On Asperger’s and labeling

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I keep hearing this refrain from disabled people all the time: “[Insert disability] doesn’t define me!”  And the related, “I don’t want to be labeled!” I get it. If you’ve lost part of your body or the use of it, being thought of by people as nothing more than a person in a wheelchair or “the blind guy” or “that deaf girl” is horrible and limiting.

Clearly there is more to a person than a visible difference. That blind girl has talents, interests, and interpersonal relationships and that deaf guy has a job and a family. Being known or recognized by a superficial difference is unfair. They are not their disability. It doesn’t bear on who they are as an individual and has little to do with their personality.

But being on the autism spectrum is demonstrably different.

What I’ve learned as a person who only just “discovered” being disabled, even though my personal history is proof enough, is that I’ve been carrying labels around with me my entire life and I’ve got little to no control over this. Most of those descriptive labels are included in the word collage above, but a few are missing:

  • weirdo
  • slut
  • prude
  • retard
  • nerd
  • spaz
  • loser
  • wannabe

Notice anything about those words? Not only are they negative, but several are contradictory. For instance, some people conclude I’m a super-smart nerd and others talk to me like I’m a 5-year-old. It never made sense to me before, but then I figured out that context is everything. If I’m in my element, which is talking about subjects I love, I come off as erudite and insightful. When I’m out of my element, say in a casual social scene, I’m at a loss and my “retarded-ness” comes to the fore. I stay on the edges creeping out the people just trying to have a nice evening. When I do speak it’s by blurting lame shit, stuttering, and bringing up the very things I know I shouldn’t bring up. Like politics, religion, and book-learnin’.

The hard truth is that we ultimately have no control over what other people are going label us. And they will label us. All the politically correct lectures will do no good. Garbage humans are always going to be cruel and define us by our differences; especially the superficial, hyper-social hierarchy climbers. All they see is someone insignificant because we don’t play the same game or have a “killer instinct.”

And no matter how hard I try to pretend normalcy or whether I disclose my condition or not, eventually people will find me off-putting or simply hard to define. When your presentation and personality are difficult to place within a known social group or “type,” it makes people deeply uneasy and they won’t understand why. They begin to talk to one another about me or suspect me of I-don’t-know-what. People become stand-offish and wary, but increase their scrutiny of me. This makes me nervous and I seem even more strange. Things fall apart.

Negative feedback loops are a bitch.

I reside in the Uncanny Valley, but not because of how I look – because of how I behave. It’s the Uncanny Valley of Social Interaction. Unless you are on the spectrum and are therefore able to observe social skills, presentation, and language from an outsider’s perspective, you can’t see how proscribed and deeply embedded are the social skills of neurotypicals. Most of the time they can’t even put their finger on exactly what it is about me that disturbs them so much, but it is what it is.

And there are consequences.

By self-labeling as someone on the spectrum, at least they know what makes me seem odd. Of course, there are always the people who will discriminate or talk down to anyone on any part of the spectrum, but those assholes are going to be problematic sooner or later no matter what. I would rather people who are in my day-to-day life know why I’m invisibly different. It’s the speculating and confusion that makes people the most uneasy.

The unexplainable is disturbing.

Another reason I don’t mind being defined by my differences is that Asperger’s does determine most things about me. While a person isn’t their inability to walk or hear or see, everyone is in a very practical sense who their brains are, and mine is autistic. We are our neurology. Everything from my interests and personality traits to my life history and physical problems are encompassed by my diagnosis. That’s why person-first language isn’t important to me. “Autistic person” or “person with autism” adds up to the same treatment at the end of the day. Whether I want it to be true or not, people are going to define me by my Aspien traits – knowingly or unknowingly. And if they don’t know, they’ll come to wildly incorrect conclusions on their own.

Look at it this way: No one is up-in-arms about positive labels. No one is chanting, “I will not be defined by my awesome career as a rich CEO.” Or, “Being a mom has nothing to with who I am.” Or, “I don’t want to be labeled as an amazing lover.” These are the first things people say about themselves when they meet a new person. (Maybe not that last one.) The furor over “being labeled” or “defined by” something only applies to negative labels that people are ashamed of.

I’ve been embarrassed and embarrassing for my entire life – I’m not going to be ashamed anymore of who I am because of my unique mind and social presentation. We need to work on changing how people view the difference; not what words people use to describe it.

Here’s an excerpt from American Nerd by Benjamin Nugent that makes this point better than I can:

There’s a scene in Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-time, narrated by a teenager who could be described as having Asperger’s Syndrome . . . He’s on a school bus full of children on the way to the special school he attends, children who would have once been called “mentally handicapped,” “retarded,” or “mentally ill,” but who are now referred to as having “special needs.” The kids from the normal school run alongside the bus and scream “Special needs! Special needs!” The point is that stigma doesn’t accrue only to people who are given inherently stigmatic labels. Any label becomes stigmatic when it means you go to a different school or turn from a central hallway into the room set aside for children who have needs beyond or different from what other children have.

Now I’ve noticed in the entertainment and social media that referring to someone as “on the spectrum” or “having Asperger’s” is the new “retarded.” On one Netflix show, Big Mouth created by Nick Kroll and Andrew Goldberg, cartoon pubescent Andrew is looking for a seat on the bus and has this little exchange with his imaginary goad called the Hormone Monster:

Hormone Monster: Don't sit with the kid with the rolly backpack.
        He can't read social cues.
Caleb (to Andrew): Hi, you're looking at me.
       How tall are you? There's a monster next to you.
Hormone Monster: Eh, what's up, Caleb? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

I don’t think it’s meant to be blatantly insulting, and the other kids are being superficially nice to Caleb, but the implication that he’s unacceptable even as a seat-mate on the bus is still heartbreaking. However, I want to point out that Andrew is the only one who can see the Hormone Monster except for Caleb. Asperger’s always invites both insults and a strange admiration from neurotypicals. They reject us out of hand, but believe we have magical abilities and powers of perception. Caleb makes a few other appearances in subsequent episodes and he always comes out with the most astute and truthful (although blunt) observations.

Which is often true of us. So at least we’ve got that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is it OK to “suffer from autism”?

Are we wasting time on semantics debates in the autism community?

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I’ve just finished plowing through a bunch of articles on the use of certain terms in the autism community that seem to set off flame wars on a regular basis. For instance, the person-first language debate between “person with autism” vs. “autistic person.” Parents often prefer the former and autistic people (obviously those retaining the power of speech) prefer the latter. Parents are concerned that if people refer to their kids as “being” autistic rather than “having” it, their identity as people with dignity will be infringed upon. Autistic people feel that autism is not a disease, but a much-needed identity in a world that has socially denied them a clear one.

But this article is not about that.

Autistic people suffer both directly and indirectly from the consequences of autism.

Recently, an autistic friend of mine wrote an article that mentioned the phrase “suffers from autism” as being insulting. Is it controversial? Yes. After all, it made me begin to think unceasingly (as I do) about autism and suffering. While I understand that much of the bullshit autistic people and their loved ones have to endure is due to living in a world that is uninformed, unsympathetic, and unaccommodating, a lot of it for some if us is a direct result of the condition itself. Autistic people do suffer; both directly and indirectly from the consequences of autism.

Some examples from my own experience might clarify this. A great deal of my personal suffering is because of the way the world misunderstands autistic people. Especially before I finally diagnosed myself at almost 40 year old. I was isolated as a child because teachers don’t have time to help out a kid who’s not fitting in. I was bullied because pre-Columbine, there was not much traction for anti-bullying programs or activism. Such that I only complained to a few adults before stopping altogether. I was always lectured by these adults on being sensitive to the struggles of those who were harassing me – “Her parents are going through a divorce.” – “He has a tough home life.” – “That’s just how his parents raised him.” My struggle was never the priority because adults simply didn’t want to put forth the effort to address a sticky, but far more serious than they suspected, “childhood problem.” I suppose they thought it would be over in a short number of years, but adults on the spectrum know that bullying only escalates after the school years are over and the stakes are much higher.

Clearly these difficulties are due to a lack of understanding and accommodation – including my own gross misdiagnosis for so many decades.

We mustn’t allow arguments over words and internecine debates to obscure the most urgent problems we face.

But we have to remember that autism is not just a mental condition – it affects many other systems of the body and this seems to be a little known fact in the wider world. As a young adult my mind was screaming to be released from the shallow neurotypical facade I had forced myself to produce due to the constant prodding from influences both personal and cultural. This led to increased gastro-intestinal issues which resulted in my being in extreme pain because I was digesting my own esophagus with severe acid reflux.

I suffered.

Years after this problem was resolved, I began to feel a little twinge of sharp pain in the end of my pinkie finger. I tried to ignore it but the pain kept increasing over time and eventually I was having nerve paroxysms so severe that the upper right half of my body was useless, the tendons in my neck and shoulder froze, and still no one could identify what the problem was – when they believed me about the pain at all, of course. Finally, through a charity organization (no health care) I was able to see a hand specialist.

I care less about the semantics and culturally-loaded terms used to describe ourselves and more about discussing the degree of suffering itself.

I had an exceedingly rare type of neuroma made up of an overgrowth of sensory nerves in my extremities. They tend to occur at the base of the skull, on the tympanic membrane, and under finger and toenails – anywhere there is a high concentration of sensory nerves. I don’t need to tell you that there is a direct connection to neuropathy and conditions of the sensory nerves in autistic people. This type of tumor is so rare that there has been little research on it and therefore it is not known if they occur more in autistic individuals, but several other members of my family on the spectrum have had rare nerve tumors in other parts of their bodies that caused extreme pain and required surgeries.

I can’t go into detail here about the excruciating five year process I went through, all the while unable to work or bathe regularly or function, in order to get these tumors removed. In addition to the other consequences of being mentally misdiagnosed. My fingernail had to be excised several times and the microsurgery performed to remove the overgrown nerve cluster required weeks of recovery every time. I’ve never found another medical description that emphasizes the quality of the pain of a condition like this one does. Most request the amputation of their fingertips and require psychological consultations for the mental effects of chronic pain. As did I.

 

So again, I really suffered. Clearly I have no problem with this phrase in reference to myself.

But is it OK for non-autistic people to refer to someone as “suffering from autism”? Perhaps not, but I’m a bit jaded after all this time. I care less about the semantics and culturally-loaded terms used to describe ourselves and more about discussing the degree of suffering itself.

One day we will learn to ride the delicate line between pathologizing and romanticizing autistic people.

I know from having met and loved many other autistic people throughout my life that they have some of the most hair-raising personal stories of any group of people. It’s worth noting that most of the popular books written by autistic adults are by those who have seemingly been more successful and supported than the majority. Far be it from me to get bogged down in the Comparative Suffering Olympics that stymie special interest groups from time to time – See white feminists vs. feminists of color. However, the autistics who are the most marginalized, impoverished, and challenged are rarely the ones with the support network and means to get their stories written and published and promoted. 

I don’t want to continue to gloss over the horrible experiences of autistic people. I want us to collect and share our stories with one another and the wider world.

Therefore, we are having our tales of injustice and medical malpractice buried along with our unique perspectives. I know as a woman and sexual assault victim (another loaded word I have no problem using), that those who want to maintain the status quo and not go to the trouble of understanding us or helping change the world to accommodate and protect us, want us to just shut up about our suffering. In fact, the demonization of the word “victim” is an example of that. When we tell our stories we are accused of “being victims” in order to defame us as being “too sensitive.” Assholes don’t want to acknowledge that broken institutions and predators cause great suffering for people of different demographics and circumstances. They definitely don’t want you going into the details of your ordeal to bring a personal, human face to certain societal issues.

This is an invitation to silence that must shouted over.

I don’t want to continue to gloss over the horrible experiences of autistic people. I want us to collect and share our stories with one another and the wider world. The disabled and neurodiverse are the most impoverished demographic in America – indeed in the world. We are the most sexually assaulted and exploited.  We are still fighting for jobs, reasonable medical treatments, and accommodations. We are dealing with stigma and fear. We are even gunned down by police regardless of race. Semantics can go on the back burner as far as I’m concerned.

One day we will learn to ride the delicate line between pathologizing and romanticizing autistic people, but we mustn’t allow arguments over words and internecine debates to obscure the most urgent problems we face.