enough of these autism uncle toms

If you belong to an oppressed group, it’s always possible to get attention and fake, superficial acceptance by turning yourself into a “contrarian” and siding with the assholes in public. You’ll be treated like a fascinating curiosity in exchange for validating the normals’ biases. Making someone who feels guilty believe that they’re good people, that their victims are on the same team, is a valuable psychological service.

Bill Cosby, every black Republican, Camille Paglia, Tomi Lahren and the women of the alt-right, Milo, etc. It’ll get profiles written about you, but it’s not because of saying anything interesting. There’s entertainment value in seeing the self-abasement.

For autism, two prominent examples are Jonathan Mitchell and Thomas Clements. They get attention for themselves by undermining the neurodiversity movement and making the public image of autism as negative as possible.

Aeon just published Against Neurodiversity, an article by Moheb Costandi, “molecular and developmental neurobiologist, author and freelance science writer”, getting most of its information from Thomas Clements. How annoying. At least it illustrates the issue, starting from paragraph 1:

I couldn’t help feeling a little apprehensive before my meeting with Thomas Clements. The British 30-year-old has what used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome, and describes himself as ‘slightly autistic’. Until our meeting in London, I’d had few close encounters with autistic people, so I wondered how to act, and how he might respond to my actions. Would he make eye contact with me? Should I try to shake his hand?

Despite my apprehension, the meeting went well. Clements gets extremely confused in a group of people, and avoids those kinds of situations, but has no problem with one-on-one interactions. We met in the West End, had chicken katsu curry for lunch, and then walked into nearby Chinatown, his favourite part of town.

Given how much of a problem autism representation in the media is, should’ve probably sat this one out instead of finding the single autistic person most eager to confirm his biases. Oh, the irony that he’s anxious to meet one of us because he doesn’t know how to act or how they’ll respond. No matter what, though, we’re definitely Other and you haven’t met any of us before even though we’re 1% of the population or something.

That single paragraph already demonstrates the necessity of the neurodiversity movement. Most of autistic people’s actual life problems come from the normal people around them acting like Costandi here and making everything all awkward. All the things normals do to distance themselves from that anxiety…are the exclusion that’s ruining our lives. It’s Costandi’s fault for having hang-ups about whether we’re people or not, and Clements is there to absolve his guilt.

It doesn’t occur to Clements that he could work on any of his problems:

As well as his linguistic abilities, Clements has a comprehensive knowledge of arthouse cinema, and of American, British and Chinese hip hop. His exceptional abilities are undoubtedly linked to being what he calls an ‘Aspie’ – but he doesn’t regard autism as a gift. For Clements, autism makes daily life more difficult. It is something he could do without.

‘I don’t really know what social cues are, and I have no idea what people mean by “body language”,’ he told me. ‘I despise superficial chit-chat, so I’ve offended many people without even realising it. Conversations with me are usually one-sided, because I tend to steer them towards the things I’m interested in, and overload others with information without considering their level of interest, but I’m learning to tone it down.’

As a result of this, building and maintaining relationships is extremely difficult for Clements, and finding a girlfriend is even harder: for autistic men such as him, ‘opportunities for having sex with someone are slim, and the chances of being able to find a long-term sexual partner are even slimmer,’ he said.

He doesn’t know what social cues are, despite watching movies all the time and knowing how to research, y’know, cultures? He’s never read about body language?

He “despises superficial chit-chat,” so he’s “offended many people.” Surely someone has tried explaining to him that nobody wants to be told they’re superficial, and small talk serves non-information-exchange social bonding purposes for normal people? Deliberately continuing to ignore why small talk happens isn’t going to make it less of a problem in your life. Maybe he has social problems because he’s making people around him feel rejected.

We all struggle with Aspie rambling, but you can certainly become aware of it, or find situations where it’s helpful. Giving complete Aspie ramble explanations of things on the phone is my job.

I suck at dating myself, but telling women you’re seeking out “opportunies for sex” and “long-term sexual partners” is probably going to make them feel more used than special. Just a guess. There’s definitely no shortage of essays by women on the internet explaining what’s wrong with “nice guy” incel people.

Clements has an autistic brother, who he described this way in a book:

[Jack] can utter single words and basic phrases, but his ability to construct spontaneous sentences is limited … [He] will never be able to live the life of an ordinary adult. He will require fulltime care for the rest of his life, which will necessitate someone keeping his bottom clean. We all love him dearly, but at the same time we are forced to swallow the bitter pill that he will never have a career, a house, a car or a family like the rest of us. This is a tough thing to come to terms with.

This is what we’re arguing about. We disagree that career, house, and car are a good way to evaluate someone’s value as a human. There’s nothing wrong with not having those things. Clements just absorbed the belief that there is. Somehow we can’t talk about autism without talking about shit. Melanie Yergeau has pointed this out in Authoring Autism:

The humanization in autism poop talk, of course, is rarely about the human whose poop has been thrust into the spotlight. And, especially in the case of parent blogs and other digitally born life writing, poop talk is often divulged without the full and informed consent of the autistic person being depicted. This isn’t to deny the danger or stresses associated with a loved one’s ingestion of harmful bacteria, or the distress involved in attending to the spread of literal shit, or the community and support a parent might garner from sharing intimate stories online. My point, rather, is that these narratives are shittier than the shit they claim to represent. These are shitty narratives–rhetorical commonplaces that author autistic people as victim-captives of a faulty neurology, as rhetorically degraded and rhetorically suspect. In these constructions, our shit holds more rhetorical power than we do.

While this book is not about literal shit, it is about the figurative shit that contemporary autism discourse has flung upon autistic bodies. These shitty narratives persist, I argue, because their rhetorical power derives from the figure of the autistic as unknowable, as utterly abject and isolated and tragic, as a figure whose actions are construed less like actions and more like neuronally willed middle fingers. At root, these shitty narratives are rhetorical projects: they apprehend neuroqueerness as interlocking series of socially complex impairments, impairments that impact the domains of relatedness, intent, feeling, sexuality, gender identity, and sensation–indeed,all of that which might be used to call oneself properly a person.

Costandi then devotes a chunk of space to making distinctions among autism levels 1, 2, and 3. The problem with functioning labels has been talked to death. There is nothing beneficial to autistic people about making classifications like that in the first place. It only serves to dehumanize level 3 people and discredit level 1 people. It has nothing to do with getting us the help we need. The same person might function at different levels at different times. Everyone will have different support needs. The way to talk about this is, when relevant, just to explain what support a person needs.

Cue up the dire statistics:

Despite lengthy research, I could find no figures regarding how many of those diagnosed with autism fall into each of the three severity levels but, according to the CDC, about 40 per cent of children with autism do not talk at all, and at least a quarter acquire basic language at 12-18 months of age, but then lose it. The results of a longitudinal study in Australia published in 2016 are somewhat consistent with this estimate: overall, it found that 26.3 per cent of the 246 autistic children sampled were using ‘fewer than five spontaneous and functional words’ by the end of the study, and 36.4 per cent exited the study not using ‘two-word phrases’; these figures were slightly higher according to different measures and the parents’ reports, which indicated that nearly 30 per cent were not ‘naming at least three objects’ consistently, and more than 43 per cent not using ‘phrases with a noun and verb’ consistently at the end.

Nowhere does this mention that the children in this study were, on average, between 4 and 5 years old. People don’t stop being autistic. They continue to develop throughout their lifetimes. It’s not hard to find people online talking about how they used to be nonverbal. It says nothing about how well the children are able to communicate in other ways, and there’s the huge problem of autistic communication not being recognized as communication by normal people.

More scary-sounding facts without context:

Autism often presents with co-morbidities. More than half of children with ASD also have an intellectual disability (defined as having an IQ below 70), and up to half exhibit symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Autistic children are psychiatrically hospitalised much more frequently than others, with 13 per cent of their hospital visits being due to a psychiatric problem, compared with 2 per cent for children without ASD. In autistic adults, the lifetime prevalence of anxiety and depression is 42 per cent and 37 per cent respectively. Autism also commonly co-occurs with epilepsy, with the highest rate in those whose IQ is below 40.

Comorbidities are not the same thing as autism. It’s highly misleading to present psychiatric problems are coming from autism and not the trauma of growing up autistic around hostile people who don’t understand you. Why can’t we talk about that, as a social problem? Can we talk about how this is the fault of Costandi’s chickenshit anxiety around people that are different?

Autism is arguably one of the most controversial subjects of our time. Due partly to a lack of understanding of its causes, current discourse on this subject is a narrative jungle strewn with young, overgrown and ill-conceived ideas jostling for a spot in the sun, including uncompassionate ‘refrigerator mothers’, microbial infections, vaccinations, and environmental pollutants and toxicants, to name but a few.

Why is knowing those environmental factors so important, when we already know it’s mostly genetic?

Into this maelstrom came the neurodiversity movement, whose advocates celebrate autism as a gift that is an integral part of identity. They promise to make the voices of autistics heard, and to improve their quality of life by making the world more accepting of, and accommodating for, them, after decades of being marginalised and victimised. However, in recent years, there has been a backlash against this – growing numbers of people are now speaking out against the neurodiversity movement, claiming that it does not represent them and, more importantly, that it ignores the plight of those with severe autism.

Costandi can fuck right off for disputing my opinion about my own autism that it’s a gift, a curse, and inextricable from who I am. How insulting for him to treat basic self-esteem as dangerous nonsense. Would Costandi say he wanted to be born as someone completely different?

People don’t talk the way Costandi is implying. If only the neurodiversity movement could “make the world” anything. The whole point is that it’s a movement of marginalized people, without a real base of social power, fighting hard for recognition of their basic humanity. We know what it’s like to be autistic in society. We aren’t demagogues trying to get elected, promising people shit, which I guess is Costandi’s lens for looking at politics.

I love how he puts the effort into looking for stats on just how many of us can’t talk, but he’s satisfied with vagueness like “growing numbers of people are speaking out against the neurodiversity movement.” As if we’re in charge and they’re speaking truth to power. Is there really a backlash? Are more autism parents butthurt about it on the internet? Or is it just that Mitchell and Clements have been getting themselves quoted in the media more lately? If anything, what’s happening is that neurodiversity rhetoric is being coopted by people that aren’t on our side at all.

He finally gets to the point:

Firstly, neurodiversity advocates can romanticise autism. While many with mild forms of autism might lead relatively ‘normal’ daily lives with little or no assistance, many who are more severely affected cannot function properly without round-the-clock care. Yet John Marble, the self-advocate and founder of Pivot Diversity – an organisation in San Francisco that aims to ‘pivot autism towards solutions which empower autistic people, their families and employers’ – posted on Twitter in 2017: ‘THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS SEVERE AUTISM, just as there is no such thing as “severe homosexuality” or “severe blackness”.’

Worryingly, this trend of romanticising autism has extended to other conditions that can be severe, debilitating, and life-threatening. There are now groups of self-advocates who celebrate depression and schizophrenia. This could also be related to the growth of pro-anorexia websites, as well as the more recent emergence of ‘addiction pride’.

I’ve actually seen it phrased as “there’s no such thing as mild autism.” I’m the poster child of high-functioning, employable, independently-living autistic adults, and Costandi’s perception is complete bullshit. It’s actually a fact that autistic masking like ours is a mental health disaster and makes us wish we were dead. We shouldn’t have to fight our natures so hard just to not die of exposure.

In the second paragraph, Costandi says what it’s really about: fuck anybody with a label rejecting the idea that he can casually look down on them as subhuman. The Others are to live in shame, forever.

The appeal to authority and meaningless science jargon:

The idea that autism is ‘a variation of normal’ is at odds with scientific understanding of the condition. The general consensus among neuroscientists is that autism has neurodevelopmental origins, with recent research showing that it is associated with abnormalities in brain cell numbers and white-matter structure, and defects in synaptic pruning, the process by which unwanted synaptic connections are eliminated. The research also shows that genetics plays a major role: each autistic individual carries a large number of very rare or unique gene variants, together with extra copies of genes, deleted genes and other chromosomal disruptions. Some of these are inherited, while others are generated anew at fertilisation and during the earliest stages of development. Thus, it seems that every person with autism harbours a unique combination of such genetic variations, which manifest as a unique set of behavioural symptoms.

Science in no way has a complete understanding of brain development and how it “should” proceed at the level of synapses and microcircuits. Just because physical mechanisms of autism can be found does NOT mean those mechanisms are pathological. He’s relying on the reader to have the false assumption that we can relate these physical correlates of autism to behavioral symptoms in more than the hand-waviest, vaguest of ways. You can put people in brain scanners and find that being a musician or a taxi driver, or really anything, “changes your brain.” Of course it does. The mind is physically embodied. Anything that affects the mild will have some physical correlate we can point to, in principle.

Incoherent and dishonest rejections of our own explanations of where our problems come from:

However, neurodiversity advocates reject the medical model of autism, in favour of an as-yet undetermined social model that blames the problems faced by autistic people on systematic ‘ableist’ discrimination. Some of their reasons for doing so are valid. Historically, autistic people have existed on the margins of society, and have been victimised by the medical-industrial complex that aimed to coercively eliminate them and others considered to be disabled. For example, Asperger was complicit in the Nazi regime’s euthanasia programme for disabled children.

Since then, the medical view of autism has changed dramatically. Researchers and clinicians do not want to eradicate autism – they aim to understand it in order to develop treatments for those who want them.

Lots of rhetorical bullshit in this passage. It’s meaningless to say the social model of disability is “as-yet undetermined.” It was very much laid out and explained a long time ago. Maybe Costandi is playing dumb by pretending not to understand that social criticism and neurobiology are different, where social critics aren’t actually trying to develop the most accurate mathematical predictions of things. Putting “ableist” in scare quotes already means he’s rejecting the disability rights movement out of hand, like they’re on the fringe not saying anything important like the people talking about racism or sexism.

The discrimination against us is so obvious that he’s compelled to acknowledge that “some of our reasons are valid.” We’re supposed to be wrong only because things are different now, which they totally aren’t. It’s just not true that people don’t want to “cure” autism or develop prenatal tests so we can be eugenically aborted. Those are real things. The people advocating them mean it.

Neurodiversity advocates still label those who express a desire for treatment or cure as Nazis and eugenicists. ‘When we fight for autism rights, we are fighting for our continued existence,’ wrote the self-advocate Jackson Connors in the People’s World newspaper this June. ‘Against our dehumanisation. Against a “cure”, which is a dogwhistle for ableist eugenics. And against the systems that push so many of us to poverty and suicide.’

If the shoe fits, dude. If you want to know the genetic cause of something so you can remove it from the gene pool, that’s eugenics. It’s completely normal for people to support the premises of eugenics, like it’s always been. There’s just a taboo on talking about it or making Nazi comparisons, even when they’re valid. Look at how much the taboo on calling out fascism delayed people taking Trump seriously. It’s just a power move. Costandi is saying, “I have the social standing to be above Nazi accusations, so there.” Actually, fuck off.

In their zealous pursuit of autistic rights, some advocates have become authoritarian and militant, harassing and bullying anyone who dares to portray autism negatively, or expresses a desire for a treatment or cure. This extends to autism researchers in academia and the pharmaceutical industry, and also to the parents of severely autistic children. One widely used treatment is Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA), which involves intensive one-on-one therapy sessions aimed to develop social skills. However, neurodiversity advocates consider ABA to be cruel and unethical, and campaign for withdrawal of government funding for the treatment.

It’s called fighting back.

Again he just relies on out-of-hand dismissal instead of being intellectually serious. I won’t rehash it here, but a LOT has been said about how the very idea of ABA is dehumanizing, and how it’s traumatizing and teaches people to be abuse targets and and and…For Costandi, it just can’t be possible that ABA is harmful because people with the right pieces of paper say it’s not harmful.

Furthermore, they are trying to legitimise self-diagnosis of autism.

Yes. My therapist (already expensive) told me I’m autistic, and then it took over $2000 to get official confirmation. The conversation around autism is already white upper class enough.

This is some more bullshit:

While many among the autism researchers are aware of these problems and find the situation extremely frustrating, very few are willing to speak up, for fear of jeopardising their research funding, offending a highly sensitive patient and parent population, or being targeted for harassment themselves. In recent years, however, growing numbers of parents and carers have begun speaking up against the neurodiversity movement, saying that the way its advocates portray autism does not resonate with their own experiences of the condition.

It’s bullshit because he doesn’t name a single researcher. There’s just a vague, ominous threat of these outside troublemakers being mean to them and taking their money for pointless experiments away. The paragraph is entirely about events in the heads of normal people. It’s entirely about their fears and perceptions of us. It’s just supposed to be understood that autistic people are dangerous, out of control, scary, whatever.

He quotes an autism parent book to illustrate how wrong neurodiversity people are:

In public, the boys may throw a fit at any moment – we can’t predict it, and we can’t be certain of the cause. It could be because of the lights, or the sounds, or the number of people around. It could be because they don’t feel well or because they’re just tired. It could be a combination of these things, or none of them.

Even typical kid-friendly entertainments do not ensure that the boys will react positively. Their understanding of situations is limited, as is their tolerance … what normal kids consider fun, autistic kids may consider baffling and terrifying.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say they can predict it and have some idea of the cause. They admit in the next sentence that it’s crowding and sensory overload. Surely their kid doesn’t just get tired immediately, and they can see the kid getting more tired?

Those two paragraphs just read like someone who’s not interested in understanding autism as a subjective experience. “Lights, sounds, typical kid stuff, whatever.” Their dislikes of those things are treated as unfortunate annoyances caused by autism, and not real sources of distress for the child. If a nervous animal with acute senses wouldn’t like something, we probably wouldn’t, either.

Jill Escher, founder of the Society for Shit-Talking Her Children:

‘I have two kids with nonverbal autism,’ said Jill Escher, founding president of the organisation. ‘It’s an extremely severe neurodevelopmental disability – they can’t talk, can’t read or write, can’t add one plus one, and lack any capacity for abstract thought. [Neurodiversity advocates] trivialise this, and cherrypick naive, feel-good stories that portray autism falsely instead of grappling with the reality.’

‘Some aspects of [the neurodiversity movement] are very convenient for all autism advocates, because we all want to portray our children in a way that will engender acceptance,’ she added. ‘If my kid’s having a meltdown at the supermarket, or taking his clothes off, or screaming, I want people to appreciate that his behaviour comes out of a difference in his brain wiring. But do I think his behaviour and wiring is natural? Absolutely not.’

Escher is an enemy of ours, and she concedes that the world would be a better place if everyone listened to neurodiversity advocates. She just wants to preserve the right to right to be judgmental and feel superior and only value people according to their contributions to capitalism. You can’t have that attitude and true acceptance at the same time.

The neurodiversity movement is dividing both the autism community and autism researchers. Advocates make the distinction between autistics and ‘neurotypicals’, or nonautistics. This fosters an ‘us versus them’ mentality, wherein nonautistic people are regarded as an oppressive enemy. It also fosters intolerance towards different ways of thinking about autism, as well as a deep and unhealthy mistrust of the scientific and medical communities.

Jesus fucking Christ. This is like a white person complaining when minorities talk about “white people.” Non-autistic people invented the label autism to carve us out from the group, and we’re the ones making everything us vs. them? Please. This is also the same as conservative white men saying they need more representation, for diversity’s sake.

Non-autistic people, on a continuing basis, do in fact oppress us. Not all of them, but oppressing us is a mainstream thing to do. Costandi just wants to put a taboo on reflecting about it.

There are legitimate reasons for certain groups not to trust the scientific and medical communities.

Ironically, a social-justice movement that aims to highlight the ways in which autistic people have been mistreated by society is now directly responsible for the mistreatment of the most vulnerable of all autistics – many of whom are too severely affected by their condition to speak up for themselves. In standing up for their rights, a group of marginalised people are effectively hyper-marginalising the very people they claim to be advocating for. They have monopolised the public discourse on autism, and continue to do whatever they can to silence any dissenting voices; this inability to debate and try to reach compromise is a problem not only for the autistic community, but for wider society.

And this is like Fox News crying about the all-powerful Liberal Media.

He says I’m directly responsible for the mistreatment of autistic people who need more help with life. How is the text of what I’m saying in this post more marginalizing towards autistic people than what he’s saying?

He’s just projecting about an inability to debate. Throughout the article, he relies on dismissing our arguments out of hand far more than he tries logically rebutting them. It’s just “Oh no they didn’t! They’re breaking the social norms! They’re breaking the social norms!” It’s not intellectually serious.

Is there anything the neurodiversity movement isn’t “directly responsible” for? Apparently we’re responsible for allocating autism research funds:

It also poses a major problem for autism research. Scientists are now beginning to realise that there is selection bias against autistics with intellectual disabilities throughout all fields of autism research; although nearly half of the autistic population also has an intellectual disability, the majority of research has focused on those with relatively intact language and cognition. Thus, individuals considered to be ‘low-functioning’ are being overlooked by the research community.

Grad students pick easier PhD projects, if possible. News at 11.

‘The movement is harmful because they’re trying to terrorise people into silence, and we’re just a few of the many victims of their bullying and smear campaigns,’ Escher said. ‘There’s a toll on scientific research, too, because the neurodiversity platform apparently doesn’t believe it’s important to investigate the causes of autism.’

Understanding the causes of autism is unlikely to result in practical benefits for autistic people in our lifetimes. There’s a lot of things that could be done today to increase support for us, to research what kind of therapies and programs help us, to improve media representation. All of those things are far likelier to produce concrete benefits for her children. Finding the causes is just a wish to build a time machine and not have your child. They don’t disappear because you narrowed it all down to chromosome 5 or whatever.

It is, therefore, time to start thinking differently about neurodiversity, and to recognise the importance of free speech in the public discourse on autism, because if neurodiversity means anything, it means accepting that we all think differently, and that not everyone takes pride in being autistic.

This article has all the features of rightwing trolling. Who, exactly, has been silenced? What neurotypical person couldn’t do something because the autistic people objected?

Assholes take “free speech” to mean the right to be assholes and not hear back about it. You’re oppressing them if you openly disrespect them too, you see. Because their feelings matter.

‘If you’re happy being autistic and think of it as part of your identify, that’s great, and I don’t want to upset you or hurt you, but don’t tell me I can’t try to help ease my sons’ suffering,’ said Hall. ‘For them, autism is a life-altering, cruel disability, and I’d do anything to help them feel good and give them a better quality of life.’

How the fuck do they know what autism means to their son, if he’s not talking to them about it? How do we know the son wouldn’t be content to live a life of stimming and relaxing with their special interest?

Conjecture: the more people locate the cause of autistic suffering in autism itself, the more they’re actually responsible for autistic suffering, the more they’re invested in denying the oppressive aspects of society.