A couple of months ago, one of “Kerim’s posts”:/2005/06/19/funny-you-dont-look-jewish/ led to a mini-discussion in the comments section about the site “Gene Expression”:http://gnxp.com/. Within this discussion, the use of the term ethno-autism was brought up. As defined by Razib, the author of “this post”:http://www.gnxp.com/MT2/archives/001967.html at Gene Expression, ethno-autism is an:
inability to conceive other peoples and cultures as fully fleshed out organisms who have their own creativity, histories and genius, and most importantly values congruent with those of modern Western civilization.
This wasn’t the first time that I had heard this type of analogy. In another time and place (my vagueness here is deliberate to respect the confidentiality of the people involved), I reacted to an analogy between autism and the incapacity to perceive that others may think differently than oneself. And at yet another time, I read an article (wish I could provide a reference but I lost it) that stipulated that autism was an extreme form of the “male brain”.
In any case, the usage of the term ethno-autism caused a bit of a reaction within the discussion following Kerim’s post (don’t worry, nothing violent) and, at the time, I felt unable to pursue the matter in depth, having an autie in my family and being close to the situation. However, Kathy (aka museum freak) from Livejournal had “this”:http://www.livejournal.com/users/museumfreak/272758.html to say about the term:
. . . gross misrepresentation of autism as a condition. The analogy they’re making is between the autistic’s supposed inability to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings and the, dare I say bigots?, referred to on the site failing to understand the humanity of other cultures.
I’m inclined to agree with Kathy here. I would add that, rather than make such an analogy to describe extreme ethnocentrism, which is what is actually being described in Razib’s post as far as I can tell, it would seem to be preferable to simply call it what it is. The analogy between extreme ethnocentrism and autism obscures the fact that most extreme ethnocentric people are not autistic and are actually perfectly capable of understanding that people from different cultural backgrounds as them might think and perceive the world differently than they do.
Now, I don’t think that Razib was intentionally trying to propagate a negative imagery of autism. He did admit that he hadn’t put much thought into it so I’m assuming that, like many, he’s working under the assumption that there is one single form of autism.
This leads me to my main point (well, one of them anyway): the term “autism” has been thrown around all over the media in the past . . .say . . .decade or so and yet there is still very little social awareness of the realities of this way of being (you’ll understand soon why I call it a way of being rather than a “condition” or “disorder”.) In North America, and possibly elsewhere, we live in a society where I would assume the majority of people have been sensitized to the needs of people with “physical handicaps” and who would acknowledge that holding a door open for a person in a wheelchair is the proper thing to do. However, when it comes to what many people would describe as “mental handicaps”, the mainstream attitude carries more of a tendency to judge and ridicule than to understand and help.
The mainstream view of autism and related modes of perception is highly negative: tragedy, dismay, trauma, difficulties are all words that are commonly associated with the life of an autie and her/his family. By no means am I saying that it’s easy and that everyone would be happier if they were autistic. However, I think that there are interesting alternatives in thinking about autism. The most interesting ways come from autistic people themselves.
For example, I’m highly interested in a recent discovery that I’ve made by following a series of links beginning with Kathy’s post: there exists an “autistic culture”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autistic_culture consisting of auties, aspies, cousins and allies. The shared belief is that:
autism, as a unique way of being, should be embraced and appreciated, not shunned or cured
There is an “Autistic Pride Day”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autistic_Pride_Day. There are people who seek recognition of “neurodiversity”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neurodiversity. Heck, they’ve even got t-shirts! The similarities with queer pride movements are unmistakable and like with any other sub-culture, I’m certain that there is divergence within the group about various issues. In any case, I’m curious to see what kind of momentum this movement will take. I have a feeling that as people become more sensitised, Autistic Pride will become better known.
In the meantime, I’m also curious about how autism is dealt with cross-culturally. What do ethnographers have to say about the way people who would be diagnosed as autistic by North American or European psychologists are treated within their own societies? Are people ostracised? Accepted? Nurtured? Considered to be functional members of the cultural group? Have special status? Not considered as abnormal? What changes came about in various local conceptions of “autistic” people due to colonisation? What changes are coming about due to globalisation?
Perhaps there are obscure answers to these questions here and there in various ethnographies . . . but has there been cross-cultural research specifically aimed at finding out how various societies deal with what psychologists would label as autism and how the individuals themselves relate in their respective social contexts? Is there, perhaps, cross-cultural research that shows that in some cultural contexts, being autistic is not seen as a disadvantage but merely as another variation?
It would also be interesting to have an anthropological look at the above-mentioned autistic culture. As a social movement and as a self-identified culture (who, by the way, actually wrote a “letter to the U.N.”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autistic_community#Letter_to_the_United_Nation in an attempt to be recognised as a minority) with a core set of beliefs, they have gone beyond being “subjects” of psychological inquiry and have much to contribute to our understanding of culture and society. It would be even more interesting if the anthropologists who did the research were autistic themselves. After all, as Kathy pointed out in her post:
The experience of being an autistic is a lot like the experience of being an ethnographer–we’re in a culture we don’t understand, and forced to rely on our ability to observe to learn, get by, and adapt to the world.
On that note, I leave you with a passage from Jim Sinclair’s text “Don’t Mourn For Us”:http://web.syr.edu/~jisincla/dontmourn.htm which is quite telling about the relationship between autism and differences of perception:
Yes, that (relating to an autistic person) takes more work than relating to a non-autistic person. But it can be done–unless non-autistic people are far more limited than we are in their capacity to relate. We spend our entire lives doing it. Each of us who does learn to talk to you, each of us who manages to function at all in your society, each of us who manages to reach out and make a connection with you, is operating in alien territory, making contact with alien beings. We spend our entire lives doing this. And then you tell us that we can’t relate.