Understanding what’s typical

September 28, 2017

Greg Love adds to the discussion about autism and neurodiversity prompted by a recent SocialistWorker.org review of the Netflix series Atypical.

I WAS excited to see SocialistWorker.org publish a review of Atypical ("Not your typical show"), though not because I liked the show myself--I did not, in fact.

In her review, Amy Muldoon brings to light the emerging neurodiversity movement, which, while it is not going to be a particularly important issue for readers of SW per se, is an important subset of disability rights and liberation activism.

Amy highlights the fact that autistic reviewers of the show were overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the lack of autistic representation in the show. While I have my own critiques of Atypical, Amy is right in that the show does push in the opposite direction when compared with the overwhelming tragedy narrative pushed by official autism organizations and documentaries, and which is generally accepted uncritically by the media. It is true that Atypical is a show, not a movement.

The neurodiversity movement is not actually really all that new, and perhaps most importantly, it is not autism-exclusive either, encompassing a range of neurological disabilities. As a Marxist, I see the neurodiversity movement's goals as similar to other movements for basic self-determination. Chief among these goals is changing the discourse from one of tragedy, cure and hopelessness to one of acceptance and inclusion.

Image from SocialistWorker.org

One author who has written extensively on neurodiversity argues, for instance, that there is no such thing as a "normal" brain, sitting suspended in a vault at the Smithsonian, to which all brains must be compared. That autism is treated as pathology is purely a cultural and social value judgment, based around a bizarre assumption that there is only one way to exist as a human being, and autistic "behavior" deviates much too far from invented societal expectations of "normal."

Of course, it is bizarre from the perspective of an autistic or otherwise neurodivergent person, but when autistic people represent 1-2 percent of the world's population, it is easy to assume that there exists such a thing as "correct" brain wiring.

NEURODIVERSITY ADVOCATES come under fire frequently for allegedly ignoring the disability aspect of autism, that autism comes with significant challenges, and that it is merely a "difference" when for many it involves real impairments.

To be clear, the existence of neurodiversity is indisputable. At its simplest, neurodiversity is nothing more than the existence of a variety of brains among the human species. Neurodiversity is a biological fact and not to be confused with the neurodiversity movement itself.

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The neruodiversity movement, however, is inherently bound up with older debates over social-versus-medical models of disability.

Neurodiversity advocates are unquestionably advocates for the social model. The social model of disability properly understood does not "ignore" disability, nor sideline physical or neurological impairment. Rather, it locates the core of disability in our predominating social structures, rather than locating it within the individual herself.

For many, autism does come with real impairments that require assistance, sometimes life-long assistance. And yet nothing about this requires a lesser quality of life, discrimination and exclusion. An essential component of what autistic people refer to as the "pathology paradigm" is the pathologizing language used to talk about autism and autistic people.

This includes some of the language used in Amy's review of Atypical, including use of "person-first language" (person with autism instead of simply autistic) and "functioning" labels ("Sam, it must said, is high-functioning...").

I do not highlight this for the purpose of attacking Amy for using the wrong language. In fact, this language is pervasive, with some parents of autistic children absolutely refusing to acknowledge the fact that autistic people themselves have written extensively against it for years. For most people, however, "functioning" labels seem intuitive and not meant to offend.

Science, to my knowledge, has not yet figured out how human beings are supposed to properly "function" outside of one's need for food and water to maintain homeostasis.

More importantly, "high" and "low" functioning is used as a metaphorical yardstick for how closely an autistic person resembles a non-autistic person. Or put another way, it's a measure of how a non-autistic person experiences someone else's autism. And yet we know that despite the fact that autism is diagnosed based on observable behaviors and characteristics, autism remains a fundamentally internal experience.

Autism, in other words, is not reducible to the external behaviors and characteristics that ultimately define it for most people, and that internal experience can manifest itself within individuals who do not appear "abnormal" to any casual observer or in individuals who are unmistakably disabled. Autism is fundamentally a different operating system, so to speak, and not one that requires rebooting with a replacement.

THIS INTERNAL experience I think is the basis for one of the strongest critiques of shows that wish to portray autism without an autistic cast member.

For example, one autistic writer highlighted the awkward smiles that Sam shows off in one scene. Social awkwardness is unquestionably a hallmark of autism, with some exhibiting facial expressions that often mismatch the emotions most people would associate with them.

Smiling in general can be very awkward, especially when it is forced, and an autistic actor would potentially understand this intrinsically. For Sam, it just looks painfully forced because the actor portraying him cannot possibly convey what is intrinsic to autistic people. This is a decidedly non-political criticism, but one that autistic people are correct in highlighting.

And finally, the matter of the white male autistic character: Yes, this is one of the most important critiques of Atypical. Autistic portrayals in media are overwhelmingly male and white because that is the limited understanding of autism that we've today inherited from decades past, where it was not only assumed to be a white and male phenomenon, but a far rarer one as well, involving only those with "severe" disabilities.

In fact, the one in 68 figure commonly cited for the number of people with autism in the U.S. is almost definitely inaccurate, as women and minority groups remain under-diagnosed for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this response.

We know that autism exists in every corner of the world. While it is true that a show based around a Black transgender autistic character would likely fail to garner the attention that Atypical has enjoyed, that doesn't mean that continuing to portray autism as a near exclusively male and white phenomenon is anything close to accurate.

This is not to say that all portrayals of autism on the big screen are bad. I have seen a couple of recent movies that I enjoyed quite a bit, including Ben Affleck's portrayal of an autistic adult in The Accountant, as well as Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Unlike in The Accountant, where it is clear from the beginning that Affleck's character is autistic, Eddie Redmayne's unmistakably autistic character is not considered "officially" autistic, which is a shame.

But the best you can watch right now, especially because it was done from a neurodiversity perspective, is the short documentary Spectrum: A Story of the Mind, which highlights the lives of several autistic people, from those who can communicate orally to those who cannot.

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