When autistic people speak, who listens?
Simon Baron-Cohen has built an entire career on his theory that autistic people cannot predict or interpret other people’s mental states – or, as he puts it, that we have no Theory of Mind (ToM).
Because we have no idea that other people have minds, ToM argues, we have no concept of audience. Without a concept of audience, we can’t speak to persuade others. What others? We live in a perpetual echo chamber full of babbling; there are no others. If we cannot speak to persuade others, we literally cannot participate in rhetoric or exist as rhetorical subjects.* We’re the lone creature shrieking into the abyss, except even that image has no emotional content, because we have no concept of “lone” or “into” or “abyss.”
We can’t fathom audience, and this is SBC’s excuse not to give us an audience. Because if I’m not “really” talking to you, if I cannot understand that there is an “I” who can talk “to” “you,” why should you listen? I’m shrieking into an abyss. Why bother?
The image gets attention because it’s heart-wrenching.** The wrenching of the heart neatly covers for the fact that the game is rigged.
Rhetoric – that is, speaking to persuade – takes two. I can’t speak to persuade, or speak to anything, if I don’t have an audience. It’s the presence of the listener that makes my void-shrieking void of shrieking, that transforms my “babbling” into a rant, a sermon, an accolade. A book review. (Yes, this is a book review because you are reading it, and because I am aware of your reading it, and because I understand that you’re here for a book review and that therefore I had better review a book for you.)
SBC’s Theory of Mind logic is impenetrable because it simultaneously absolves SBC (or any of you so-called “non-mindblindeys”) of the obligation to listen while blaming the results of sidestepping that obligation on the autistic speaker. It refuses autistic speakers their rhetoricity and then blames them for not having it. It is exactly like holding your kid’s basketball just out of reach and then mocking them for not having dunked on anyone. They can’t dunk on anyone without anyone to dunk on.
Only in this case, the basketball is our humanity.
Events like Autistics Speaking Day and books like Typed Words, Loud Voices from Autonomous Press (which you can order at the link) knock the basketball out of our tormentors’ hands. They’re an active taking-back of our humanity, an opportunity: we’re here. Who wants to play ball? But they’re only a first step. The audience has to be willing to play ball with us – and in this case, we’re facing an audience that has been told for decades to deprive us of basketballs for our own good, because we wouldn’t know what to do with the ball if we had it. How to solve that problem?
Michelle Sutton offers us a very neat answer.
The Real Experts (which you can pre-order at the link) has parents, teachers, and caregivers playing ball before they know it. Subversively subtitled “Readings for Parents of Autistic Children” (have your person-first identity-first cake and eat it too!), the book represents editor Michelle Sutton’s efforts in collecting the sources that she found most helpful in her early days as the parent of an autistic child. Sources that are all – every one of them – written by autistic people.
The essays collected in the book have tones and approaches as varied as their authors. As someone who’s proud to call herself a personal friend to nearly every one of them, I can say: they all sound like their writers, as varied and layered as the people who wrote them. I can also say this: more than one essay in this book has helped me when I’ve struggled to convey in words what I know beneath them (Nick Walker’s “What is Autism?”), or when I’ve been speechless with outrage at the discrimination and bullshit I too face (Michael Scott Monje, Jr’s “Not That Autistic”), or when I just plain needed to know I wasn’t crazy (Cynthia Kim’s “Socially Inappropriate”). They’ve helped me empathize with fear-eyed parents whose lives are utterly different from my own (Ally Grace’s “Autism Mama”). And they have, literally and without hyperbole, saved my life when I was certain I couldn’t reveal I’m autistic and I couldn’t go on faking anything else (Kassiane Sibley’s “The Cost of Indistinguishability is Unreasonable”).
But The Real Experts isn’t about me, even though it is about autistic people. It is a book for parents, mostly non-autistic parents, who are entering our world for the very first time and who, as Nick puts it in the Foreword, are asking one question: How do I help my child to thrive? And it’s a book that introduces these parents to us, their child’s community, by sidestepping all the nasty stereotypes about our inability to think or empathize or communicate and simply says: Here. Here’s who you should listen to.
Let’s play ball.
* The best read in the solar system on this subject is Melanie Yergeau’s “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorize Theory of Mind.”
** The best read in the solar system on this subject is John Duffy and Rebecca Dorner’s “The Pathos of ‘Mindblindness’: Autism, Science, and Sadness in ‘Theory of Mind’ Narratives.”
(#AutisticsSpeakingDay was actually Sunday, November 1. But as migraines are no respecters of calendars, here it is today instead.)