Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Social Relationships and Anti-Asperger Bigotry

Growing up as an Asperger was not easy; long before the concept of Asperger syndrome crossed my path I knew that I was different and that I lived in a society clearly not designed with me in mind. The fact that I stood out made me a target for bullying. More frustrating was the official bias inherent in the educational system. Consider the report card question of whether a child "plays well with others." Inherent in this question is the assumption that relating to other people is of great value. Our entire educational structure is premised far more on "socializing" than on the dissemination of information. Not that there is anything wrong with being social, but this approach to education is rooted in a neurotypical bias. My grade school report cards never asked if I was reading on my own for pleasure, if I pursued research into topics of interest outside of formal school assignment, or how well I critically analyzed texts. So while my neurotypical classmates never were faced with an existential crisis or even the friendly well-meaning suggestion that they attempt to operate in a more information based mode, I was plagued by the fact that I did not relate to people in the same way that others did. Was there something wrong with me because I was more interested in memorizing historical facts than with "playing well with others?" Was not the point of school to cram as much information into one's head as possible?

One could go so far as to say that any discussion of friendship reveals a neurotypical bias. My life would have been a lot easier if, in kindergarten, we would have been read, in addition to the books about friends, books about children who are happy doing stuff on their own, living in their own heads, and occasionally coming together with other children to achieve mutually beneficial results in keeping with ethical universal law. Perhaps the teacher could be sensitive when talking about friendship and point out to the class that this was one of many equally valid lifestyle choices.

I recognize that such "civil rights reforms" are unlikely to happen. It is not practical for society to rethink such basic features as social interactions just for my sake. Neurotypicals are not out to discriminate against me. The fact that I am, in a very real sense, harmed by the fact that our society was not constructed with someone like me in mind is incidental; you could say that I am collateral damage. Even if society wished to grant me such "civil rights" they would be unable to do so as they would then be faced with having to do the same for every other outsider group. Perhaps the deaf community would like to eliminate the societal veneration of speech and music as they implicitly relegate deaf people to an inferior status? How about eliminating sports such as basketball and football so as not to imply any lack of ability on the part of those in wheelchairs?

I have made my peace with making concessions to the values of neurotypical society even if I struggle precisely where to draw lines. One could say that I am engaged in a dialectical discourse with social relationships. I do actively seek out other people and attempt to form relationships with them. I am even now pursuing a romantic relationship. Granted, I tend to put a distinctively Asperger spin on these things, focusing on talking to people as opposed to hanging out with someone simply for the sake of being with them, though I am learning, bit by bit, to appreciate even the later. The one thing that I insistent on is that there is no inherent moral advantage to social relationships; the fact that I pursue these things is simply a matter of my personal convenience. In practice, this means that no has the right to criticize me for failing to act in accordance with neurotypical social standards or even for consciously ignoring them; if there is nothing inherently valuable about neurotypical social behavior then it is my right to follow it, not follow it or adapt it to suit my own purposes as I see fit. To say that neurotypical social behavior is somehow "better" than Asperger behavior would, of course, be bigotry.

I struggle with what I would do if I ever had a child on the spectrum; to what extent would I push such a child to be social? I think it would depend a lot on the social climate. I hope that my children will enter a world that is more accepting of Asperger behavior than the world that I grew up in; in such a world there would be less need to adapt to neurotypical standards. I suspect I will end up going through the motions of telling my children to be more sociable in such a way that they will feel free to ignore me as it suits them.


Clarissa said...

I agree that society can't guarantee my right not to be persecuted by the neurotypicality of the majority. It would have helped, though, to hear that it's ok to be the way I am when I was growing up.

The feeling of being different and having to struggle to conceal your difference (and failing all the time) is the most defining experience of my life until I heard the word "Asperger's."

So if you do end up having a child on the spectrum (which is likely because it can be hereditary), as long as you tell them often enough that there is nothing wrong or shameful with being the way they are, I'm sure they will learn to enjoy the good aspects of autism.

Clarissa said...

Right after I posted this comment, I went to have coffee with a very nice and intelligent PhD student. When I mentioned to her that I have Asperger's, she said: "Oh, does that mean that you are slow?" And that was her reaction even though she knows about my PhD from Yale. Or maybe it was because of it. :-)

Educating people will take time, my friend.

Izgad said...

In all seriousness, I admire the gay rights movement in how quickly they have managed to change public perceptions. I was in high school when it was controversial that Howard Dean in Vermont had granted civil unions. Now even Republicans accept that. I would like to believe that we could match that. Now the cynic in me suspects that part of this success is due less to people actually sympathizing with the plight of gays as a desire to stick it to evangelical Christians. So what group out that is not liked by a lot of other people can be poked by granting us full legitimacy. The best that I can come up with are therapists.

Clarissa said...

The pharmaceutical companies!!! Everybody hates them passionately (and deservedly). They are the ones who push this view of autism as "a disease" and "an epidemic" and pay for TV shows where Asperger people take medication "to help them with their condition."

So let's rally around our hatred of the pharmaceutical companies.

Izgad said...

Big Pharm! I like that. The problem is that the anti-vaccine crowd led by bimbo mom have already taken up pharmaceutical companies as their villain. They are supposed to be covering up the fact that they created monsters like us by pumping kids full of thermisol in vaccines.