I think it’s great that people want to analyze the neurodiversity movement. But sometimes they open their mouths without knowing a damn thing about the subject.
[Author’s Note: In the seven days since this post was published, an astonishing number of people have crawled out of the woodwork to argue against the aims of the neurodiversity movement…without understanding what the aims of the neurodiversity movement are. Those comments have been summarily deleted.
All commenters are reminded to acquaint themselves with this blog’s Comments Policy before commenting on this or any other post.]
There’s a piece by Gwendolyn Kansen in Pacific Standard called “I’m High-Functioning Autistic. Here’s What the Neurodiversity Movement Gets Wrong About Autism.” [link is to pdf]
Like every other anti-neurodiversity-movement piece I have read to date, this one gets the fundamentals of the neurodiversity movement very, very wrong. So wrong that it doesn’t even function as a rebuttal of the neurodiversity movement – it functions as a rebuttal of a straw movement inside the author’s head. This article is Gwendolyn Kansen talking to Gwendolyn Kansen.
Here’s what I mean.
“First off,” Kansen writes,
many of us aren’t high-functioning enough to benefit from depathologizing autism. The neurodiversity movement doesn’t have much to say about lower-functioning autistics, who are decidedly less inspirational.
I’m not going to ask what Kansen intends to mean by “high-functioning.” The neurodiversity movement has exactly the same thing to say about “less inspirational” autistics that it has to say about “more inspirational” ones: Autistic people are human beings who deserve to have their full set of human rights respected.
There’s a saying that autistic kids don’t grow up. And many don’t. They live in group homes, where they have to be watched like hawks so they don’t wander off and drown. They can’t talk to you. Some can’t even shower by themselves.
Needing help with activities of daily living doesn’t make you less worthy of being respected as a human with human rights. That is what Kansen is implying here. The neurodiversity movement rejects that view in favor of the view that autistic people are human beings who deserve to have their full set of human rights respected.
And they certainly can’t offer nuanced opinions about a cure.
The neurodiversity movement is okay with that. Even if they don’t have “nuanced opinions about a cure,” autistic people are human beings who deserve to have their full set of human rights respected.
Some members of the neurodiversity movement will tell you that “most” autistic people don’t want to be cured — but some studies show that over half of us have an IQ below 70.
The neurodiversity movement is not implying that having a below-average IQ is a good reason to want to be “cured” of autism – or anything else. Kansen is. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that scoring badly on an IQ test doesn’t affect the fact that autistic people are human beings who deserve to have their full set of human rights respected.
It’s not just about IQ either. Many higher-functioning autistics also can’t live alone. They’d forget to lock the door or turn off the stove.
I have to wonder if Kansen is speaking from experience here, or not. I can: I am one of these “more inspirational” autistic people who cannot live alone, because I will and do forget to do things like lock doors, turn off stoves, or feed myself. I’m still pretty sure I deserve human rights even if I forget to eat food.
In this next excerpt Kansen is talking about herself, but she’s also doing a fairly good job of describing me:
But what’s worse is that I can’t trust my own judgment. Neurodiversity advocates gloss over the fact that people like me have to be on guard every minute. And we’re still about four times more likely to be raped and far more likely to be killed than our non-autistic peers. I’ve never had an awful experience, but I did have a boyfriend in high school whom I would have seen right through if I wasn’t autistic. He was a pathological liar and he tried to turn me against my family. I didn’t have friends in school to tell me he was off, so it just ended up being a humiliating experience that subtly destroyed my trust in people for a long time.
Our executive functioning problems are just as bad…..
Kansen and I share these, and probably other, experiences. We’re both autistic people who are human beings and who deserve to have our full set of human rights respected.
Unless Kansen is implying that we should not respect her human rights because she had a shitty high school boyfriend, and she didn’t realize he was shitty?
Remember: Kansen’s thesis is that the neurodiversity movement is somehow wrong. The neurodiversity movement promotes the idea that autistic people deserve human rights. Therefore, Kansen is arguing here that it is wrong to believe autistic people deserve human rights because we are a vulnerable population.
Kansen has it exactly backwards. Autistic people are a vulnerable population because our basic rights are not respected. Kansen continues to get this exactly backwards in the two examples that follow [CN: murder, including homicides by police].
But by far the worst thing about autism is the meltdowns. They’re terrifying.Kayden Clarke was having one when the cops came to his house on a suicide call. Clarke pulled a knife on the cops when they arrived. They shot him.
Is Kansen implying here that Kayden Clarke was responsible for his own murder? Pro-neurodiversity advocates will tell you that autistic people are human beings who deserve to have their full set of human rights respected, including their right not to be summarily executed by the police when they need help.
Kansen is taking a stand against the neurodiversity movement. Should we take this to mean that autistic people shouldn’t have the right not to be summarily executed by cops when they need help? Again, we are a vulnerable population because our rights (including our right not to be summarily executed by police) are not respected. By arguing against the neurodiversity movement, Kansen is arguing in favor of this status quo.
(I am not at all sure Kansen understands that this is the argument she is making. I’m not at all sure Kansen understands what the neurodiversity movement believes. But when your thesis is that the neurodiversity movement is somehow wrong, you are arguing that neurodivergent people somehow do not deserve human rights. If this is not Kansen’s intended argument, I’m sure she will pressure Pacific Standard to run a full retraction and apology.)
I have personally communicated, today, with half a dozen autistic people who wanted to “scream for hours on end” after reading this article.
More importantly, one autistic person has been accused of murdering their parent – and the circumstances of the Walker case are clearly anomalous for any person, including an autistic one. Meanwhile, the Disability Day of Mourning list takes over an hour to read.
The neurodiversity movement believes that autistic people have the right not to be murdered by those they trust to take care of them. Is Kansen implying that we have no right to go on living? That the Disability Day of Mourning list is not long enough?
We are a vulnerable population because our right to live is not respected.
How can anyone claim these are just normal cognitive variations?
1.) They’re cognitive variations.
2.) They exist in the human population.
3.) Therefore, they are cognitive variations humans can have.
4.) Humans can have both cognitive variations and human rights.
5.) Humans deserve to have their full set of human rights respected.
There’s a reason autism used to be called “childhood schizophrenia”: because it looks like schizophrenia.
Pro-neurodiversity advocates will also tell you that people with schizophrenia are human beings who deserve to have their full set of human rights respected.
Neurodiversity advocates want to distance autism from any mental-illness associations.
This is from the writer who just threw people with schizophrenia under the bus in order to support her claim that autistic people are not fully human.
Meanwhile, in conversations about mental illness and autism, pro-neurodiversity advocates are often the first to respond to “autism isn’t a mental illness!” with “So?” The implication, of course, is that cognitive variation is no excuse for depriving anyone of their full set of human rights. We don’t establish that autistic people are human by separating them from “mentally ill” people – we establish that both autistic people and mentally ill people are human beings who deserve to have their full set of human rights respected. Which, as this blog post has hinted, might be kind of important to pro-neurodiversity advocates.
Furthermore, neurodiversity advocates have allied with Mad Pride advocates on a number of projects over time. When we diverge, we do so for strongly principled reasons – on both sides. But one thing both the pro-neurodiversity camp and the Mad Pride camp agree on is that we are all human beings who deserve to have our full set of human rights respected.
(Caveat: I do not, in fact, find it likely that Mad Pride is what Kansen has in mind when she chides the neurodiversity movement for “distancing itself” from mental illness. I find it extremely likely that Kansen does not spend significant time interacting with the Autistic community or engrossed in Autistic culture, since neither I nor any of the two dozen Autistic people I consulted before writing this blog post had ever heard of her.)
After some waffling about gene-based cures and the implication that a charity’s budget determines its helpfulness to the people it serves (?!), Kansen ends on this note:
We can’t have a truly productive discussion about autism acceptance by sugarcoating the condition. Not until we accept every part of autism will we start finding solutions.
This is perhaps the one statement that pro-neurodiversity advocates could agree with. What makes it baffling is that Kansen has spent the previous 22 paragraphs refusing to “accept every part of autism.” Kansen threw Kayden Clark, Sky Walker, and herself under the bus rather than acknowledge that autistic people will continue to face severe challenges until our human rights are fully supported.
For Kansen, our performance on IQ tests is a problem. Our struggling with social cues is a problem. Our difficulty with executive function is a problem. Our comorbid anxiety and depression are a problem. Our sensory sensitivities are a problem. Our meltdowns are a problem. And all of these problems, Kansen implies, are reasons to reject the neurodiversity paradigm: the idea that we deserve basic human rights.
To be clear: neurodiversity advocates aren’t claiming that these things don’t cause challenges for autistic people, either. Neurodiversity advocates are claiming that the existence of these challenges is no good reason to curtail our human rights. In fact, the existence of these challenges is a good reason to support our human rights by offering precisely the accommodations we need to participate in society and pursue personally meaningful goals.
Insofar as she’s opposing the neurodiversity movement, Kansen is implying that the existence of these challenges is a good reason to curtail our human rights – and to deprive us of the very support we need to participate in the wider world.
I don’t think, incidentally, that this is what Kansen means to say. I think Kansen is “opposing” a movement whose basic premise – that human beings deserve to have their full set of human rights respected no matter what kind of brain they have, what challenges they face, or what support they need – she does not understand. (Which makes it all the more baffling that she claims to “respect the movement” – it is as hard to respect something you do not understand as it is to refute it.)
I’m still waiting for the day that an “anti-neurodiversity” article actually refutes the core claims of the neurodiversity movement, rather than these tired straw-claims. What we stand for isn’t news. We’ve been saying it for decades. There is no excuse not to understand what you’re arguing against.