Autistics Speaking Day: Predictably relatively quiet

2012-11-01 19:50

So, there was some idea floating around that people ought to pick a day and not talk in honor of the communications difficulties faced by “people with autism”. Which, of course, helps cement the stereotype that we generally can’t communicate, and supports the idea that other people ought to speak for us. Which, it turns out, isn’t super popular with a lot of autistics, so some clever folks came up with the idea of Autistics Speaking Day. Of course. A lot of autistic people don’t particularly enjoy talking to strangers, or talking about themselves. Or are a little shy.

But hey, I’m always up for an excuse to ramble a bit.

I was diagnosed pretty late; I was 35 or so. This is in no small part because, when I was a kid and the schools were trying to figure out why I lacked social skills, they didn’t have a word for this. Hans Asperger had published his paper, but it hadn’t been translated into English. So in the US, people working with kids thought “autism” meant “probably can’t talk at all, randomly hits self or others”. (It’s since been discovered that many “non-verbal” autistics are quite capable of using language, they just have a hard time making mouth noises.)

Growing up, I was definitely a weird kid. I got in a lot of trouble. I had trouble with things that no one could explain, had trouble making friends, and found lots of things obvious or trivial that would have been expected to be hard for me. (Some of this may be the fairly severe ADHD, admittedly.)

I got pretty lucky, though. My parents may not have been autistic (although I suspect my dad was), but they were mathematics teachers. The thing is, if you’re going to teach math, there are two things you have to be good at. One is just answering the damn question instead of second-guessing people. The other is second-guessing people when the question shows that they are confused.

That may sound contradictory. It’s not. The problem most people have is that they can’t do the first; they not only can’t answer the literal question asked, they can’t even tell you what it was. They didn’t hear that question, they heard a question similar to it which made sense to them. There’s a number of jokes on the topic of how mathematicians think, but the punch line “there is at least one sheep in that field, at least one side of which is black” pretty much encapsulates the category.

The other problem you get is that people can’t do the second; they haven’t got the habit of trying to infer and check premises from what someone’s saying. Math teachers (well, good ones) tend to have that habit.

When I first learned about doors, I had a problem with them. If I knew a door was a pushing-type door, I would push it. If it didn’t open, I’d then try to turn the knob. Thing is, the weight on the door could wedge the latch so I couldn’t turn it. So my mom observed this, and taught me a ritual: Pull the door, turn the knob, push the door. Problem solved.

So I grew up being allowed to be me. My dad generally gave me a hard time about being a picky eater, but not all that much compared to what a lot of kids I know had to deal with. But if I wanted to sit around reading, no one was yelling at me to go play outside. If I wanted to ask my dad for explanations of what he was doing, he’d make a game effort to explain them. Note: He was the chair of the committee that did the subject-specific math GRE tests. He would make a reasonable effort to explain the questions, and their answers, to me. I was in my teens. Maybe it should have seemed strange to him, but he was more interested in getting a chance to talk about math then he was in deciding whether his kid was sufficiently normal.

One of the things I find really frustrating about the various anti-autistic propaganda sources, like Autism Speaks and the like, is that their basic premise is that autistic children are bad because they do not cope well with “normal” things. I’ve commented on this kind of thing before, at length. The thing is… I don’t think that’s a reasonable framing. Complaining that kids are dysfunctional in an environment hostile to them strikes me as unfair. Imagine the unfairness of complaining that kids behave in crazy and maladaptive ways when left in a room with hundreds of books on only one fairly advanced topic several years above their nominal reading level. Who would do that? That’d be insane. But the fact is, I could happily sit in my dad’s office at the college and read math textbooks. I might not get everything in them, but I enjoyed looking at them, and trying to puzzle things out. So are kids who weren’t like that defective? Do they need to be “fixed”?

In short, I reject the habitual conflation of “normal” in the statistical sense and “normative”. I don’t think we need to find a cure for kids who are unmanageable when treated poorly nearly as much as we need to work on education for parents so they don’t create that problem in the first place.

The cure thing has all sorts of possible issues; the main thing is, if there were a “cure” for autism on offer, a whole lot of parents would probably use it on kids who were in no way capable of consenting. (In fact, I’d be sort of shocked if any “cure” which came along were even capable of working on people developed enough to give consent.) Thing is… I’m not sure I like the idea of the category of people sort of like me being eradicated. Bleh.

School was, well. It was school. I did erratically well or badly, depending on what I felt like paying attention to. I was never much good at making friends, but gradually developed habits that allowed me to avoid making enemies. I went to college early and had a lot of fun, although I continued to have characteristic ADHD problems.

Overall, I stand by my basic analysis: Autism and non-autism are both perfectly viable human states, but I think that a culture which contains members of both sets will be much, much, richer for the interactions.

Peter Seebach

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