On autism, early diagnosis and identity

I suppose this is an unorthodox Autism Acceptance Month post, but so was my previous one. This is an expansion of a Facebook status I wrote about two weeks ago.

I have a difficult time relating to the accounts of late-diagnosed autistic adults who did not grow up with this label being used to marginalise, segregate and discredit them. I see so many accounts of unalloyed joy at being diagnosed with autism and having the diagnosis explain most or all of the difficulties they’d encountered throughout their lives. That’s not to say that late- and self-diagnosed adults don’t encounter oppression or stereotyping, especially after they receive a formal diagnosis and encounter stereotyping from misinformed practitioners, but that it’s of a different nature from what early-diagnosed people can experience. For me, though, it was a mark of Cain until I discovered the neurodiversity movement back in 2005 or so.

I was diagnosed before I started school and had my differences placed squarely within a pathologising framework. Deficits in social interactions. Lack of eye contact. Restricted interests. Deficits in personal organisation. I was wrongly thought to be intellectually disabled – to the point that a doctor declared that I would ‘never learn’ – because I was late to start talking, though this impression of me was mercifully very short. People like my parents and teachers would emphasise my weaknesses, either real or perceived, over my strengths. While I had two concurrent labels when I was at school – autistic (officially PDD-NOS and Asperger Syndrome) and gifted (I am not a fan of the word ‘giftedness’, by the way. I use it reluctantly to refer to an educational label and a neurotype, or a set of neurotypes, but the current language around it is not that great)- much of what I dealt with was pigeonholing, pathologisation and exclusion from opportunities that would have benefited me socially and intellectually. I felt like a ‘fake intelligent person’ because of my diagnosis. In fact, my methods of internalising and interpreting information were frequently treated as autism symptoms. I was forced to sit through boring classes that didn’t challenge me intellectually because ‘quiet hands’ and extinguishing ‘behaviours’ came first. While I did skip a grade and participate in gifted programming for the majority of my elementary- and middle-school years, I was still under-stimulated intellectually and often found myself disengaged from the general-education curriculum. There were also a lot of neurodivergent traits I had that couldn’t be explained by my being autistic, but made sense given my learning style, but people tended to subsume all of these traits under the label of ‘autism’ just because they weren’t neurotypical. My parents and teachers would often treat me as though I were a list of diagnostic traits instead of a person, and would ascribe stereotypes based on those diagnostic traits that didn’t actually match my own experiences or my internal self-perceptions. Most gallingly, my parents actually told me they understood me more than I did! I was wary of that statement then and I think it was utter nonsense now. If they’d truly understood me, I wouldn’t have severed contact with them nearly twelve years ago. 

I realised that I couldn’t attribute everything different about me to autism after going through something of a quarter-life crisis at the age of seventeen. I started rebuilding my self-concept to incorporate a more holistic interpretation of my cognition, though admittedly I was still struggling with internalised disablism and wondered over the course of two years whether I was Properly Autistic because I didn’t match the Asperger Syndrome stereotype. Some of this was because most of the literature I’d encountered on autism characterised it as a disability that primarily affected social interactions, even though social interactions were and are not what I find the most disabling, especially after the age of 14 or so. My social skills difficulties were contextual, not global. Compared to many of the accounts I read in books and on blogs online, I got off pretty easily socially. I’m not saying that social interaction was necessarily easy for me – it wasn’t – but it was easier if I was talking to people who understood what I was trying to tell them, which my parents frequently didn’t. They’d shut down if I tried to explain my reasoning for my behaviour and preferred superficial explanations that didn’t address the root problem. Somehow *I* was the one who was impaired for having complex interpretations of my behaviour, though, since they liked to pin anything they didn’t understand about me on the autism diagnosis. I remember arguing with my mother when I was 18 and trying to explain myself and having her tell me ‘You have Asperger Syndrome!’ as though it invalidated the content of my argument. My executive functioning issues are vastly more disabling; in fact, I find them the most disabling (and expensive) part of being autistic. I have a reasonably active social life and have an easier time making friends.

For a period in my mid- to late twenties after I became more involved in public disability advocacy, I moved back towards attributing all my atypical perceptions to my being autistic, even if I knew multiple autistic people who saw the world very differently from me. Much of this was from indirect peer pressure from late-diagnosed and self-diagnosed autistic people. I was using it as a crude, brute-force method to identify and categorise anything that seemed to separate me from the general public, even if *there was no direct evidence* that the experiences in question could actually be explained using an autism-centric framework. I also felt that I had to do this to be the Right Kind of disability advocate, even though I knew plenty of other autistic people who didn’t have the same Weird Brain Things as me; it didn’t help that I had internalised the idea that using other interpretations for it might suggest that I was somehow expressing some form of disablism for not using a framework that centred on disability. I just felt crazy and isolated during that period. It is painful to read back from blog posts and private journal entries from between 2011 and 2016 in which I explain aspects of my thinking as being part of being autistic when they’re not necessarily autistic traits in and of themselves.

I still think I’m autistic, of course, but I no longer feel comfortable treating it as though it is the sole explanation for my divergent thinking. More specifically, I think the diagnostic label is useful for me to identify specific supports for the issues that I find disabling, and it is politically useful as a framework to advocate for the rights of a group of people with somewhat related experiences who experience systemic marginalisation for their disability. This is different from internalised disablism or claiming that I don’t have a disability at all; it’s just that when I was growing up, I had a disability-centric narrative and identity imposed on me against my will. People who were diagnosed as teenagers and adults and encountered less pathologising narratives about autism when they found out about it are more likely to see a politicised disabled identity as something of a revelation. I won’t deny being disabled. I’m not a Shiny Aspie. There’s a difference, though, between denial and recognition of the complexity of one’s experiences.

Moving towards a more holistic way of interpreting my neurodivergence seems to be healthier for me. I can’t do to myself what people did to me when I was growing up.

Communication and echolalia! (Echolalia? Echolalia!)

This is part of a series of posts for Autism Acceptance Month! Throughout April, I’ll be talking about experiential, theoretical and cultural aspects of being autistic, drawn from my own experiences and research I’ve done on autistic people’s cognition, identity formation and methods of interacting with the world. This post is about echolalia, a form of communication or self-calming behaviour that involves repeating words or phrases that’s common amongst some autistic people, including me. 

Like a lot of other autistic folks, I’m echolalic. I’ll repeat things I’ve heard before as a form of emotional regulation, humour and stock communication. Specifically, I have delayed echolalia, in which I repeat things I’ve heard or read in the past, like advertising jingles, amusing or ridiculous quotes, slogans from commercials, and random words I like the sound of. (Fake news! False and fake. Millionaires and billionaires. The doors are closing. Please stand clear of the doors. Red line, commuter rail and bus connection.) If I’m talking to other people, the delayed echolalia will mostly present itself as imitations of political figures or other people recognisable to my interlocutors. Even though echolalia is a classically autistic trait, it’s still affected by social context. If I’m using echolalia while I’m alone to calm or amuse myself, the pool from which I draw phrases is rather wider. I also have a set of stock phrases to make small talk without really thinking about the content of the conversation. That latter kind of echolalia is more tiring to use because I prefer to use low-content communication for humour and relaxation, not as a substitute for high-content communication, but I understand how important small talk is as a form of social grooming.

I also have a distinction between high- and low-content verbal expression, and there seems to be a major distinction between the two modes. Low-content echolalic speech and writing don’t look the same qualitatively as high-content speech and writing for me. I know that other people may have different experiences in which echolalic communication can also look like high-content speech or writing. For example, this post is a form of high-content communication. If I’m serious, it’s highly unlikely that I’m using echolalia to communicate with you. 

There’s also a kind of low-content communication I’ll produce when I’m being backed into a corner by somebody who’s stressing me out, but that’s usually more like a meltdown. In these cases, I’m using language – usually in the form of repeated supplication and apologies – as a way to try to get the threatening person to back off. This kind of communication is more connected-sounding than my echolalic speech, but it’s different from high-content speech in that I don’t have the same level of conscious control over it. The goal is to use just enough communication to make the other person to stop badgering me. This happened to me frequently with my parents, who were the kinds of people who liked to bombard me with shouted questions and criticism when they were upset with me. They’d overload me to the point that I’d start saying things I didn’t have time to consider because I just wanted them to back off and let me process. If they kept pushing I’d start stuttering and having difficulty even producing that kind of communication. 

When I’m emotionally overloaded, either for good or for ill, I can usually still think in high-content phrases, but have a more difficult time producing them in real-time conversation. While I can usually do well enough to handle shorter conversations, it’s still more difficult for me to continue the conversation for very long because of the amount of mental effort I have to expend. Conversely, it’s much easier for me to produce low-content speech. I can force myself to use high-content speech in moments like this, but I can feel a sort of internal friction when I do it and become more exhausted than if I’d just withdrawn from the social situation in the first place. During these periods I frequently withdraw from other people if I can and just keep to myself until I’m able to communicate again. 

Troubling disability activism patterns.

A colourful mural depicting stylised people, with the text EQUAL.

(Photo by Oliver Cole @ Unsplash)

I’ve noticed some troubling patterns amongst disability activists that have caused me to feel frustrated and alienated. Even though I may agree with these people conceptually—we all agree, for example, that disabled people deserve human rights and respect precisely because we are people—the approaches some people use feel needlessly reductionistic for me. I don’t mean to say that their approaches don’t have merit or that there hasn’t been significant thought put into their efforts, but that I find that they obscure the complexity of people’s individual and collective experiences. I’ll focus on two phenomena I’ve noticed: the fixation on lists of words as a way to combat disablism, and the idea that even discussing the ways in which people learn is a disablist concept.

The language fixation
I’m uncomfortable with the fixation on reforming language to the exclusion of other methods of activism as an effort to help dismantle disablist mindsets. Of course, I’m not saying that people should use cruel names to refer to disabled people. What I am saying, though, is that some people who tend not to think verbally or who have language-related disabilities may not be able to memorise the long lists of Words Not To Use that circulate on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites. What I care about is people’s underlying attitudes towards disabled people, more so than I do the specific words they use. When people use metaphorical language, their brains may not process it in the same way they may an overtly cruel word directed at a disabled person. For example, There are also different historical contexts attached to words, but I don’t see that context discussed very often; everything is treated as equally offensive. For example, ‘r*tard’, ‘idiot’, ‘moron’ and ‘imbecile’ were formerly used as diagnostic categories, often connected with the institutionalisation and social exclusion of people with intellectual disability diagnoses. ‘Stupid’, on the other hand, was never a diagnostic category. Of course, it’s insulting to call someone stupid, but it doesn’t come with the same cultural baggage that the aforementioned ‘r*tard’, ‘idiot’, ‘moron’ and ‘imbecile’ have. The same goes for the -phobia ending; while phobia is now a diagnostic term, it’s also had a less specific, non-clinical meaning for years to refer to extreme fear or hatred. I have had disabled friends ostracised from groups that ostensibly exist to support people, but zero in on language to the exclusion of actually offering support.

I understand, on the other hand, that many autistic people and people with similar disabilities tend to use and interpret language literally: what they hear is what they see, and it is difficult for them to associate a meaning with multiple contexts. I am not one of those people; while I can often have a literal visualisation of a word in my head, I tend to see words in a holistic way that combines literal and figurative meanings, translations, shades of meaning, subtleties and historical contexts. I actually have a hard time with overly simplistic, decontextualised explanations and will start tuning out or growing frustrated if people do that with me. That’s been the case since I was very young. I don’t just see a thing; I see the processes, ideas, concepts, history and relationships connected with that thing. I have a hard time understanding overly concrete thinking. I think this issue is complex and can’t be collapsed into a list of dos and don’ts. If you have a hard time juggling multiple meanings of words and have an easy time with rote memorisation, then those ‘ableist word profiles’ may work on you. For me, things intrinsically have multiple meanings. I’m also very poor at directed rote memorisation, even though my long-term memory is excellent. This isn’t a universal approach, though, and people should recognise that when constructing these profiles.

Learning ability: throwing the baby out with the bathwater
I’ve seen some disability activists claim that the concept of intelligence – meant here to refer to differences in the ability to learn, recognise patterns and interact with with information, and the neurological differences that are associated with these differences – is disablist in and of itself. I disagree with this idea, but I understand why people may say things like this: they may know about the sordid history of IQ testing to determine people’s right to live within the community and to raise a family, or racist interpretations of the achievement gap that insinuate or claim baldly that black and brown people are inherently less intelligent than white people, or other ways in which hateful people have misused the concept of learning differences to marginalise, abuse and punish. Some advocates for gifted education have expressed disablist or elitist attitudes towards people with more typical learning ability or people with intellectual disabilities, too. I’ve also seen non-disabled people use the intelligence of some disabled people as a bludgeon: ‘if you’re so smart, you should be able to manage a bank account / work a 9-5 job / clean your house every Saturday / make meals’. Sometimes this is even an institutional requirement; some developmental disability organisations and government agencies will only serve people with an IQ below 70, even though developmental disability encompasses other conditions besides intellectual disability. The assumption is that disabled people of average or above-average intelligence can fend for ourselves without help. Of course, things aren’t so simple; there are many disabled people who learn with great facility but have a hard time with certain activities of daily living. These things are not mutually exclusive and can coexist in the same person. I get why people say things like ‘intelligence is a disablist concept’, even if I think that that conclusion is too reductionistic and flattens the complexity of people’s internal experiences and the outward expression of those experiences.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed some patterns amongst the people who make ‘intelligence doesn’t exist at all’ or ‘the concept of intelligence is intrinsically disablist’ claims that make me uncomfortable. Nearly all the people making these claims would be considered reasonably intelligent themselves. More specifically, it’s a kind of intelligence that allows them to do well in school and doesn’t isolate them from other people because of their divergent thinking. Things come to them easily and they are easily understood. They may be intelligent, but they’re not monsters. Some of the emotional abuse I endured growing up was for my kind of intelligence. I was treated like a monster when I wasn’t being treated like an invalid for being autistic. I generally passed most of my classes as a kid, but didn’t feel fully invested in most of them because I didn’t have the opportunity to really challenge myself intellectually in most of them. I scared my parents, who tried to suppress my curiosity by restricting what I was allowed to read. They also dismissed me when I tried to communicate with them in a more conceptual or abstract way; they’d often look at me as though I’d grown two heads or accuse me of being evasive or using ‘psychobabble’ or ‘woe-is-me stuff’ if I tried to give them nuanced explanations of my behaviour. They tended to perceive things very concretely and literally, at least relative to me. I know the common stereotype is that non-autistic people are conceptual, while autistic people are literal and concrete, but I don’t think that’s true.

I thought I was crazy for years until I read more about how different kinds of learning ability can affect people’s cognition and perception. I thought it was an autistic trait until I encountered autistic people, both in person and online, who thought more concretely and focussed primarily on immediately observable phenomena rather than their underlying complexity. For a few years, though, I actually internalised the idea that intelligence was a disablist concept and started wondering what the hell was wrong with me again. I attributed everything to my being autistic again even though I knew autistic people who didn’t see things the same way I did. To claim that these things don’t exist, or that they can be subsumed under another label that doesn’t necessarily come with those traits (for example, autism), feels like a form of gaslighting. I certainly felt different for being autistic, too, but these phenomena were separate from my being autistic. If intelligence is an unalloyed good in your life, it’s easy to see it as a privilege. If it’s something that isolates you from your own family, makes you grow bored and disenchanted with formal education until you start using it instrumentally as an adult, see things that other people can’t, and makes you doubt your perceptions because you confuse people, it is not the same thing. The idea of intelligence as an absolute privilege is wholly alien to me.

I’ve also noticed that the vast majority of these people are also white or East Asian. Neither white people nor East Asians are routinely associated with low intelligence in the same way that black, Latino or various indigenous groups of people are. This isn’t to say that East Asians don’t experience discrimination or oppression. They certainly do experience racism, but this is not a stereotype typically applied to them. As a black person, I’ve definitely seen people of my race routinely treated as stupid or incompetent just because of the colour of our skin. Entire books like The Bell Curve have been published to disparage us and our abilities. There’s a cottage industry of ‘researchers’ receiving money from the Pioneer Fund to ‘prove’ that we’re less intelligent than white people.

Of course, these anecdotal observations aren’t a universal statement; I’m uncomfortable saying that an attribute applies to the totality of a population for a number of reasons. It’s just a pattern that I’ve repeatedly noticed and that I find frustrating and deeply alienating.

If differences in learning ability did not exist, then we would not recognise the existence of intellectual disability and offer support for people who struggle with learning. I think that it’s possible to recognise that people’s ability to learn and interact with their environment can vary without attaching value judgements to people, institutionalising people, bringing down racist or misogynistic pronouncements, or treating IQ test scores as perfect reflections of people’s intellectual ability. We can use a more nuanced interpretation of intelligence and what it is without engaging in IQ fundamentalism or other forms of intellectual disablism.

Intelligence exists, but it’s more complex than you think

A blurred photograph of a silhouetted person on a blue background. They're standing behind some swirly lights. Via Joshua Fuller @ Unsplash

Via Joshua Fuller @ Unsplash

First, let’s clear up some misconceptions about what intelligence is and isn’t. Intelligence is a collection of mental abilities—pattern recognition, abstract reasoning, learning capacity, general knowledge and environmental adaptation—that mutually reinforce each other in most people. The mutually reinforcing characteristics of these abilities are the reason why researchers believe that a general factor of intelligence, or ‘g’, exists1. For neurotypical people of average intelligence – roughly half the population – the idea of general intelligence usually works. This set of traits is traditionally measured using IQ tests, which include a number of tasks that are thought to be related to the construct of general intelligence. It is a descriptor of how people’s brains learn, adapt to the world around them, recognise patterns and interpret the information they receive from their environment. Intelligence is not an indicator of human value. Everyone has the right to exist regardless of their learning style.

This general description of of intelligence holds true for the majority of the population. Of course, the reality isn’t so simple for some people. There are many people whose mental abilities may not reinforce each other to the same degree as they would for most people; they’re more atomised skills rather than the positive feedback loops associated with the typical model of general intelligence. For example, somebody can score very high on the verbal portions on one of the Wechsler intelligence tests and fare far worse on a section that requires a strong working memory, excellent fine-motor skills or visual-spatial ability. These requirements seem to penalise some disabled people and people who are simply more methodical than others. Some disabled people may receive enough high subtest scores on IQ tests to receive a high overall IQ score but have difficulty generalising their abilities outside the testing environment. The existence of savant syndrome gives the lie to the idea that extreme mental capabilities exist consistently in people. Many people with savant syndrome may have an overall intellectual disability but have strong skills in one or two areas, like calendrical calculation, word decoding, musical ability or drawing from life. Also, people who experience poverty, trauma or other difficulties early in life may not be able to develop their abilities as well as people who grew up in well-off, intellectually nourishing environments2.

Any thoughtful analysis of how intelligence works must be conscious of these exceptions. In a talk she gave a few years ago, Linda Silverman, a psychologist who specialises in advanced learning ability, emphasised that IQ tests are a diagnostic tool that should be combined with clinical judgement, not an absolute determiner of a person’s intellectual abilities that can be divorced from the context in which they live, grow and develop. The current incarnations of IQ tests are designed to be used as clinical tools to identify people’s relative strengths and weaknesses. They’re less accurate when they’re used to determine the cognitive skills of very quick or slow learners. Some quick and dirty tests designed for people with acquired cognitive conditions like Alzheimer’s and traumatic brain injuries can’t even give people very high or low scores. Moreover, like other clinical tests, intelligence tests can produce false negatives or type II errors, especially in intelligent neurodivergent people whose abilities are more uneven and may have an overall score that appears average despite their intellectual, social and emotional differences from typically developing people. The history of IQ testing and the value judgements people place on intelligence tend to cause a lot of anxiety around IQ scores, though. Far too often I see descriptions of high intelligence that rely solely on IQ scores and do not acknowledge the existence of false negatives in testing. While these exceptions may be statistically rare, rarity is not the same thing as non-existence. People who describe the traits of highly intelligent people should be aware of these exceptions; since they are describing outliers, they should recognise that even these outliers have outliers. I fear that treating the most common representations as universal will cause people to feel as though their experiences cannot possibly be real. Mel Baggs wrote eloquently about the problems with IQ testing in neurodivergent people several years ago. I agree with hir to an extent; I think that the ways IQ tests are designed do not always capture the abilities or struggles of neurodivergent or disabled people. For some people, the tests are downright useless; some autistic people in particular have received ‘gifted’, ‘average’ and ‘intellectually disabled’ scores in their lives depending on the testing conditions, their emotional state and their ability to access their skills.

More holistic analysis requiring understanding people’s practical skills is required to give a person a diagnosis of intellectual disability; clinicians should use the same principle when determining whether somebody qualifies for gifted education, too. Mechanistically interpreting scores and believing the numbers uncritically without considering people’s backgrounds, subtest discrepancies, interactions with the test administrator, and potential disabilities is not ‘intelligent testing’. I actually believe that systematic qualitative measures of people’s intellectual abilities, based on people’s developmental trajectory, abilities in childhood, adolescence and adulthood, interactions with the interviewer, and answers to abstract questions should be developed and tested to be used in the field. These measures would be especially useful for people whose traditional IQ scores don’t seem to match up with their abilities or presentation.

When talking about intelligence, it is important to avoid being prejudiced against marginalised people. Unfortunately, the history of intelligence testing is fraught with racism, disablism, classism and misogyny; IQ tests like the Stanford-Binet scales, the British eleven-plus and the US Army intelligence tests were used to devalue the intelligence of women and racially marginalised people, consign poor and working-class people to sub-par educations, institutionalise disabled people and people erroneously thought to be disabled, and create Great Chains of Being in which more intelligent people were superior to people of average or below-average intellectual ability. I am strongly opposed to the idea that members of marginalised groups are less intelligent than those who receive more privileges within their society. Some people cling to these hateful notions and use IQ scores as a means to rank people, an idea I find abhorrent. In fact, some IQ tests, like the Wechsler intelligence tests, still use the category superior to refer to people of significantly above-average intelligence, a relic of the days in which IQ tests were used to rank people’s eugenic qualities. They may not be calling people imbeciles and idiots any more, but the old prejudices still remain. Also, there are some researchers and journalists in the intelligence field who have racist and disablist agendas, like Richard Lynn, Satoshi Kanazawa, Tatu Vanhanen, Steve Sailer, Philippe Rushton, Arthur Jensen, Hans Eysenck and Charles Murray. Linda Gottfredson’s research often falls into this category too. Moreover, IQ tests should not be used to determine people’s ‘mental age’. Mental age is a pernicious construct that is demeaning to people with intellectual disabilities and gifted advocates need to abandon it. The mental-age argument can be used to infantilise and devalue people with intellectual disabilities, or to take advantage of intelligent children and teenagers who are not emotionally prepared for things like sexual or romantic relationships. A five-year-old who can read Shakespeare is still a five-year-old. A 50-year-old who struggles with reading and needs support to understand paperwork is still a 50-year-old.

Intelligence, like other aspects of human cognition, is a deeply complex and multi-layered subject. It is disingenuous to say that it does not exist at all, but it is equally wrong to claim that it is easily quantifiable in all people or that it is a determiner of human worth.

Further reading

  • James Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model is a good overview of how Nazi Germany drew inspiration from American policies promoting eugenics and racial segregation.
  • Stuart Ritchie’s Intelligence: All That Matters is a brief introduction to concepts related to intelligence and the history of its assessment.
  • ‘Intelligence: New Findings and Theoretical Developments’ (Nisbett, R. et al, 2012), an article from American Psychologist is a good academic overview of the current state of intelligence research.
  • Linda Silverman’s Giftedness 101 is a good resource for psychologists and curious laypeople to find out about assessing, working with and teaching students who need more complexity and intellectual challenge than the traditional curriculum provides.
  • Alan Kaufman’s IQ Testing 101 is a slightly more exhaustive introduction to IQ testing and its current uses, and emphasises an ‘intelligent testing’ approach that ultimately relies on clinical judgement rather than just spitting out a score and using that to determine a person’s intellectual ability.
  • The last few chapters of The Myth of Race, by Robert Wald Sussman, describe historical and current uses of intelligence tests to marginalise black and Latino people in the United States.
  1. Yes, I am familiar with the multiple-intelligence theory. Most Gardnerian ‘intelligences’ are better described as talents; see Stuart Ritchie, Intelligence: All That Matters.
  2. Nisbett R et al (2012). Intelligence: New findings and theoretical developments. American Psychologist, 67(2).

The false dichotomy between individualism and empathic ideologies

(image via Benny Jackson on Unsplash. The image contains a group of people standing together in a crowd.)

I feel profoundly alienated by discussions of individualism and collectivism that imply that individualism is the source of all bigotry and and that collectivism will resolve all social ills, or that collectivism is the cause of all social strife and the only means to ameliorate it is through adopting a strictly individualistic philosophy like libertarianism or Objectivism. I have seen other activists on the left decry all individualism in favour of a brand of collectivism that disregards individuality or de-prioritises it, which I find troubling for a number of reasons. First, this dichotomous view of individuality and collective identity seems primarily to be a Western construct and is not universal to human thought; individualism can indeed inform a philosophy that promotes respect and empathy for other human beings, as exemplified in the Southern African concept of ubuntu and similar worldviews from Western and Eastern African cultures. Secondly, my own personal experiences have made it intensely difficult to adopt a strictly collectivistic ideology.

Individualism and collective awareness and empathy can in fact co-exist with each other, even if prevailing Western ideologies claim they can’t. While I don’t necessarily subscribe to any pre-defined philosophy that describes the relationship between individuals and collectives, the ubuntu philosophy common in Southern African cultures is a reasonable approximation. Literally meaning humanity, ubuntu refers to a worldview that uplifts the individual and the community simultaneously. Individual identity is important, but individuals exist within a society that includes other individuals with different needs, backgrounds and priorities. Empathising with other people simply for existing and being fellow human beings leads to policies that uplift both individuals and the community at large. Existence is not, and should not be, a zero-sum game: both individuals’ and communities’ needs matter. Dismantling bigotry requires recognising others’ humanity and individuality; Michael Onyebuchi Eze (2008) describes ubuntu as a philosophy that indicates that ‘a person’s humanity is dependent on the appreciation, preservation and affirmation of other person’s humanity. To deny another’s humanity is to deprecate my own humanity’ 1. The individual and the community they belong to are mutually supporting entities that define each other.

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Being blunt doesn’t make you right.

There is a pervasive misconception, especially on the right, that using blunt, politically incorrect or offensive language means that an argument is intrinsically valid. Part of Trump’s appeal, for example, is his ability to ‘tell it like it is’, even though nearly everything he says or tweets is a half-truth or an outright lie. It’s less about Trump’s actual honesty than it is the appearance of honesty through his bluntness. If Trump had expressed the same sentiments using more academic language, then he would not have become the Republican nominee two years ago: even with the same ideas, Trump wouldn’t have earned the same reputation he has for being a ‘straight shooter’. I’ve seen other right-wing writers and activists doing the same thing. If they can word something simply enough, people will believe it even if it’s factually wrong or extremely biased. If you’re being politically incorrect, you’re being brave and sticking it to the Establishment, even if the ideas you’re expressing are representative of the status quo or status quo ante, before white male supremacy was seriously challenged in western society.

Of course, using simple language does not make you right, any more than using more complex language makes you wrong. It should be the substantive content of your argument that matters, rather than the delivery, but that isn’t how rhetoric works. This discrepancy between delivery and substance allows people like Trump to tell blatant falsehoods because they ostensibly ‘tell it like it is’.

Relatedly, I think that liberal and leftist activists should strive for clarity when conveying ideas. It’s important to distil complex interpretations of policy and advocacy into digestible chunks for the general public to understand. Public policy is indeed full of subtle interpretations, tangled histories and intricate relationships, but that doesn’t mean that explanations of these complexities must necessarily be convoluted, abstruse disquisitions on the nature of policymaking processes or political theories. In fact, it may take more skill for some political scientists, policy analysts and policy researchers to take complex ideas and make them accessible to a wider audience than it does to avoid code-switching and write solely for their fellow wonks in public-policy and political-science academic journals and websites. That said, however, I’ve seen countless liberal and leftist advocates, including disability activists, routinely framing their arguments in strictly theoretical terms that assume background knowledge that their listeners or readers may not already have.

This entry is not a defence of anti-intellectualism or the wholesale dismissal of expertise. I usually think in theoretical and conceptual frameworks when considering the nature of different public policies and the implementation of those policies. My default thinking tends towards abstractions, words, concepts and metaphors. There’s a difference, though, between the way you may see your field as an expert and the way the general public will interpret it. Unless the people you’re talking to also have a policy, political-science or related background, it’s unlikely that they’ll know about specific ideological frameworks like neo-Marxism, Keynesianism, paleoconservatism or utilitarianism, but they will know about how a policy will affect their ability to breathe clean air, send their children to a good school, protect them and their family from police violence, or work at a job that pays them a fair wage. You can base your explanations on deeper theoretical frameworks, but express them to the public in ways that are more immediately accessible.

Beat the far-right at its own game. Be clear. Provide solutions that are easy to understand. You don’t have to insult people’s intelligence and condescend to them, but it is important to make sure that the people you’re talking to don’t require a degree in public policy or political science to understand what you’re advocating for.

Trump, sanity, and intelligence

A protest sign featuring an angry Donald Trump inside a basket.

image by Samantha Sophia @ Unsplash.

It seems it’s time for me to address claims about Donald Trump’s sanity again. On 6 January 2018, Trump wrote this series of tweets defending his intelligence and mental stability against perceived Democratic and media attacks on his fitness as president:

The thrust of Trump’s argument, if you can call it that, is ‘I am intelligent! I am sane! Therefore I am qualified to be president and should be above criticism by either the “fake-news mainstream media” or the Democratic Party.’ This post is not about speculating about Trump’s sanity or intelligence–I am not qualified to make such a judgement and feel that it would be counterproductive anyway. I think he is wilfully ignorant, supremely arrogant, and consumed with hate for people he considers beneath him, but these qualities are not related to the constructs of sanity or intelligence. It is, however, a criticism of the idea that being considered sane or intelligent makes you an intrinsically better person. (No, it does not, by the way.)

If mental health and intelligence were conceptualised as value-neutral aspects of people’s neurotypes, then Trump would not defend himself by claiming to be sane or intelligent. He would instead defend his fitness for the office by citing specific actions he has taken that demonstrate that he is worthy to be president. Being perceived as intelligent (that is, having a constellation of abilities that correlate in many people to a markedly high degree) or sane (exhibiting no behaviours that seem distinctly out of place within a given society, and that cannot be explained by cross-cultural explanations) are viewed as more valuable forms of existence, while being considered unintelligent or insane renders a person a leper, an outcast, a debased kind of human less worthy of existence. I think that differences in neurotype exist, but that those differences do not imply that one neurotype is better than the other. This notion is disablist and harmful to people with intellectual disabilities and psychiatric disabilities.

As I have said repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere, nobody is worth more or less than anyone else because of how their mind works. People’s value is inherent in their humanity. There are ways to defend one’s ability to hold office without clinging to the notion that having an intellectual or psychatric disability reduces people’s worth.

Focussing on Trump’s mental faculties presents the risk of disablist interpretations of his mentation and furthermore serves as a distraction from his real faults. His policies and those of his lackeys and worshippers are oppressive. He is mendacious in the extreme; he lies as surely as he breathes and lacks a concept of objective truth, only ‘truths’ that are convenient for him. He is corrupt and uses his office as a means to enrich himself further. Trump’s asinine tweets reveal that he is a man entirely lacking in scruples or common sense. He engages in morally reprehensible behaviour.

Trump is a terrible man, but that need not be attributed to his apparent sanity, intelligence, or lack thereof. Our criticisms of him must be predicated on his directly observable actions, not hypothetical conditions that we cannot objectively evaluate. We cannot determine from his tweets how sane or intelligent he is, but we can more clearly determine his incompetence from the effects that his atrocious presidency has exerted upon the US and the world at large.

Les périls de considérer les intelligent(e)s comme meilleur(e)s que les autres

(version française de l’article ‘The perils of attaching value judgements to intelligence’. Toutes mes excuses pour mes erreurs grammatiques ou orthographiques ; l’anglais est ma langue maternelle.)

(Avertissement : cet article contient des mentions du racisme et du préjugé contre les handicapé(e)s)

Il n’est pas mal, bien sûr, d’être intelligent(e) ou de s’interesser à l’apprentissage, mais on ne doit pas dire que les personnes intelligentes sont meilleures que les autres. La surévaluation continuelle de l’intelligence, ou l’apprentissage rapide, en comparaison avec les autres traits comme la générosité, est dangereuse.

Comme j’ai déjà dit dans un autre article, j’apprends vite et j’étais considéré comme «surdoué» à l’enfance, mais je ne suis pas du tout meilleur que les autres. Ma valeur vient d’être humain, et mon caractère moral vient de mon comportement, pas mon intelligence, ni mes autres caracteristiques innées. C’est juste que j’apprends rapidement. C’est ce que je fais avec cet apprentissage rapide qui compte. Je veux apprendre des manières de faire le monde plus juste et plus gentil.

Je me souvenais des dangers d’associer des valeurs morales et qualitatives à l’intelligence en découvrant le site de Paul Cooijmans, un soi-disant expert sur l’intelligence. Son site est souvent cité comme une source bien informée sur l’intelligence, la personnalité et des autres traits (tous les liens sont en anglais). Il est vrai que la plupart des gens qui le citent ne sont pas des journalistes, mais les articles du Spectator et de BoingBoing sont des exceptions. Je n’ai vu personne critiquer son contenu épouvantable ; donc, je me suis décidé de le faire. Ses articles ont l’air de venir d’un discours de Hitler ou un tract américain sur l’eugénisme du XXième siècle.

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Twice-Exceptionality: Autism and Fast Learning (1)

I was identified as ‘twice-exceptional’ growing up: I was labelled both autistic (PDD-NOS; changed to Asperger Syndrome in mid-childhood after the publication of the DSM-IV) and ‘gifted’. My learning differences and my atypical way of perceiving and interacting with the world made it painfully difficult to fit in. This series of posts describes some of my experiences growing up twice-exceptional, and what it currently looks like for me as an adult in my early thirties.

The Early Years

Funnily enough, before I was about two, professionals originally thought I would have grow up to have an intellectual disability. At least one doctor declared that I would ‘never learn’ when it was clear that I showed some signs of developmental delay. This perception changed, though, around when I was between two and a half and three. I taught myself to read between the ages of two and three. This was the point at which it was clear that I didn’t have an intellectual disability in the slightest. My parents historically said I started to read at three, but I remember knowing how to do it before then. Honestly, I can’t remember not being able to read. I managed to read through my collection of Golden Books and board books and soon graduated to my mother’s cookbooks – an Oster blender cookbook and Richard Simmons Deal-A-Meal cookbooks immediately come to mind – and a book about toilet-training, as they were the only adult-level books I wasn’t forbidden to read—my parents’ books primarily consisted of Harlequin Romances, Tom Clancy thrillers and sports books. Barring that, I’d read the labels on boxes of food or shampoo bottles. By the time I was six, I read at a twelfth-grade level.

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The perils of attaching value judgements to intelligence

Content warning: references to disablism, racism, misogyny, other hatefulness

The continual valuation of intelligence, or fast learning1, over other personal traits is dangerous. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with being a fast learner or being interested in learning, but there is a problem with attaching an absolute value judgement to intelligence. As I said in my most recent entry prior to this one, I’m a reasonably fast learner myself and grew up with a ‘gifted’ label, but I don’t see myself as being better than anybody else. My worth comes from my being human, and my moral character is determined by my behaviour, not any inborn characteristic I may have. I just happen to learn quickly. It’s what I do with it that matters, and I choose to study ways to make the world fairer and kinder.

I was reminded of the perils of attaching moral and qualitative values to people’s intelligence when coming across the website of the so-called intelligence expert, Paul Cooijmans. His website is often quoted as an authoritative source of information on intelligence, personality and other traits, and he hosts a number of tests and quizzes ready for social-media sharing. (Admittedly, most of the people citing him aren’t reporting for major media sources, but the Spectator and BoingBoing articles are exceptions.) I haven’t seen anybody else criticise his awful content, so I decided to do it. Are people not paying attention, or are they so ensconced in privilege that they can afford to ignore it? His material often sounds as though it could have come straight from a Nazi speech or an American eugenics leaflet from the early 20th century.

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Fast learners are not better than other people

(CW: ableist slurs.)

It is not nice to say that fast learners are better than other people. That is because it is mean to people who learn more slowly. It is not bad to learn slowly. It is not bad to be a fast learner either. Everyone can learn something. We just need different ways to learn things. That is OK.

But some people treat fast learners like they are better than other people. That is not nice. I am a fast learner. I am not better than somebody who learns more slowly than I do. I just have different learning needs.

Some people call fast learners gifted. There are many problems with that. Gifted is not a good word. Calling fast learners gifted is not fair. That is because it feels like people who learn slowly are not as good. People also say fast learners are intelligent. Intelligent comes from a Latin word meaning reading between. That means that we see patterns quickly. Other words people use for fast learners are smart, sharp, bright or clever. People think they are nice words. Sometimes they give a message that slower learners are not worth as much. Some people use these words to say it’s better to learn fast. This is unfair.

Some people learn more slowly than others. They can learn, but it takes more time for them to pick things up. That is OK. They are people and everyone is able to learn something. They just need more time. People say that slow learners have intellectual disabilities. This just means they take longer to learn. Sometimes people use mean words about slow learners. Some of these unkind words include retarded, idiot, stupid and dumb. We should not call slower learners these words. These words are hurtful. 

I think everyone deserves to learn things in their own time. I think that people can be good or bad no matter how they learn. We are all people. We should not judge people by how fast they learn.

Fonts & Typography Infodump

Fonts and Typography Infodump!

So you’re tired of using Times New Roman, Calibri and Cambria. You’d like to use something other than the fonts that come with Microsoft Office, MacOS, Windows or Linux. Here’s what I’ve learned about fonts and typography over the years – I’m a predominantly self-taught typographer who’s learned about text layout and type choices through trial, error and a lot of reading. If there’s anything missing from this guide that you’d be interested in seeing, please let me know in either the comments or via Twitter at @phineasfrogg.


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Why I’ve rejected many American standards in my personal work

I’ve consciously rejected a number of American standards in my personal writing: specifically, date formatting, measurements, punctuation and spellings. This isn’t an attempt to be fancy as much as it is my frustration with this country’s categorical rejection of international standards. Also, I lived in Western Europe for seven years and was influenced by my experiences growing up. At one point, my online social circle was primarily Australians and their tendencies rubbed off on me too.

Of course, I’ll adapt myself for work projects! I haven’t insisted on using British spellings in my work projects because that would look weird. I’ll write in whatever house style I’m using at the time, or something close to it if I’m being edited. I’m pretty good at code-switching between different styles when I need to. But when I write for myself, I avoid these Trumpy standards.

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Taxpayers First!

…Or why Trump’s budget, DACA repeal, trans military service ban and ‘health care’ plan come from the same ethos

CW: Trump, eugenics, Nazism/Hitler, classism, disablism, racism, anti-trans discrimination

Over the past nine months of his illegitimate presidency, Donald Trump has systemically targeted marginalised people under the classist, disablist, eugenicist principle that certain people cost too much. The idea that disabled and chronically ill people’s healthcare costs too much spawned the numerous failed Congressional Trumpcare bills and Trump’s executive order gutting the Affordable Care Act. Trump justified banning transgender people from serving in the US military through the claim that the cost of trans people’s care was a ‘tremendous burden’. When the Trump regime attempted to rescind DACA, the implication was the lives of undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country at a young age cost too much. The proposed Republican budget, which Trump has touted repeatedly on Twitter and elsewhere, implies that the lives of rich people are more valuable than those of poor, working-class or middle-class people. We’re all nutzlose Fresser, useless eaters.

[An edited version of the pro-eugenics 'Neues Volk' Nazi advertisement that says 'Steuerzahler Zuerst: das neue Budget der republikanischen Partei', or 'Taxpayers First: the new Republican Party budget. I made this back in May back when the Republicans' budget was posted online.]

[An edited version of the pro-eugenics ‘Neues Volk’ Nazi advertisement that says ‘Steuerzahler Zuerst: das neue Budget der republikanischen Partei’, or ‘Taxpayers First: the new Republican Party budget. I made this back in May back when the Republicans’ budget was posted online.]

Trump’s policies recall those of repressive governments whose entire goal is to inflict harm on vulnerable people. The Nazis come to mind, though I’m speaking of the early Nazi years, not the more recognisable late regime that fell in 1945. Remember that the Nazis didn’t start off with death camps like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Treblinka. They started off by instituting policies that ostensibly allowed people they thought inferior to live, but that restricted their ability to participate in public life. When they did start killing people, again, they didn’t start with Auschwitz. Hitler’s first killing campaign was Aktion T-4, the ‘euthanasia’ programme that targeted people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Hitler targeted ‘degenerate’ art and research like Magnus Hirschfeld’s transgender studies. The Nazis slowly stripped Jews of their civil rights before Hitler sent them to death camps.

A set of US posters promoting eugenics. Many of them combine racism along with disablism.

In turn, the Nazis picked up many of their ideas about eugenics from precedents set in the United States. There’s a long American tradition of persecuting disabled people. American eugenicists used IQ tests to segregate, sterilise and marginalise people considered disabled according to their test results. Lengthy genealogies of ‘degenerate’ families like the Jukes and Kallikaks connected disability to crime and poverty. Pro-eugenics posters claimed that disabled people cost too much to keep alive. Sterilisation of people deemed intellectually disabled was upheld by the Supreme Court in Buck v Bell.

Trump may not think of things in strictly ideological terms, but he has surrounded himself by people who certainly do.

  • Trump has affiliated himself with white nationalists, some of whom I’ll list here – Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, Stephen Miller, Jeff Sessions and others. He has also associated with Religious Right ideologues like Jerry Falwell Jr, Paula White and James Dobson. These right-wing Christians come from a variety of theological positions. Some are classic hard-line fire-and-brimstone fundamentalists, whereas others are prosperity preachers. All of them, however, advocate against the civil rights of LGBTQ+ people. Many of Trump’s anti-trans policies are drawn straight from the playbook laid out by the Family Research Council, a Religious Right lobbying organisation and hate group.
  • Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka and Stephen Miller, all current or former official White House advisers, are ideological fascists. Fascism exists in ideological contraposition to disability rights. Fascism values the strong and disparages those they consider weak.
  • Mike Pence is an extremist evangelical Christian. Right-wing evangelicals like Pence believe that people who do not follow their religion’s strictures deserve to suffer. Pence may not be as shouty as Trump or as blatant as Bannon, but he is dangerous and needs to be watched. When listing out the dangerous people who increase the danger the Trumpocalypse presents, never forget Mike Pence.
  • Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, is an Ayn Rand devotee who would prop up Hitler himself if he could still slash benefits for poor and disabled people. Ayn Rand’s philosophy valued strength over weakness, and thought that people she found weak didn’t deserve to live. Though Rand wouldn’t have called herself a Nazi, many of her thoughts on poverty and disability are compatible with fascist ideology. Ryan’s transatlantic analogue is Iain Duncan Smith, the UK Member of Parliament and former Secretary for Work and Pensions who oversaw draconian budget cuts that caused the death and suffering of many British disabled people. Like Pence, Ryan knows how to couch his hatred of vulnerable people in socially acceptable rhetoric, but he’s just as dangerous as Trump is.
  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions is on record as claiming that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a burdensome imposition on teachers. He has also scaled back disability rights enforcement in comparison to Barack Obama’s Attorneys General, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch. He has also pushed Trump to withdraw Obama-era guidance on trans protections in schools. As a Republican senator he consistently supported the needs of the rich, white and powerful over the needs of vulnerable people. Sessions is a predator. He’s more affable than Trump, but Sessions’ zeal in reversing the strides made under the Obama administration reveals the danger he presents.
  • Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch – a Trump appointee – also has a record of minimising and restricting the rights of marginalised people, including disabled people and LGBTQ+ people.
  • The House Freedom Caucus is full of Tea Party Republicans. Like Ryan, Freedom Caucus members are fixated on tax cuts and benefit cuts.

Related Reading:

  • Kit Mead’s Paginated Thoughts blog often discusses the history of disability, eugenics and bioethics.
  • At Shakesville, Melissa McEwan has written extensively about Mike Pence’s toxic history as a governor, congressman and vice president.
  • @EbThen on Twitter has tweeted quite a bit about the Nazis’ T4 programme and the American inspiration for many Nazi atrocities.

The scourge of Trumpiness

Despite the title, this post is less about Donald Trump, the man, and more about a form of American nationalism that he exemplifies. Trump is loud and obnoxious and obviously objectionable to decent people, but he’s a symptom rather than the cause. 

Trumpiness is the pervasive – and incorrect – assumption that American culture, people and politics are intrinsically more valuable than those of other countries. In short: ‘America First!’ It is about how one sees oneself in contrast with people from other countries. It is about how one believes foreign policy ought to be conducted. Trumpiness is an aggressive small-mindedness that arises from national solipsism. It is self-absorption to the point of wilful ignorance about the rest of the world. It’s the chauvinistic ‘America First!’ mindset that Trump crows about, even if the individual practitioner of Trumpiness doesn’t realise they sound like him.

I should emphasise that I’m not talking about people who are focussed on national politics because of Trump’s hateful policies. That’s not chauvinism as much as it is self-preservation. People can be marginalised within powerful countries; see: Flint, Standing Rock, Grenfell Tower, Tory disability cuts, French banlieues or the persecution of the Ainu people. Trumpiness is an expression of centrality, not marginalisation. 

Trumpiness can be either intentional or inadvertent. Sometimes people don’t even register that they’re doing it. That’s almost scarier than the people who deliberately adopt this mindset. I’ve pointed out Trumpy things and some people don’t see the problem, possibly because they’ve become so inured to it that it doesn’t register to them. 

What does Trumpiness look like in practice? 

  • CNN reporting on 10 Americans dying in a plane crash, but neglecting to talk about the 40 other people who died with them, or the impact of hurricanes on Texas and Florida, but not Barbuda or Haiti.
  • Thinking American things are objectively better just because they’re American.
  • American software companies neglecting to add spellcheckers for any dialect of English used outside the United States, or referring to their dialect as unmarked English in opposition to British English, Canadian English and Australian English. Yes, Trumpiness can be used to exclude people in influential imperial or colonial countries who are comparatively privileged on the world stage. 
  • Newspapers covering very little news about anywhere outside the 50 US states – not even Canada, Mexico or US territories like Puerto Rico, Guam or the US Virgin Islands. 
  • Destabilising the Middle East to get cheap oil.
  • Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement because you think climate change is ‘fake news’ and a hoax invented by the Chinese government to make US manufacturing non-competitive. 
  • Using an American flag to represent the English language. (You shouldn’t use flags at all.) 
  • Not following international standards on weights and measures and not realising that very few other countries use your particular standards. 

One of the saddest things about the entire thing is when non-Americans absorb Trumpiness. I’ve seen Trumpy attitudes from people who may not be American themselves, but are strongly influenced by American culture and fail to question certain assumptions they may have inadvertently absorbed from their American counterparts. I’ve come across cases where British or Australian writers contort themselves to write like Americans because of the Trumpy assumption that Americans cannot tolerate seeing or hearing other kinds of English. Developers in non-English-speaking countries (or even non-American countries, for other native English-speakers) are rarely able to work primarily in their own language. 

America, naturally, isn’t the only country guilty of its own kind of Trumpiness. Britain, for example, has its Brexit-supporting, Daily Mail-reading ‘Little Englanders’. They are convinced that leaving the European Union will bring sovereignty and prosperity. Brexit will instead bring economic and social decline owing to their wrong-headed idea that isolating one’s country from the rest of the world will restore the ‘greatness’ of the British Empire. These are the people who fetishise pounds and stones, inches and miles, and old-fashioned blue passports. The same could be said about French people, Japanese people, Chinese people, Mexicans or anybody else who pushes the ideology that their culture is intrinsically superior or more important than others’. It’s just that American chauvinism is the loudest and most powerful right now; there’s nothing intrinsic to Americans or any other group of people that makes them automatically more chauvinistic than others. Nothing is better just because it’s American (or German, South African, Russian, Chilean, Thai, Ghanaian, etc). 

For all that is good in the world, please don’t be Trumpy. Be aware of your biases. Watch for chauvinism, especially since it’s part of what brought us Trump and Brexit in the first place. 

50+ Autistic People You Should Know!

I recently published 50+ Autistic People You Should Know on NOS Magazine! I admit that the list is a bit US-centric, but that was mostly because I was listing people I knew personally or whose work I was reasonably familiar with. I didn’t just want to get a bunch of names and put a list of people there without vetting them. I’d actually like to work on a second follow-up list that’s less US-centric, since US-centrism is one of the things I make a concerted effort to try and avoid.

The trials of being a ‘good’ neurodivergent person

Sam Dylan Finch wrote about being a ‘good’ mentally ill person for The Establishment a few days ago. Though we have different diagnoses, I can still relate to the article rather intensely. My entire life has been a struggle to be the ‘good’ neurodivergent person. I’m autistic and have generalised anxiety disorder and depression, along with a few other brain things. I’ve been trained since early childhood to pass as neurotypical, starting with my early years in a preschool specifically for kids with disabilities and a speech and language pathologist I saw once after starting mainstream preschool.

Self-awareness has become a double-edged sword; on the one hand, I appreciate being able to understand myself more fully, but on the other, I struggle with intense self-consciousness. Growing up, I had every conspicuous neurodivergent trait scrutinised constantly by parents, teachers and other adults. I was told to have quiet hands, to stop dancing in the hallways, to stop twitching, to stop talking to myself. I was pressured into giving near-perfect eye contact even though it felt as though people’s eyes were boring into my soul when I looked at them. Everything was part of a concerted effort to make me indistinguishable from my peers. ‘Don’t do that! People will think you’re crazy.’ ‘Don’t do that. Other people don’t do that.’ I internalised a fear of People, with a capital P, and what they would think of the way I presented myself in the world. It grew even worse when I was a teenager and my parents started attributing some of my differences to Satan after they got involved with fundamentalist Christianity.

Even though I’ve long since rejected the idea that it is better for autistic people to pretend not to be autistic, it is still difficult for me to interact with people outside the disability community or my close friend circle without feigning neurotypical. I don’t judge other people for not ‘passing’, but I do judge myself terribly.

Even around people who do know I’m autistic and will probably expect less eye contact and more stimming, I still don’t feel right doing those things.

I feel as though I’m under constant scrutiny for my race, disability and queerness. It’s already hard to exist when you hear stories of yet another black person being shot by the police, new efforts by far-right governments to kill disabled people slowly through Social Darwinism in the form of budget cuts, or social conservative bullies trying to scare trans people out of existence through bathroom bills and constant barrages of hate speech. In order to be a respectable, credible advocate, I have to be performatively sane. I’m terrified of being institutionalised. I’ve never been in a psych hospital, but I’ve been threatened with it. I worry that dropping some of these performances will hurt my advocacy. Some of this is admittedly irrational and borne of anxiety; I know of other disability advocates who talk about their mental health neurodivergences with much more candour than I can muster. With so many intersecting forms of marginalisation, I feel there’s something I need to cling to in order to be heard. I reject respectability politics on principle, but have thoroughly imbibed it in my daily life because I feel I have to.

When I drop the mask, I’m much more conspicuously different from non-autistic and other neurotypical people. I talk to myself to keep my thoughts straight. I flap, I roll, I twiddle and spin. In fact, there isn’t a coherent, centralised ‘I’ here, but a number of different ghosts in this pain-ridden, fatigue-beset machine. I can make a good simulacrum of a centralised self, though. All these things take work to suppress. It’s exhausting. All that energy being used when it could be going towards things that would actually help me get through day-to-day life. I just want to relax, but I feel I can’t. Even at home I try not to do these things too often, even when my door is shut and nobody is watching. Though I’m crazy, I don’t want to seem too crazy. I support open neurodivergence in theory, but the praxis is daunting. I wonder: how much of this is necessary to survive, and how much of it will ultimately kill me by making me too exhausted to exist?

Book Review: Autism’s Stepchild, by Phyllis Grilikhes

Though there are many narratives about children on the autism spectrum told by professionals and specialists, Phyllis Grilikhes’s Autism’s Stepchild (2016) stands out because of its historical perspective on the interpretation of autistic traits before the diagnosis became commonplace. Grilikhes’s narrative tells the story of a young girl, Jean, who would be diagnosed with autism nowadays, but in the 1940s and 50s was treated as a psychological oddity, a medical curiosity to be examined and scrutinised with no conclusive explanations for her seemingly abnormal behaviour. Jean’s story is told primarily through her mother, Dora, whom Grilikhes interviewed to capture her perspective as a mother navigating a frequently baffling and hostile medical system in order to secure appropriate care and education for Jean. Dora’s fight is interwoven with Grilikhes’s account of her personal relationship with Jean; Grilikhes worked as an aide for Jean for some years in Berkeley, California, before losing touch with the family after changing careers. We find out about Jean’s relationship with the famed psychologist Erik Erikson; her experiences with institutions and specialised schools that were entirely at sea when faced with somebody whose disability profile did not match the common diagnoses of the day; her abiding friendship with Grilikhes, who nurtured her creativity; and her tumultuous transition from childhood to adolescence and adulthood. Grilikhes has an engaging prose style, effortlessly drawing the reader into her narrative. One gets the sense that one knows Dora’s experiences intimately through Grilikhes’s retelling. Jean, however, is portrayed as mysterious – something of a black box, really – and this comparative lack of insight into Jean’s interpretation of the world may stem from Jean’s struggles with expressive language and Grilikhes’s own prejudices regarding autism.

Though Grilikhes is well-intentioned and seems to care genuinely for Jean and her family’s welfare, Autism’s Stepchild occasionally reflects common—and misguided—cultural tropes about autism and other disabilities. Some of these errors can be explained by the time in which the narrative takes place, but when Grilikhes is speaking in the present tense, it is glaring and mars an otherwise sympathetic narrative. She routinely refers to autistic people and other people with developmental disabilities as being ‘disturbed’ or having ‘mental illnesses’, showing a surprising ignorance of current language used about and by people with developmental disabilities. This would be somewhat more understandable in a layperson, but Grilikhes is a psychologist with years of experience working with people with disabilities and should be aware of changing terminology. She also falls prey to the ‘puzzle of autism’ narrative, in which autistic people are treated as inscrutable oddities—she even uses the word ‘inscrutable’ towards the beginning of the book—rather than fully ensouled people.

Most gallingly, Grilikhes cites the work of Ivar Lovaas – a research psychologist and the creator of what is now known as Applied Behaviour Analysis – as a positive, humanising figure who helped autistic people come into their own and navigate the world more adeptly than they would have without his treatment. According to Grilikhes, Lovaas played an instrumental role in helping Jean adapt to her environment more successfully than she had before. The laudatory treatment that Grilikhes gives Lovaas whitewashes the cruelty that he often inflicted on his patients. At the beginning of his career as a behaviourist, Lovaas used cattle prods and electric shocks to ‘correct’ his students’ behaviour. Though he later shifted to less physically harmful methods, there is no evidence that he fully recanted. Lovaas also collaborated with the disgraced George Rekers, a Christian Right therapist, on ‘conversion therapy’ that used electric shocks and other abusive methods to make gay and gender-non-conforming boys seem straight. The abuse that Lovaas inflicted on generations of students does not merit applause. What was done to these young people was cruel and inhumane, and it is morally irresponsible to ignore his record of maltreatment.

Autism’s Stepchild is worth reading to understand historical approaches to autism identification and treatment; however, Grilikhes’s uncritical treatment of Ivar Lovaas’ therapeutic methods, the inaccurate language, and the ‘puzzle’ stereotype of autism make it difficult for me to recommend it without reservation.

(Disclosure: the author sent me a copy of the book to be reviewed.)

Evangelical Authoritarians and their Angry God (cw: religious abuse, rape, incest, anti-LGBTQ discrimination)

For people who don’t understand how the evangelical, usually Protestant, far-right exerts its influence on conservative Republican politics: let me explain, from the perspective of a social scientist and as a survivor of an evangelical Republican household who held these kinds of beliefs. If you’re unfamiliar with how authoritarian evangelicalism works, it seems utterly ludicrous that Republican politicians continue to pursue their anti-woman and anti-LGBTQ political agenda despite increasing public opposition. Marriage equality and legal abortion enjoy the support of a majority of Americans, but Republicans continue to oppose it steadfastly.

The God of these evangelicals is an authoritarian God who brooks no dissent from the party line. People who disagree with them are members of The World, working to advance Satan’s mission and subvert the will of God. Politics is not merely about competing policies and legislative priorities; it’s spiritual warfare. When conservative Christians battle against marriage equality, transgender rights or abortion, they literally believe that they are using political positions to battle against Satan and his legions of demons. And the stakes couldn’t be higher: if you don’t follow your denomination’s rules exactly, you’re going to hell. Permanent separation from God and his kingdom, and eternal torture as punishment. They’re inculcated with a visceral fear of going to hell, and they don’t want you to go there either. This results in conservative evangelicals encouraging theology and public policy that mandates conformity to their moral and social code, or ostracism for those who don’t. Persuasion isn’t enough for authoritarians. They want you – and the rest of society – to comply. It’s like the Borg from Star Trek; they want you to be assimilated.

Acts 10:34, a Bible passage often misused by conservative evangelicals to justify their position, states that ‘God is not a respecter of persons’. Within a more progressive Christian practice, God’s not being a ‘respecter of persons’ means rejecting partisanship, ethnocentrism and humanity’s foibles: our pettiness, our need for approval instead of doing what is right for those around us, our selfishness, our wantonness, our indifference to others’ suffering. For authoritarian Christians, however, this passage means rejecting the humane in favour of the inhumane in the name of God.

Evangelical Protestant preachers also teach that salvation comes not from good works, but through unalloyed faith in Jesus. It doesn’t matter whether you hide away in a gilded tower, hoarding wealth and treating poor people with disdain, or if you devote your life to helping your community. What matters ultimately is your devotion to Christ. Good works are encouraged by some evangelicals, but they are secondary. Naturally, devotion to Christ means adherence to all the legalistic rules that the authoritarian right considers necessary for entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s easy to support laws that starve poor and disabled people when acts of decency are secondary.

This is why Republican governors like Mike Pence and Pat McCrory push through regressive laws attacking reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights in their states, or why the Republican National Committee produced the most anti-LGBTQ platform in their history during the 2016 Republican National Convention, or why Republican politicians like the supposedly ‘moderate’ Marco Rubio and John Kasich support abortion bans without exceptions for rape or incest. They literally do not care about equal protection. Caring about equality means that they reject authoritarian Christianity. Worldly stakes don’t matter in comparison. They won’t budge because they’ve been conditioned to believe that changing their minds about marriage equality, abortion or trans rights means that they’re going to be roasting in hell after they die. This is why authoritarian conservative evangelicalism is so dangerous: it promotes social inequality and discrimination under the guise of devotion to a loving God, and it inoculates itself against dissent by promising eternal torture to everyone who strays away from the straight and narrow.

Can we put ‘economic anxiety’ to rest?

One month after the election and there’s still people with their hot takes about Why Hillary Lost, Why It Must Be Economic Anxiety! If Bernie Had Won, He Would Be President!

So Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer and David Duke must be economically anxious. People saying stuff like ‘Trump That Bitch’ are economically anxious. People who’ve been calling Obama the N-word for 8 years must be economically anxious. The Ku Klux Klan celebrating Trump’s ‘win’ must be economically anxious. People waving Confederate flags at Trump rallies must be economically anxious. Two Trump supporters beating up a homeless Latino man in Boston in Trump’s name must be because of economic anxiety. People trying to ram through unpopular anti-LGBTQ laws like North Carolina’s bathroom bill must totally be economically anxious.

No, no, no, and a million times, fuck no. This is bullshit. This is an attempt to dismiss what’s being done to women, people of colour, Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ+ people and anyone else who’s at risk under Trump. Basically Trump got ‘elected’ because of a perfect storm of reasons and you’re going to say that it’s just because Hillary Clinton was a bad candidate and she should’ve ignored PoC and women in favour of the ‘Reagan Democrat’ white rust belt voters?

Look, I voted for Bernie. But this is bullshit. It’s dangerous, specious, racist garbage that I’m really fucking tired of hearing from a bunch of entitled white dudes who will be just fine under Trump. I know these guys won’t lift a damn finger to help people who are more vulnerable to what Trump, Pence and the rest of the Republicans are going to do.

I’m not saying Clinton was a perfect candidate. But she got almost 3 million more votes than Trump. There were things that hurt her towards the end like certain partisan Republican FBI agents like James Comey and the NY office that was close with Rudy Giuliani. Russia was out there trying to swing the election for Trump and there’s growing evidence that Trump’s campaign knew about it. Republican voter suppression was a thing in a lot of states, including swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina that would’ve helped Clinton. This was the first general election without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.

And you’re going to say that it’s just because of economic anxiety. Do you know how I read that? ‘Shut up, minorities, we don’t care about you, and we will gladly throw you under the bus.’ You basically want a left-wing Trump-centred entirely on white interests and continuing to marginalise women, POC, religious minorities and LGBTQ+ people. Fuck you, and fuck the racist Cheeto you’re making excuses for. You are not helping.

Fascism’s at the door. Vladimir Putin’s just threatened our sovereignty. The Klan is marching in the South. And you’re still whining about Bernie Sanders? Give me a fucking break.