What’s in a word? Of the semantic sense and sensibility of #autism

Loomes paper wordcloud

Gill Loomes was kind enough to forward me her paper It’s only words: a critical ‘insider’ perspective on the power of diagnosis in the construction of autistic social identity. I’ve been reading it – and re-reading it – over the past couple of days, and I’m finding (and re-finding) a lot of thought-provoking ideas therein.

Every autistic person seems to feel differently about their autistic identity. They can feel differently from others, as well as differently within themselves, from time to time. I know I do. I first self-identified (actually self-diagnosed, because in the spirit of diagnosis, I identif[-ied] the nature of (an illness or other problem) by examination of the symptoms. I looked at a whole array of symptoms I’d experienced and struggled with over the years, and I used them to identify the nature of the problems I was experiencing in life.

Ironically — or perhaps quite logically — once I had a “diagnosis”, I gradually stopped needing one. How does that work? Well, once I had a thorough understanding of what made me “tick” (not in the stimmy way), what made things harder for me, what made things easier, my problems stopped being problems. And what sometimes felt like an illness actually led to a level of understanding that relieved — even prevented — so many of my symptoms.

And gradually, I’ve come around to feeling like I identify as autistic, more than I am diagnosed. I’m disinclined to the medical model — as useful as it was to me, once upon a time. — and I seem to be approaching a new juncture in my life. Much as Gill seems to be in hers:

I’ve spent years trying to find out more about this so that I could explain myself. I’ve worked so hard. I’ve studied. I’ve spoken. I’ve written and I’ve taught. But I’m tired of having to justify myself. I’m tired of fighting to explain that autistic women are different – different from other women, different from autistic men. I’m tired of trying to set myself apart by explanations that are unique to autism. I’m tired of it because it gives the words in my diagnosis, along with social understandings of autism, a power in my life that I’m sick of – all in the name of making me ‘other’.

Our differences are indeed our distinction. For good and for ill. And the words we use to describe ourselves have power. They are social currency – the meanings they convey and evolve are powerful agents of change. And from one culture to another, from one person to another, they can create different kinds of change. It’s all very complex. Dynamic. And yes, confusing.

One of the ways that I differ slightly from Ms. Loomes, is how power is perceived. I think my situation is very different from hers, because I’m not “out” as an autistic person. Just to my partner. Not to my extended family. Not to my workplace. Not even to my PCP/GP. Autism, for me, is a very personal thing — a phenomenon I don’t want to hand over to others for their interpretation, lest it be trampled like pearls before swine. People just don’t “get” autism. They have their ideas about me. I really don’t feel the need to get into it with them — perhaps because I sense the following will happen with me:

I’m tired of it because I believe strongly that this power comes not from the autism itself, but from a society that cannot tolerate difference, and that especially cannot tolerate unnamed difference. If you can’t find the words to articulate your difference – and the hurt, the brokenness and the vulnerability that it causes, then those things can’t exist – you are told that you are ‘normal’ or that, ‘we all feel that’. Well I’m fed up of this power – the power of a diagnostic label to account for, and to own, my inability to conform.

Because I haven’t shared my own diagnostic label, the society I inhabit doesn’t have that same power over me. I live in a country which violently opposes difference, punishes (sometimes kills) people who don’t conform and comply, and cannot tolerate any nay-sayers in this land of Golden Opportunity. God forbid I should be less than enthusiastic about my chances in life. God forbid I should be honest about my misgivings about the future of this nation, this culture. God forbid I should be anything less than proactive and positive and can-do in every damn’ thing I undertake. The forced optimism is tiresome and tiring. And autism is the ultimate “downer”.

What? Me autistic?! How could that be?

I find myself extraordinarily weary today. It’s been a long week, and I’m cranky. I’m tired of my job. I’m tired of my life. I’m tired of all the many and varied ways my life is more difficult than it needs to be. It’s a holiday weekend, but it doesn’t feel like a holiday. It just feels long. And there will be fireworks on Monday night, which I am dreading. I hate fireworks. Always have. They’re pretty, sure. But all that noise. And the crowds. And the change to my routine. Even if I stay home, I’ll still be “treated” to an intermittent barrage of bangs and pops and crackles and booms. It’s inescapable, this weekend. And I just now realized how it’s weighing on me.

So… earplugs.

But enough of my digression. Back to topic…

The power that words have is considerable. In the wrong hands/mouths/minds, they can wreak havoc.

how all-consuming this explanation (and one’s reliance upon it) can become. I’ve been so passionate about this idea. I am an autistic woman. I am not a woman with autism. Autism is a pervasive developmental difference and it affects every part of me. I don’t dispute this, but this is not where I suggest the problem lies. I argue that the problem lies not in the pervasiveness of autism in me as an individual, but in the pervasiveness of its use as an ‘explanation’ at the level of specific, observable behaviour – an account for everything that I am and everything that I do.

Melanie Yergeau talks about this in her paper  Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorize Theory of Mind. She talks about being disenfranchised from her own voice, being literally told that she wasn’t speaking for herself, articulating her own experiences.

Suddenly, the experts claimed, I wasn’t talking. God, no. “That’s your depression talking,” they explained. “That’s your autism talking. That’s your anxiety talking. Really, it’s anything but you talking.”

. . .

Regardless of what I said, it was my autism saying it. My body became site for ventriloquist rhetoric, words that never were. While conversing with the EMTs, desperate to appear sociable and “normal,” I found myself narrating my every anxious action with, “That was a pre-programmed response. That was a pre-programmed response.”

I do not know what they wrote in their charts. In my depressive moments, I tend to imagine that they mapped the ebbs and flows of my echolalia, in echolalia. “That’s just her autism talking,” the clipboard repeats, like a running toilet. “That’s just her autism talking, talking, talking. That’s just her—autism talking.”

When autism is considered a diagnostic category (which it is, according to the DSM-V and the ICD-10), it’s considered the domain of the professional class, a caste of conceptual overlords who may or may not deign to notice you, who may or may not dispense formal recognition upon you. I have the same issues with autism being in the DSM, as I had with homosexuality being listed (until 1973). It’s a difference, not necessarily a disorder or a disease. And yet, there it is — a condition, possibly co-morbid with a range of other issues… awaiting treatment.

It’s always problematic, when you hand over your self-definition to an official term-dispensing body of experts who work by committee and tend to change their minds from time to time. It puts you in a precarious position, and yet… For many of us, engaging with an amorphous diagnostic group-think entity is the first step towards getting a solid conceptual foothold in who we are, what makes us “tick”, what can help us “tick” differently — or perhaps stop some of the most bothersome ticking from even happening.

It’s also a first step towards securing a place in society. Especially societies which have low tolerance for divergence from their preferentially enforced norms. As Gill says about her own autism diagnosis:

I need this explanation because the world is unkind and does not tolerate difference. Anything that strays too far from ‘normal’ gets stamped on, unless it can account for itself and make itself legitimate – legitimate in terms that are acceptable to the social world. And so, my diagnosis takes on a social life of its own.

It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? You need it, and then you struggle because of it. You want it, pursue it, and then can be used against you. But if you don’t have it, you run the risk of getting stamped on. And if you do have it, but you don’t tell others, you run that same risk.

Ultimately, it’s really up to each of us, how we engage with our identities, how we understand ourselves. How we navigate our social worlds. In the world I was raised in, nobody was really allowed to “use” disability — hidden or otherwise — to get accommodations. You sucked it up. You took a handful of pills. You did your duty and you did your job. If you died on the job, you were practically a saint. And if you sacrificed your own health and well-being for others (but still kept going, kept giving, kept suffering), you were given special consideration and held up as a shining example for all others to follow.

Chronic pain? Stop complaining. Everybody has pain.

Anxiety? We’ve got a religious denomination for that.

Digestion problems? Eat more of what’s bothering you, so you get used to it. Or, if you have to avoid certain foods, do so discretely. Don’t inconvenience others with your weakness.

Sickly? Fevered? If a handful of pills doesn’t fix it, remove yourself from polite society until you feel better. If you never feel better, we’ll arrange a nice burial for you.

In the context of today’s world, this all sounds cold and unfeeling, and yes — it is/was. There are still a lot of people who feel that way. That’s one of the reasons I don’t spend much time in that part of the world. That socio-cultural cocktail of religion, work, pills, and powering-through stopped working for me, decades ago.

That’s one of the big reasons I don’t discuss my autism with my family. In their minds, if you’re struggling enough to talk about it, you must really be struggling. So much so, that you’re just a little less than human. I worry about this happening:

the use of my autism as a pervasive explanation of who I am and what I do robs me of agency, of ownership, and ultimately of the
chance to learn and grow. In the case of pain, or of failure, we feel a need to name these – to account for them and to attribute them. Therefore, in moments of worry about (potential) failure, my story becomes:

“Autistics can’t do that. My autism makes that impossible for me.”

I think this world has a long way to go, before people with significant differences are actually accepted and treated with the same levels of equanimitous calm as standard-issue hyper-normative individuals. People have a strange way of limiting you, when they slap a label on you. And it all depends on their interpretation of the label. Of course, some labels can be empowering — granting you folk hero status. But in the end, these are essentially conceptual shortcuts, containers for collections of complex concepts which vary in significance from person to person.

The real question, in my mind, is what we do with our labels, and how we engage with them. We can’t help but use them. We can’t help but think about them. But what else can we do with them? Certainly more than we have, thus far.

… if you want to help those autistic people who are in pain, from failing according to society’s expectations, you can’t just do this by finding out more about autism in order to give words to our failure to conform, so that we are ‘off the hook’ (though still ‘different’, ‘other’, ‘broken’). You need to – we need to work to make the world a more comfortable, more  loving place for everyone to fail according to the harshness of society’s expectations and demands, and to learn from those failures and hurts (because, apart from anything, one of the best ways to make me comfortable with failure is to enable me to see others very obviously failing and recovering. Imitation is one of my learned skills – let me use it!). Otherwise we can’t grow – and we in turn cannot shape society.

I’ve personally seen how sharing my own failures and triumphs (in spite of those failures) has done others good. It’s mostly in my real life — attending meetings where I had to take full public responsibility for screwing up certain important tasks that messed up an overall project, then worked overtime to make up for it… admitting that I forgot something important… ‘fessing up to other various royal screw-ups that I was sure would alienate everyone around me, but somehow ended up endearing me to them all the more… At their core, people understand that others mess up. they can relate to people who do. And they look up to those who can recover and move forward.

But if I chalked up my failings to autism (which always plays a role)? What then? I’m none too sure that the otherwise kindhearted and compassionate folks who forgive me now for my apparently neurotypical infractions, would be comfortable with my autistic shortcomings.

Who knows, though? Who really knows? I might be exaggerating their reactiveness, but I’d rather err on the side of caution. There’s a lot at stake, not least of which my independent agency and standing in the world. I have a reputation to uphold — not because I care about what others think of me, but because that’s keeps me employed, so I can put food on the table and keep a roof over my head. I also like to buy a new pair of shoes, when my old ones wear out, every 5 years or so.

In the end, I think that our understanding and acceptance and relationship towards our autistic identities is also very spectrum-y. We go through cycles. We change our minds. Sometimes we suspect we’re not even on the spectrum, then something happens and we think, “Silly me! How could I have ever doubted it?!” And I think we should be given that freedom to question, to explore, to doubt, to reconfirm — both within ourselves and in the larger autism community.

Whether we’ll ever get that same latitude in the neurotypical world, is anybody’s guess. But we can at least start within. We can at least be our own best friends and provide the freedom we know we need — in exactly the ways we need it.

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