Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Human Strengths, Human Weaknesses

I got an e-mail a few days ago from a person who wrote that he understood why neurodiversity activists would want to celebrate autistic strengths and culture, but he didn't see why we wouldn't want to cure autistic weaknesses.

That reminded me of a passage from Amy Harmon's article two years ago, How About Not Curing Us, which suggested that children could be taught "to use their autistic strengths to cope with their autistic impairments."

I've never had any objection to the idea of improving one's weaknesses generally. All human beings have to work on developing new skills; otherwise, nobody would ever learn anything. I do have a problem, though, with the description of some cognitive traits as autistic strengths and the characterization of others as autistic weaknesses. Yes, autistics (like any other group) tend to be stronger, on average, in some areas and weaker in others. But an average is just that—an average. When we go beyond talking about statistical averages and start to characterize certain traits as belonging to certain groups, that's stereotyping.

When this sort of language is used to describe other groups of people, the stereotyping often is painfully obvious. For example, women, on average, tend to score higher than men on tests of verbal ability and interpersonal skills, while scoring lower on tests of mathematical and spatial skills. (This is where Simon Baron-Cohen's "extreme male brain" description of autism came from.) But when we're talking about gender, most of us would be sensible enough not to say that verbal ability is a female strength or that math is a male strength. We understand that there is a broad range of ability across both genders and that stereotyping unfairly constrains the potential of both.

And we certainly wouldn't advise girls to use their female strengths to cope with their female impairments. Nor would we suggest that there ought to be a cure for female mental weaknesses.

When an autistic person who has limited speech ability works on improving his or her speech, I'd put that in the same category as a woman with poor math skills making an effort to learn more math. It's probably a good thing to do (assuming that it isn't pursued so strenuously as to cause high levels of stress), but it's not a cure for anything, and no one should ever be treated as an inferior or defective human being on account of a lack of speech skills, math skills, or whatever.

We're all just people, with human strengths and human weaknesses.



  • All too true I'm afraid. There is a small person I know who used to have a severe speech delay, now aged 6, who is teaching yours truly, about negative numbers.[aged 46 and female]

    By Blogger Maddy, at 4:46 PM  

  • Great post! Another example: Males tend to have greater upper body strength, while females have greater lower body strength. Yet society defines "strength" itself (in the physical arena) as lifting and other tasks involving upper body strength. Thus, males are said to be stronger, and this is treated as a known fact, though it is actually a social construct.

    This is analogous to so-called autistic strengths, which are viewed as less important than non-autistic "strengths".

    Those in power control the definitions and decide the norms. There is no objective reason why, in the modern world, talking a lot is inherently better than talking a little or not at all.

    By Blogger Bev, at 6:51 PM  

  • Since there has been some talk about the Amish lately, I have been thinking about the movie that had Harrison Ford in it, when he "hid" in the Amish community, but when several Amish men he was with were taunted and assaulted (modestly) by 3 "English", Harrison Ford beat the crap out of all 3 single handedly as the "real" Amish looked on completely horrified.

    Harrison Ford's character, "thought" he was being "strong". The Amish knew him to be incredibly weak by their standards. The real Amish were much more shamed by the violence committed seemingly by one of them than by the taunts of the "English".

    There is another example, but as I am not a computer person I may get the analogy slightly wrong. When a new "operating system" comes out, there is always the issue of backwards compatability. Can you run "old" software on the new system. Well, you always can, if you emulate the "old system" in software and then run the old software on the emulation. But it is an inefficient way to do it. If you do that over multiple generations of systems, running emulations in emulations in emulations, any "advantage" of the "new system" gets lost and bogged down.

    If you have a jet aircraft, can you use it to taxi down an interstate? Yes, but it is a crappy way to travel.

    By Blogger daedalus2u, at 7:45 PM  

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