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Saturday, December 29, 2012

"Autism" As Neither Subhumanizing Nor Superhumanizing

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot an "Anonymous" reader declares:
A sizeable wing of the 'new young improved' transhumanists are self diagnosed "Asperger" "autistics" who rail at "neuro-typicals" and claim specifically that their lack of empathy, lack f ability to read social cues and specifically their sociopathy (they do indeed claim that specific word) makes them human+ and closer to the Great Robot. They make a lot of allusions to a "new evolution" of "mutant xmen" autistics as "homo superior." Brain damage makes a better (trans)human! whoda thunkit?
I replied:

I must say I do not sympathize with the suggestion that everybody who might be posited to be on the "autism spectrum" should be thought of as brain damaged! I actually do sympathize with a measure of the politics of differently enabled folks who refuse enforced morphological norming or neurotypicality in the name of eugenic "optimality" or even as homogenizing "ends in themselves."

Much of my problem here arises from my sense of the incredible looseness of the notion of autism spectrum especially given what seems to be its growing popularity as an explanatory/ justificatory figure in public discourse. I daresay self-identification with the spectrum re-framed as super-humanizing is a compensation for abusive assignments to the spectrum that are abjecting. Neither move seems to me particularly useful.

Equity-in-diversity is a democratic virtue, and a fraught one. I default to a generous sense of consent -- where legibly informed and nonduressed citizens affirm wanted lifeways that pose no harm I tend to support them, whether they are normal or not. The legibility of consent imposes some limits on diversity itself, beyond that I think we need to be awfully careful.

This reply of mine generated a number of comments documenting the evidence of brain damage and pathology in some children diagnosed with autism, none of which seems to me to be called into question by my comment, but there you go. I elaborated:

"Autism spectrum" is also a DISCOURSE, very loosely formulated and yet generating very real effects of stigma (or worse) in its assignment, arising out of a historical context in which medical diagnoses regularly function to police arbitrary bourgeois norms, playing out in a current American context in which hyper-individualism is asserted while conformity is ferociously enforced.

I do not deny the existence of the condition, I do not deny the utility of treatments, I am simply insisting on care in judgment in the face of ambiguity. But, to be clear, neither do I countenance another hysterical public health panic from Americans driven by a perfect storm of authoritarian predilection and media sensationalism.

It is interesting that you publish this wall of evidence as if my call to recognize context and some nuances here is tantamount to denialism about mental health problems. Quite to the contrary, I regard mental health problems as rampant, and their stigmatization and mischaracterization exacerbates these problems terribly -- almost as much as lack of funding for public support does, to the extent that these issues can even be disentangled.

I will add here that as a queer person I am well aware of the ways in which "objective diagnoses" by well-meaning well-educated mental health care specialists exacerbated through what they were sure was support the misery of countless lgbtq folks, all the while seeing the misery in which they collaborated always only as more evidence of the dis-ease they sought to ameliorate. To this day, I am troubled by bio-reductionist accounts explaining differences in the brains of non-heterosexual subjects always in terms of excesses and deficiencies, smuggling pathologizing norms into apparently neutral diagnoses.

There definitely are such things as diagnosable mental health problems with objective symptoms and useful treatments. But there is no such thing as a perfect child, there are endlessly many different ways to flourish. There is no such thing as a non-problematic upbringing, maturation and socialization are always profoundly demanding, stressful, and probably ineradicably traumatic. There is no such thing as an optimally healthy individual, precisely because individuality consists in the different ends the facilitation of which demand we be differently capacitated. I am not prepared to deny all that may be described as autism in its difference its potential for flourishing or its contribution to culture, not to deny support or care where it is needed or wanted. Again, equity-in-diversity is a truly fraught democratic value, but I do think it enjoins us to resist an either-or here.

"Nothing About Us Without Us," seems to me a powerful recognition of the connection of a scene of consent as the ongoing democratic adjudication of the dialectic of equity in diversity, it is a slogan that seems to me to resonate beyond the field of disability politics (I prefer the term differently enabled anyway), just as the slogan "Keep Your Laws Off Of My Body" resonates beyond reproductive rights to encompass queer legalization and ending the racist war on drugs.


Anonymous said...

Loss of the capability of empathy is dehumanizing. H+ needs to be honestly labeled as H- as they are at least in their fantasy life striving to be inhuman and machine-like. Sociopaths are held in esteem by these peculiar and sad individuals and held up as role models, and they do claim austism in many cases as justification and "evolution in action." They aren't trans(beyond)human, they are in fact fetishistic of subhuman conditions! Even an incredibly "intelligent" machine is subhuman, will always be subhuman.

"The target of the Jihad was a machine-attitude as much as the machines," Leto said. "Humans had set those machines to usurp our sense of beauty, our necessary selfdom out of which we make living judgments. Naturally, the machines were destroyed." - F. Herbert

Dale Carrico said...

Well, I am the last one to be defending silly reactionary pseudo-scientific transhumanoids, but I will say that I find their follies human, all too human. If you want to scout for dangerous sociopaths crying out for diagnosis and treatment I personally think you would do better to head to Wall Street than Second Life.

Anonymous said...

The ones I have observed continually socialize and organize parties. They do not have an accurate comprehension of autism, and they appear to be self diagnosed. The speak of 'owning' the terms 'sociopath' and 'border line personality' as 'empowering', etc. These are not real autistics, this is another popular flavor of their card deck of delusions, and a nifty excuse for asshole behavior ie "I'm autistic, I can't help I am free of your moral constraints! I am the Voice of the New Evolution!"

(paraphrased from one of their very own transhumanist pulpit twitter accounts)

These antics further stigmatize and alienate real autistics.

Dale Carrico said...


jollyspaniard said...

You lost me at autism speaks. These peole aren't scientists, although they do misquote them on a regular basis. If you're really interested and passionate about the subject don't get your information from them. They are conspiracy theory obsessed quacks who don't perform any research, they simply lie about other people's research.

You don't have to read academic papers on the subject but I suggest reading the synopsis of a few. Or alternatively Google Science Blogs. There's a lot of scientist bloggers there who have covered this subject including more debunking of autism speaks thank you can shake a stick at. And no they aren't part of a global conspiracy.

Any deluded nutter with an agenda can selectively quote two or three words from an academic paper to distort it into anything they want. Sometimes they don't even bother selectively quoting they just out and out lie.

The scientists who actually perform the research that they're talking about absolutely loathe these guys.

There's been outbreaks of measles in south america and other parts of the developing world attributable to the children of visiting unvaccinated westerners. Measles kills a few hundred thousand kids a year in these countries but hopes of eradicating it anytime soon have been dashed thanks to folkds like Autism Speaks spreading conspiracy theories.

Oh and some of these people sell extremely expensive alternative therapies. So they're proifting off the deaths of these kids too.

Dale Carrico said...

Think you may actually be replying to a comment in the Moot to this post, but the "autism" conversation seems to be happening both places at once somewhat...

Wladimir said...

Agree with your article; I wouldn't take such claims of superiority too serious. To me it seems more like a in-group reactionary stance because of all the bullying that happens to people in the autism spectrum (and has always happened but may be even worse these days). It's very easy to feel subhuman as a result, and thus claims to be superior (to whom?) in some capacity sound reassuring.
Taking that to the extreme, some people identify more with machines than humans, possibly because they feel that humans betrayed them and that machines are also "subhuman" but are of utmost importance to keeping civilization running.
They may also feel that blocking empathy keeps out the pain and thus somehow desirable.
Not because it's superior, but I guess that's the way self-rationalization works.

jollyspaniard said...

Yes I am sorry for not making that clear.

jimf said...

> They speak of 'owning' the terms 'sociopath' and 'borderline personality'
> as 'empowering'. . . [T]his is another popular flavor of their card deck
> of delusions, and a nifty excuse for asshole behavior. . .
> ". . .I am free of your moral constraints!
> I am the Voice of the New Evolution!"

Yes, well, of course the SFnal notion of a "Hampdenshire Wonder",
an "Odd John" or a "Slan" has been floating around for more
than a century, and almost half a century ago SF blended
with New Age in the concept of the "Indigo Child".

And now, the temptation exists for anybody with difficulties,
or with a difficult child, to claim to be the "next
step in human evolution".
The Indigo Child concept may appeal especially
to parents of children with mental health challenges,
e.g. ADD, ADHD, autism, bi-polar disorder,
conduct disorder, or a difficult temperament. . .

[C]hildren are led to believe by trusted
adults that they were born members of a new
breed of the human race, the next step in
human evolution, that their genes were somehow
altered -- perhaps as a result of divine or
extraterrestrial intervention, or spontaneous
genetic mutation accomplished by none other
than the children themselves. Some children
come to believe they are endowed with
extraordinary powers such as clairvoyance,
clairaudience, clairsentience, healing powers,
pre-birth and previous life
recall, etc. . .
By laying these harebrained expectations on kids,
the New Agers are building a whole generation of
narcissists. I don't mean stuck-up egotists. We're
talking about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD),
in which the child never develops a genuine sense
of self because he or she is too busy attempting to
live out the fantasies of a delusional and
psychologically abusive parent. This requirement
to embody by proxy the parent's own grandiose
"spiritual" dreams of power and glory almost
invariably results in lasting damage to the
child -- and often to the people that child
will come into contact with as an adult.
Of course I can't deny the appeal of the indigo-child
thesis. It is certainly very seductive to imagine
that Sweet M. is not disabled, but that she is
actually special -— not as in needing special
education, or special services -— but as in being
gifted. How lovely it is to imagine that she is
just as valuable -— maybe even more valuable -—
than a neurotypical child. The aching appeal to
one's parental narcissism is obvious. . .

The whole "gifted child" scene is very weird. The
world of Honey Boo-Boo and Red State child beauty
pageants may provide smirking entertainment for the
better-off classes, but the desire to have a "gifted child"
is a deadly-serious version of the same kind of
beauty-pageant stage-parenting for the intellectual
classes themselves, with a dark underbelly.

Some of the advocates of "gifted" kids have strange, strange
agendas of their own. Linda Kreger Silverman, for example,
who took a serious blow to her reputation over the case of
Justin Chapman
( )
was later unflatteringly associated with Brandenn Bremmer, a teenage
"prodigy" who committed suicide, in a piece in a January 2006
issue of the _New Yorker_ ("Prairie Fire" by Eric Konigsberg )

Anonymous said...

this is what I was talking about... shudder...

Anonymous said...

TJL-2080 ‏@TJL2080
My newest article. Already getting lots of hits. Pretty controversial.

6h Rachel Haywire ‏@RachelHaywire
@TJL2080 Excellent work!

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12:31 AM - 2 Jan 13 · Details

6h TJL-2080 ‏@TJL2080
Thanks @RachelHaywire And thanks for letting me present it at XFF.

Dale Carrico said...

Dogs barking can't fly without umbrella.