. As I see it, autistics and their family members all belong to the same genetically related "tribe," even though society has not acknowledged its existence.

    Eventually I'm going to write a longer post addressing these issues...

    By Blogger abfh, at 9:29 AM  

  • Same thing happened to Aboriginals in Australia, with the same results. Being put into "mainstream" society and taught English only hasn't made the racism or other problems go away there, either. This is a people who WERE the mainstream society for tens of thousands of years, trading successfully (there are rock paintings of Asian-style ships in the Northern Territory and evidence of goods exchanged) and within a hundred years their lifestyle and culture was destroyed. Deliberately destroyed.

    Whoever is conquered, I suppose, has to learn to "get along" in the dominant society. But that doesn't make it right for the dominant society to do what it did, either, or to have the expectations that it had.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:36 PM  

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